Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review
As someone who struggles with his own forms of mental illness (severe generalized anxiety and OCD), the subject has always been rather…..touchy, for me. After all, there’s a pretty big stigma regarding the term, and the entertainment industry is partially to blame. Not intentionally of course; I enjoyed games like Manhunt and Outlast. But too often I see various forms of passive and interactive media attempt to tackle the subject, only to fall into the trope of “just depict this mentally ill person as a psychopath”. So when I found out that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice approaches the subject with grace, nuance, and empathy, I was relieved and impressed. That the entire thing exists within the framework of an amazing game only makes it that much sweeter.
Where to begin? Hellblade is a game I’m terrified of spoiling for you, so I’ll sum up the story in the simplest way possible: Senua is a Celtic warrior whose lover was killed in a Viking raid, so she travels to Helheim to challenge Hela, the Norse goddess of Death, for his soul. As the game opens, you find Senua slowly paddling a makeshift raft onto a distant Northern shore. You may notice the amazing ripple effects in the water. Your gaze will probably be drawn to the sun spilling through the trees, dappling the ground with shadow. You may appreciate the level of detail in Senua’s hair and the texture of her clothing. But if you’re like me, your attention will immediately be dominated by the voices.
You see, Senua suffers from psychosis, and as such there is a litany of ever-present voices churning within her consciousness. Some are comforting and reassuring. Some are harsh and accusatory. Some compel Senua to push forward in her quest, and others fearfully implore her to turn around and leave, never to return. Sometimes they’ll argue with each other and sometimes they’ll be in agreement. In battle, they will tell Senua to get up, stay down, look behind her, tell her the fight is almost over, or complain it will never end. They’ll even talk over the game’s monologue when coming across an exposition-providing lorestone, because that’s what psychosis does. It doesn’t wait for you to finish listening to a story or allow you to bask peacefully in the sound of waves on the shore or catch your breath after battling a horde of Northmen.
Psychosis is ever-present and intrusive, and the way Ninja Theory has implemented it is nothing short of revolutionary. They spent a large portion of time consulting with numerous psychologists, mental health experts, and individuals suffering from psychosis to portray Senua’s inner torment as accurately as possible, and the end result is a new industry standard for representation of mental illness. It’s awe-inspiring stuff.
Equal care was given to the visuals and sound. Hellblade was billed as the first independent game with big-budget, AAA production values, and it absolutely shows. Hellblade’s visuals easily rival Uncharted 4 and Horizon, with mist-choked forests, rainswept keeps, abandoned beaches and horrific hellscapes all beautifully realized with impressive lighting and clean, crisp textures. Between combat encounters, you’ll find lots of environmental puzzles to solve, usually by observing Nordic runes carved into doors, which can only be unlocked by finding the corresponding rune somewhere out in the world. You’ll know you’re near a puzzle solution when you see images of that particular rune swirling about the environment. One particular point in the game mixes hallucinatory images and reality-twisting portals in with the rune-hunting, allowing for some truly mesmerizing visuals and clever challenges.
The sound mix, too, is one of the MOST impressive I’ve heard this gen. A good set of cans is almost a requirement; with the binaural audio, the inner voices which plague Senua come through in all directions, with varying levels of intensity. The soundtrack is also fantastic, with big, chest-thumping Viking battle hymns rising up during the game’s many brutal engagements and awesome boss fights. On PS4 Pro you have the option of prioritizing resolution or framerate; I chose frames and was rewarded with a melted butter-smooth, 60fps experience for the entirety of my eight-hour playthrough. This proved to be a huge boon to the game’s simple but incredibly rewarding combat.
After all, you’re a badass Celtic warrior in a land full of hostile, demonic Viking warriors. There’d better be some damn good combat, and I’m happy to report the developers of Heavenly Sword and DmC deliver once again. All the industry standards are present; light attack, strong attack, shield break, dodge roll, parry, etc. But this being Ninja Theory, it’s all done incredibly well. As you fight Senua will flip, turn, roll, and pivot with the grace of an Olympic athlete, thanks to the absolutely incredible mocapping work. Attacks on your opponents land with long gouges cut into their flesh and the ripping sound of a sword piercing shredded flesh. A successful parry rewards you with a very satisfying flash of light and the ringing of steel on steel, opening your enemies up to retaliatory strikes. Senua also possesses “focus”, which slows down time when activated and allows you to land strikes in quicker succession.
Topping this all off is the absolute lack of any sort of HUD at all. You’ll know your enemies are almost done by their labored breathing, the scores of wounds carved into their bodies, and the way they begin to grasp their sides in pain. You won’t know your focus is ready to go until you see the flash of a mirror on Senua’s hip. And you won’t know you’re near death until blood starts running over Senua’s vision, at which point the voices will implore you to back away and be more careful.
Speaking of being careful, much has been made of the permadeath mechanic built into Hellblade. Die too many times, and your save file is wiped. I won’t get too deep into this, as there’s a clever gameplay mechanism at work here. All I’ll say is, it’s not what you think, and you’ll be impressed with what Ninja Theory did, should you discover it.
But the greatest triumph of all? Senua herself. Ninja Theory has created in Senua one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a decade. She is equal parts stalwart, strong, weak, afraid, resolute, loving, and angry. She acknowledges her affliction is something she cannot help, accepts it, and uses it as equal parts shield, salve, and crutch, just as I have my own. She is perhaps the most positively human game character I’ve ever encountered, and her story is one that resonated with me deeply. I’ve truly never cared about a character’s well-being like I did hers. I wanted so badly for her to find what she was seeking. Did she?
I leave that for you to find out. At $29.99, this is an experience I’d have happily paid $59.99 for. It’s an easy favorite for my GOTY, and the best game I’ve played this current generation. I implore you to follow Senua on her journey, fight with her, struggle with her, cry with her, triumph with her. It’s an experience that would be impossible in any other medium but gaming, and it left me reeling.