Copy obtained through development studio.
It has Hel, and blades. Makes sense to me!
Games don’t often tackle mental illness, and for good reason. Often, a protagonist’s ailment just becomes a gimmick to add some variety to an otherwise standard game. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t one of those games. Ninja Theory built an entire game around the premise of the character suffering from psychosis in an age where the ailment wasn’t understood, and it’s truly horrifying.
Not in the sense that it isn’t entertaining to play; instead, it’s remarkable. No, instead it’s horrifying in a way that so many other horror games only attempt to be. It’s chilling, and terrific.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t what I’d consider to be a complicated game. It’s relatively simple, mechanically speaking. You guide Senua through the bowels of Helheim, and while the introductory segment gives the feel that you’re playing a walking simulator, those illusions are quickly dispersed upon your first encounter with an enemy.
Hellblade doesn’t give you a false sense of security. Senua will fall, inevitably. That first death at the hands of a demonic warrior introduces you to the notion that permadeath is looming. If you fall in battle too many times, Senua succumbs to what’s called “The Dark Rot”, and you’ll lose your game save. Thankfully, Ninja Theory has included multiple difficulty modes, as well as an auto-difficulty, which adjusts the combat to curtail the number of deaths you’ll experience.
The combat itself is simple, as I’ve said before. You have quick and strong attacks, and can dodge or block blows. There aren’t any health meters to monitor, and attack indicators are subtle. You’ll be required to contend with multiple enemies at once on a few occasions, and even though you aren’t given overt indications of when the enemy you aren’t focusing on is attacking, you’ll know based on the presence of a red smear on the side of your screen, which gives you a moment to take action. The combat just flows, with both Senua and her enemies giving the appearance that their blows have actual weight behind them.
Aside from the combat, there are some light puzzle elements included, which take the form of Senua finding representations of runes throughout the environment in order to unlock passage to new areas. Like the combat, the runes themselves aren’t obvious in most cases, but they aren’t so difficult to find that you’ll waste time wandering around; unless you want to. A translucent overlay of the runes you’re required to find gives you a sense of what shapes to look for, and when you get near the area where the rune can be found, the air fills with the rune you’re seeking. So while you won’t be doing anything quite on the level of Portal or Myst, it’s still a nice diversion from the wandering.
If you take the time to explore however, you can find totems which give you better insight on the lore of the time, and you get to see more of a breathtaking game in the process.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is far more than a visually incredible title. It’s a masterpiece from an indie studio. Ninja Theory did what is only expected from big-budget AAA game studios backed with the seemingly bottomless coffers of a major publisher. However, the mere fact that the graphics are of such high quality isn’t what sets Hellblade apart from any other game. Realism isn’t the sole factor when I consider the quality of a game’s presentation after all.
Hellblade is a visual and auditory masterpiece because of how Ninja Theory’s design choices make you feel. The visual artifacts displayed when you’re solving a puzzle are intense and disorienting. The way the environment changes so suddenly, whether it’s the lighting or shadows shifting. Then there’s the voices that constantly surround Senua, speaking as if they’re people in the room watching her, and judging her actions.
Everything about Hellblade adds to the horrifying atmosphere. Ninja Theory clearly understood the feelings they wanted to evoke in the player, and executed that vision with precision. There’s something incredibly creepy about the voices and sound effects experienced when exploring Helheim with Senua. That’s not even taking into consideration the option to use headphones when playing, which is clearly the intended way to experience Hellblade. The way Ninja Theory utilized directional sound in conjunction with the extremely unsettling sound design creates a sense of emotional discomfort that I haven’t felt since I played Alien: Isolation. A game I still need to finish. I just can’t… I need to sleep after all.
Also, if you want to further enhance your nightmare fuel, you can play with the lights off at night with your headphones on. In case you want to stay up for a couple days.
As I said in the introduction, Hellblade doesn’t take the normal gaming industry approach to mental illness. Senua’s psychosis is front-and-center, affecting everything the player experiences. You’re forced to contend with distracting voices, which mock and question you, or simply offer observations at best. You’re bombarded with visual hallucinations, as you try to find patterns in order to advance to the next area. Ninja Theory may not have made Hellblade into a perfect representation of psychosis, but it’s clear that they tried to make informed design choices. They consulted with experts in order to avoid the pitfalls that many other games fall into when tackling such a sensitive subject.
If anything, this approach deserves to be commended. Too many games that feature mental illness in them treat them as an ancillary mechanic or gimmick. In Hellblade, Senua’s ailment is the core of the experience without limiting it to demeaning those that suffer from it. That said, I wouldn’t say this is a game for those who are sensitive to experiences that screw with your mind.
Senua isn’t braving Helheim for no reason. She heads there to free her loved one from the grips of its goddess. Throughout, you’re treated to the musings of Dillion, the one she seeks (among others), as Senua explores Helheim and confronts the horrors of her past.
The story is beautifully told, and done so in a manner which doesn’t resort to force-feeding the player. The majority of the story is delivered through narration from disembodied voices, with some input from Senua herself and her memories of Dillion. It should be obvious that she isn’t really in Helheim, and I feel that Ninja Theory did an admirable job of tying up the story in the end without resorting to cliches that other games have often called upon. It’s interesting to me that Senua initially reconciles what’s happening to her through the lens of the mythology of her society, while later realizing the truth of the situation and coming to terms with it.
I enjoyed the story to the full extent, but that’s largely because it isn’t just another game designed to be scary for the sake of being scary. There’s a good story to tell, and that’s the story of Senua.
WILDCARD: MEETING OF THE MINDS
Even though the plot of Hellblade focuses entirely on Senua’s journey to rescue Dillion, she isn’t the only one involved in the process. I won’t go into much detail, but I feel it’s worth mentioning that the player is just as important to the plot, aside from the obvious… You know, that the player is providing the impetus to move things along and all that. Still, the player is a participant in a more meaningful and creepy way. I’m not sure why I feel the fourth-wall being broken is so disconcerting to me, but it is.
I shudder at the thought…
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice goes down as yet another title that I dove into despite originally feeling it was outside the scope of my interest. I sense a common thread here.
Regardless, Hellblade is a chillingly enthralling experience. It’s a technical marvel from an independent developer, which takes on the tough subject of mental illness in a meaningful and (in my opinion) oddly respectful manner given the setting, and it wraps it all up in a package which is still fun to play.
As long as you aren’t easily terrified.
Or okay with being scared constantly, enveloped in a perpetual aura of unease.
Have you played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice? Are you planning on playing it any time soon if you haven’t already?
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