Ninja Theory Breaks The Mold And Your Psyche With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
This was a difficult game to review. Not because it was bad. In part, because it was so good. But mostly, the reason this game was difficult to review is because it took a lot of things both foreign and familiar to me and shone them in new lights, as well as casting them in some interesting and terrifying shadows. In other words, this game did exactly what it set out to do.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice transports you to the world of the titular Senua, a female druid living in (roughly) the 8th century. Senua’s story does not play as a typical sword and shield game. Swords come into play, but at the end of the day the biggest enemies Senua needs to take down can’t be defeated with steel. Instead, her darkest moments and most insurmountable adversaries are the things that crop up in her head as the result of suffering from psychosis.
The real catch is, can you, the player tell the difference between the two?
Now, to be truthful, psychosis is a general term. What it is exactly that Senua suffers from isn’t fully elaborated on, but that’s okay. Why? Because in Senua’s world, it never would have been labelled anyway. There were no words for schizophrenia, bipolar, or even dissociative disorder back then. Instead, Senua’s experience is known to her and the player base at large only as her “darkness.” And let me tell you, things get dark in this game, both figuratively and literally, and it never lets up.
We Come From the Land of The Ice and Snow
Ninja Theory does an amazing job at making the player feel oppressed at almost all moments of this game. Choking environments, hazy skies, and the constant whisper of Senua’s voices work as an incessant reminder that Hellblade is not at all your normal gaming experience. This also sets the pace from the start, letting players know that this will not be a simple walk in the park. Hellblade will claim it’s title with fury and righteousness, but this doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the journey.
Without spoilers, the tale goes as thus: Senua’s lover was murdered in a raid by the “Northmen” (Vikings). His soul, now residing in Viking Hel, will remain there for eternity. Because Senua feels that the happenings that wiped out his tribe are in some way her own fault, being linked to her darkness, she elects to go there and rescue his soul, or die trying. His skull is carried on her belt through the duration of the game, because the only way to release him is to transfer his spirit to the seat of the soul, which, for Senua’s people, is the head.
With a heavy heart and a likely heavier sword, Senua sets out to the land of mist and fog, also known as Helheim. It is here where the player joins her for the first time, right as we breach the shoreline of this place laden with death and darkness. A narrator greets us along with the countless voices that will become as much your companion as they are Senua’s, and they will remain with you throughout your stay. Whether the narrator serves you, the player, or is just another member of Senua’s cacophonous choir remains to be seen.
The majority of Hellbade Senua’s Sacrifice will offer almost equal parts puzzles and combat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it may be vexing to some players. Hellblade has a tendency to overuse certain puzzle mechanics, the most prevalent being the matching of runes to environmental shapes to unlock gates. These seem clever at first, but get tiresome quickly. Ninja Theory seems to do their best to balance this out later in the game, but unfortunately this was an aspect that was hard to overlook.
Combat is fun, but not complicated. The Gods saw fit to give Senua three attack types: swift, normal, and power. Building combos with these attacks builds Focus, which is showcased on a mirror carried on Senua’s belt opposite her lover’s skull. Focus is used to help heal Senua. It serves to momentarily slow down time, allowing the player to get a few more hits on a problematic assailant or two. Eventually the events in the story will grant Senua with a new sword, which will in turn grant an addition to the power attack. By pressing and holding the appropriate button during combat, the “upgraded” power attack will make the sword glow. An uninterrupted charge makes for a harder strike.
The Hammer of the Gods Will Drive Our Ships to New Lands
One of the more stylized attributes of Hellblade is that it offers no HUD. You will be able to gauge damage both to Senua and enemies based on their physical appearance and stance. Senua’s voices also lend a helping hand, letting you know if you are dying or if your adversary is close to death. It is recommended by both the developers and by myself to use headphones throughout the duration of this game. It will make the voices more audible (as well as make the experience more personal) and you will be able to hear them as they warn you of attacks coming in from off camera.
They aren’t always terribly specific, though. You might find yourself moving into an attack rather than away. The game’s perspective makes distance between yourself and enemies hard to judge at times. Despite these shortcomings, most gamers will adjust quickly, and can expect few missteps along the way.
When not battling giants, shadowmen, and gods, Senua visits some beautifully crafted environments. One level had Senua wading through Hel itself while facing off against a gauntlet of enemies. Another time, she was in a flooded village chased by ghosts made of fire and regret. Some levels are simply mountain or ocean side constructs, and others take place almost completely in the dark. No matter where the player ends up, every turn is set on to be corrupted by the darkness that reside within Senua.
To Fight The Horde, Sing and Cry
As the game goes on, the voices will amp up both in terms of their severity and their attitude towards Senua. Some will remain encouraging, while others will become abusive, even crazed, making guttural noises and screaming instead of simply talking or yelling as before. If you’re wearing headphones, this will serve to exacerbate any anxiety you yourself may be experiencing as you play. Essentially, the closer Senua gets to Hel…well, the closer she gets to her own hell. These voices are yours to contend with now as well. It’s all part of the experience that Ninja Theory wanted to craft, and by the gods did they do it well!
The best way that I can describe Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is that it’s like taking a long swig of anxiety. The player, along with Senua, are fighting her darkness together. You’re not meant to feel comfortable in this game. You’re not meant to feel safe, or that things are normal. Every step you take is intended to instill fear. I ultimately feel like players need to be somewhat familiar with these feelings through their own internal demons to come to terms with the events of the game. You are literally navigating Senua’s darkness at some points in this game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many gamers find themselves at times looking back and reflecting on their own. This makes Hellblade a very powerful experience.
Valhalla, I’m Coming
That being said, with the voices being such a major mechanical point for the game, I was disappointed at the lack of proper or accurate subtitles. As someone who is legitimately hard of hearing, I feel like I missed out on the intended overload this experience provided, simply because so many of them were inaudible. Hopefully, this is fixed in a newer patch. I also hope that Ninja Theory will see fit to release a soundtrack in the not too distant future, as the music was as beautiful as the game itself.
Ultimately, the people that will enjoy Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice the most will be the people that can in some way relate to Senua’s struggles. The game is gorgeous, fluid, and has a good balance of challenge with down time. While it’s first appearance may give gamers the impression that it’s not for them, I would humbly implore you to give Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a try. Since the game is only $29.99 for eight to ten hours of gameplay, you’ll have undoubtedly made worse purchases in your life than Hellblade.
Available on: PC, PS4 (reviewed); Publisher: Ninja Theory; Developer: Ninja Theory ; Players: 1. ; Released: August 8th, 2017.
Full disclosure: this review is based on a retail copy of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.