Just like any other piece of art, it's normal for video games to try and tackle difficult subjects. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is one such game. The game immediately landed on my radar once I knew of its attempts to take a look at mental disorders like psychosis in a respectful and realistic way. Does this become Ninja Theory's magnum opus, or does it fail in its task?
Hellblade follows the journey of Senua, a woman who suffers from psychosis that has caused her to be hated and abandoned by her clan. Only one person loved and cared for Senua and that was her husband Dillion. When he is killed, Senua wraps his head up and travels to the underworld to get Hel to bring her love back to life. What follows is Senua's journey in both physically journeying to the underworld and the mental side of dealing with her sickness and her past.
The game starts off somewhere in the middle of the story, and you'll learn both about Senua's childhood and the history leading up to this trip while you see how the actual journey plays out. Both stories manage to be very interesting, keeping up a good stream of twists as necessary. Senua's history is tragic, one that I genuinely was bothered by at times. While her quest to the underworld may seem insane at first, I understood what Senua was doing and why she felt it was necessary as the backstory slowly filled in.
Ultimately, Senua's battle inside her own mind is more important than her quest. Her psychosis isn't just some character quirk that you can forget about outside of cutscenes. The entire game features voices constantly commenting on Senua's journey, like a group of twisted commentators that feels the need to point out every mistake and failure. Go the wrong way, and you'll hear quiet giggles and whispers about how dumb Senua must be. Get hit by an enemy and they gasp at your injuries, calling you a failure. The voices aren't all evil or spiteful, as some will encourage you to get up, warn you about enemies behind you, and try to assist you with puzzles. A big element comes in trying to isolate the helpful voices from the ones trying to mislead or taunt you. I'd also highly suggested to grab a good set of headphones for Hellblade, as the game's sound work is absolutely phenomenal. A TV speaker can't do this game justice, and the way it uses the audio to really make it sound like the voices are all around you is one of its best elements.
Hellblade's story and sound design really stand up as some of its best elements, but the rest of the game holds up equally well. There's a good chunk of the campaign that's just spent wandering around while the narrator talks about current events or points in Senua's life. There isn't any traditional gameplay required in these sections, it's mostly just moving forward and listening to the voices in your head. If you do a bit of exploring you can find lorestones, which tell Nordic myths for you to listen to. I actually thought these were a pretty cool collectible, and learning the stories of Norse gods tended to be an awesome bonus (even if, admittedly, part of it was because I happened to be reading Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology at the same time).
It isn't long before you run into enemies. While you can debate how physically real the people standing in Senua's way are, they're real enough to her. Armed with a sword, you'll be able to attack, dodge, and counter attack enemies coming for you. Senua also carries a mirror on her hip. If you pay close attention to it you'll notice it lighting up. By focusing when it's lit you can temporarily recover lost health and slow down time, allowing you to get a few free blows in. While all these mechanics are given to you at the beginning of the game, they're not really explained. However, if you listen to those ever important voices, then you can get an idea of what you can do.
While combat may ultimately be on the simple end, it sure felt satisfying. The close camera angle and powerful attacks really made it feel like there was weight behind them and that every hit I managed was truly devastating. Dodging or parrying inserted just the right amount of slow motion to make it feel dramatic. Things especially got good during one of the game's few boss fights. These would quickly become frantic battles, involving a ton of skillful dodges, strikes, and other movements all while the voices in Senua's head tried to give her advice. There aren't many in the game (I counted only about four total), but I loved each one. While combat was usually a joy, I did get a bit annoyed whenever I saw an enemy with a shield. They often were troublesome to navigate around, and usually took longer than was really reasonable to defeat. Still, this is really only a minor blemish on the game.
If you're not fighting enemies then you'll be solving puzzles. A lot of the game's puzzles deal with perspective, with you needed to see things from a specific angle in other to solve the puzzle. You'll often get to doors marked with runes, and then your goal will be to find things in the environment shaped like the runes. Another common puzzle is seeing something shattered into fragments, but when you focus on this from the correct location then you'll see it completed, reconstructing the object for you to use. If you listen to the voices then you can hear them suggesting when you should focus on your puzzle, providing a subtle hint system that ties into the game world and helps keep the player from getting stuck.
There are also several moments in the game that I absolutely came to love. One section of the game is so dark that you're unable to see anything. Instead, you need to rely on noise to guide you, with the controller giving a subtle vibration when there's a breeze or moving stream nearby. Another section sees Senua trapped inside of a mead hall that has been turned into a labyrinth, being chased by an invincible burning monster that crashes through walls while she attempts to find the runes needed to open the door to get out. Each time the game used a unique scenario like this I often came away impressed, these moments serving as the highlight of an already fantastic game.
Much has been made about Hellblade's opening moments, where it reveals that, if you die too often in the game then all of your progress will be lost. While there's still debate over if this system is real or not, I never really found the game difficult enough to actually worry about it. If you're concerned that you may lose your data then just know that Hellblade isn't a particularly tough game and you shouldn't be that worried about it happening. I will admit that I really liked the idea of this being a lie though, as it gives me vibes of horror gem Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. It also smartly tied into the game's themes of psychosis, by making you worry about something that you're not sure if it's real or not.
I did run into a few glitches during my time with Hellbalde, but all of them were pretty minor things. Most notably the game would reload some events that are only supposed to happen once if you backtrack when you're really not supposed to. After killing a god of illusions I went back through his territory only to find him standing around taunting me just like he did during my first trip. Thankfully I never had any real problems that hampered my progress.
I also came away astonished by how amazingly beautiful Hellblade was. This is one game that massively benefits from having a photo mode, as I constantly wanted to stop and take pictures of my journey. Strong art design also shines through here, and the way you can always make out subtle faces in the environment is really well done. The game also has some great voice acting, with each actor giving some incredibly believable performances. The only real issue I had from the presentation comes from the subtitles, which were often completely wrong. For example, at one point a character says "I won't stand in your way", but the subtitle says "You won't survive in there". I can't tell if this is more of the game trying to mess with me, or if whoever made the subtitles was just not paying attention, but it's a bit disappointing.
At the end of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice I felt like Ninja Theory had really outdone themselves in every way. I always enjoyed their games and felt that they were a talented developer, but Hellblade really took it to the next level. With its amazing take on an often avoided or misunderstood subject, fun combat, interesting puzzles, and beautiful graphics, Hellblade deserves a part in your library.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice manages to tell a thoughtful story about mental illnesses while also providing exciting gameplay and some absolutely fantastic visuals and audio. For anyone looking for a tight, well-paced, linear action game, this is it.
- Amazing Story That Tackles Difficult Subjects
- Frantic Combat That Feels Good
- Smart Puzzles
- Beautiful Graphics
- Extremely Impressive Audio
- Some Enemies Annoying to Fight
- Minor Glitches
- Subtitles Often Wrong