Platforms: PC - HTC Vive (Reviewed), PC - Oculus Rift

There are some things in life that are just a natural fit, concepts that work together so seamlessly that you question if they weren’t designed that way in the first place. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and virtual reality are exactly that kind of combination, and the VR edition manages to blend Senua’s heart-wrenching story with VR gameplay and storytelling that feels like a natural progression of the medium.

The experience might not be perfect, and there are undoubtedly areas we would love to see improve or change, but the implementation of third person VR slides you into Senua’s world without a ripple, and the way Ninja Theory handles certain scenes with VR in mind adds a tremendous layer to the emotional impact of the larger story. In short, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is evidence that VR can add to a game’s narrative experience beyond the traditional medium, which makes it a must play experience for 2018.

Closer than ever

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is already a gripping narrative experience, its exploration of both Viking folk-lore and mental illness earned it nearly universal accolades when it launched this time last year, which inevitably makes you question whether the VR edition is capitalizing on the game’s original narrative impact or adding to the experience.

The answer in this case comes down to the concept of distance and accountability, which Senua’s Sacrifice is already uniquely equipped to deal with. In traditional media there’s always an element of the spectator, of knowledge that you’re watching something happen while powerless to respond. This distance can be a comfort, a knowledge that you’re not directly responsible for the events that transpire because there’s nothing you can do to change things.

Video games have always represented a shift from that pattern, even linear titles have an element of responsibility for your actions. You may step into a character and play out that role with no consequences, but the medium has the ability to make you question your actions and your part in the sequence of events, even if games sometimes ask you to ignore it.

We feel safe behind the moral shield of a monitor or television, and the controller is neither a gun nor a sword. We can separate ourselves from the actions of the character and the world, we can distance ourselves from the events even while embodying a character that we may not truly believe in.

Virtual Reality, when combined with Senua’s story, brings you closer to those events, and in a way traps you in the experience with immersive audio and camera work. You’re still a spectator, but VR strips away the comforting distance we often enjoy and places you smack dab in the center of the action, and then Ninja Theory has Senua reach out and touch you.

Becoming darkness

In preparation for the VR edition, I replayed the early levels of Senua’s journey, just to refresh the controls in my mind and to remind myself what kind of game I was playing. Then when I got my hands on the VR edition I dived in again, to accurately compare the two.

It’s one of these early scenes that shows the difference in emotional impact between the standard and the VR edition. In this scene, Senua is struggling with her darkness, and as she actively pleads with the camera, she smashes through the 4th wall, and you’re left in a dark space with no protection between you and the character.

Senua stares you down, she pleads with you, she struggles with you, and she experiences an immense amount of emotional and physical pain that you’re forced to watch.It’s terrifying, because in VR you can’t lean away from your monitor, you can’t look away without feeling her eyes on you. You’re riveted, and Senua just watches, her eyes asking a question that you can’t answer. The distance that we normally enjoy as spectators is stripped away, and she asks us why we’re here, why we’re doing this to her, and we don’t have an answer.

This proximity to the events of the game is the difference between the VR version and the standard, and it allows the narrative to strike that much deeper and closer to home. Because you don’t feel like you’re looking at pixels on a screen, you feel like you’re staring down a human being that’s experiencing unimaginable suffering, and all you can do to help is continue playing and risk or leave her in the darkness of your headset forever.

Real enough

A huge part of this is because Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the best-looking VR games we’ve ever seen, riding the line between graphical realism and a fantasy art style in a way that presents you with plenty of jaw-dropping visuals to enjoy.

Ninja Theory originally specified that a GTX 1080 would be required to experience the game as it was intended, which is more than hefty, but we were plenty impressed with what we saw on a GTX 970 after tweaking post processing down to stabilize our FPS. The difference in quality wasn’t incredibly noticeable, and didn’t seem to detract from the experience, but it’s possible that a 1080 might further improve your mileage.

That said, we still experienced the occasional frame drop and multiple examples of texture pop if we turned quickly or sprinted into a new area faster than our rig could keep up, but these issues were minor and rarely interfered with gameplay. It’s hard to complain considering we were running a full generation behind the recommended GPU.

Beautiful graphics aside, we did dislike the way the game handled certain cutscenes in VR, because in contrast to the immersive aspects of the rest of the game, these cutscenes shift everything to a letterbox, movie theater style aspect ratio. This technique is often used in VR games as an optional comfort mode, but it feels poorly implemented and out of place in this title.

We’re not sure if Ninja Theory chose this route due to technical limitations with the rendered cutscenes, or if it was meant to increase player comfort levels, but it feels odd compared to the immersive tone of the rest of the game.

Surviving Helheim

Letterboxes aside, VR gameplay implementation is done well, and as you would expect, doesn’t heavily effect what’s offered in the base game. You’re still required to do a variety of visual puzzles with light combat and boss encounters sprinkled along the way, but that’s not the primary appeal of this title. Because of the way the game is played, using a sitting controller/keyboard based third person control scheme doesn’t significantly detract from the experience.

That said, although the controls are serviceable, they take some getting used to, and they aren’t without their flaws.For some reason your light and heavy attacks are bound to your left and right arrows instead of your mouse like in the base game, which can be a hassle when you walk into a surprise battle encounter and have to blindly grope for that portion of your keyboard. This wouldn’t be an issue if you could rebind them, but for some reason the pause menu refused to recognize my mouse at all, even though it was perfectly functional in the rest of the game.

This could be because Ninja Theory was expecting players to use the camera snap feature most of the time to turn the camera, which when you’re not in combat is also bound to the left and right arrows by default, but that system felt much less comfortable than using a mouse and the focus key together to turn. The controls themselves still worked well, but they took a lot of getting used to in the heat of the moment and could still use a lot of polish.

All in all, these are ultimately small complaints for a great VR experience. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice manages to deliver a highly immersive adventure that’s only lightly marred by clunky controls, and it’s still one of the coolest attempts at VR storytelling to date.