Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, the newest game from Ninja Theory, was released on PC and PS4 today — and though several reviews have now hit, there weren't any pre-launch notices available. This has come to matter because the game, deliberately clouded in secrecy and ambiguity right up until launch, was well-received for a total of about five minutes before social media started tearing into it.
Here's the thing: Hellblade says that it deletes your entire save game if you die too many times. This information is given to the player about 20 minutes into the game, following a beautiful introduction, after they face combat for the first time and, at the end, are killed. You die, creepy black tentacles ooze up your arm and, the game claims, if they reach Senua's head your save is erased. The game tells you this in a 'lore-y' style with voiceovers and visuals, before explicitly saying in text form what's going on. It really couldn't be clearer:
That seems as straight-up as you're going to get, though what exactly 'progress' means is ambiguous. We haven't played far enough to know if this is some kind of permadeath system but, if so, that's Ninja Theory's choice and one that seems to be thematically appropriate for the game. But the prospect also has some early buyers up in arms.
The reason for the anger is that, basically, people are claiming they pre-ordered the game without knowing this was a feature. Hellblade's save system and permadeath was mentioned to the press during the few preview events, however, it just wasn't highlighted by the developer and though some noticed it, many didn't. The official marketing materials or store pages for the game don't mention the save deletion threat either. Add to this the fact that reviews for the game hit after the game was already on sale, and it means some buyers felt they'd purchased the game without a vital piece of information.
I can understand the frustration. My time to play games for fun is limited and the idea of putting a few hours in, and then having to start again, infuriates me. Knowing that I might have to replay the game over from the beginning does make me think twice about picking Hellblade up.
But with that said, we don't yet know that that is the case here. And even if it is, we should be open-minded about Ninja Theory trying to do something original, and consider how it works for this particular title. Some estimates put a full playthrough of Hellblade at 5-6 hours, so we're not talking about losing hundreds of hours of progress here.
Players being miffed about not knowing is understandable, especially when it might have led to them not purchasing the game, but this furore feels like an overreaction. If this is anything, it's a failure of communication: perhaps Ninja Theory should have been more explicit, and explained what they were going for, and perhaps the media should have done more to flag this feature before release. Or perhaps there's more holistic reasons for this aspect of the game's presentation than we yet understand — many of the claims and counter-claims are coming from sources that haven't played the game firsthand. We have, but not yet enough to know what's going on with this side of it.
The truly sad thing is, Hellblade's save system is far from the most interesting thing about the game. Keep an eye on Kotaku UK this week for our more considered thoughts.
Update: Whether Hellblade will truly delete your save or not has been left ambiguous. To discuss it in more detail would be unfair to the experience. We'll be playing more tonight and covering other aspects of the game later this week.