Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is able to accomplish what few games can. Every single element of the experience – from the visuals, to the use of sound, to the story, to all of the gameplay mechanics – combine together to create something that satisfies on every possible front. The metaphors shine through and help frame the experience both literally and figuratively in such a clean way that I’m confident in saying that it will be a long time before a game this well-made is able to tackle such sensitive topics ever again.
Narratively, Hellblade is the story of Senua, a celtic warrior that is descending into the depths of Helheim (the Norse equivalent of Hell) to try and save her lover’s (Dillion) soul. In practice, however, it is just as much an exploration of mental illness, psychosis, and the trauma experienced when a person is forced to struggle with mental instability as it is a God of War-esque quest for vengeance and redemption.
Beauty and Brutality
Hellblade is mostly split into a few distinct pieces that can be labeled as one of three different types of content. There’s the narrative content, which consists of cutscenes where you have no control as you watch everything play out, as well as moments of exposition dialogue that happen while you’re walking from one area to the next. Then there are the combat moments that task you with fighting a variety of creatures and monsters in different group sizes. Finally, there’s the non-combat gameplay, such as puzzles and environmental exploration.
While simplistic at first, the combat actually matures into one of the most satisfying elements of Hellblade overall, and part of that had to do with the complete lack of an in-game tutorial. The game never stops to tell you what to do (even though you can see the controls listed by pausing the game) and forces you to fend for yourself. Between light and heavy attacks, blocking, dodging, and parrying blows, there is plenty to keep you active. The end result are fights that have a fast, fluid, and flashy look that feel right at home alongside Ninja Theory’s past work.
Hellblade took me approximately seven hours to complete. That number could be increased or decreased by an hour or so in either direction depending on how quickly you solve the puzzles and how thoroughly you search for all of the lorestones. Just for beating the game, I got every trophy on PS4 other than the one for finding every lorestone, which does unlock an extra scene at the end of the game.
From a New Perspective
A lot of people may take issue with how “gamified” some aspects of Hellblade come across. There are numerous sections that require you to search the environment for symbols and rune patterns, as well as arenas that usher waves of enemies at you suddenly. At first, this can feel out of place, like an otherwise deeply thoughtful story is getting disrupted by a checklist of features that needed to be there in order to pad the length and add “video game” segments. Some of that is true, but if you look a bit deeper, it all makes a lot more sense.
In the short featurette video accessible from the Main Menu (which you shouldn’t watch until after beating the game), the developers explain that things like seeing patterns, attributing false purpose to otherwise mundane areas of life, and rampant delusions are all significant parts of many mental illnesses. When considering that, many of Hellblade’s more “gamified” moments actually feed into the overarching premise quite well.
Few games have consistently challenged me to change the way I look at the world as much as Hellblade has. From literally altering the world around me through the use of clever gate puzzles, to aligning shadows and objects to create symbols in the world, there was seldom a dull moment. While playing I saw bits and pieces throughout that reminded me of some of my favorite all-time films such as A Beautiful Mind, Fight Club, and even Memento. Occasionally, I got a few whiffs of Eternal Darkness, a cult-classic horror game on the Gamecube.
Admittedly, I have zero personal experience with hearing voices, seeing things that aren’t there, or generally any other forms of mental illness. As a result, I have no way of knowing if the things depicted in Hellblade are even remotely close to reality. But judging from the extensive work that Ninja Theory put into researching and confirming their direction, I feel confident in saying that this is about as close as you’re going to find in any fantastical works of fiction.
I played through the majority of Hellblade using a HyperX Cloud Revolver S headset, which has built-in surround sound audio, and it dramatically enhanced the gameplay experience. The voices really did sound as if they were all around me, inside my head, and lingering on the cusp of my ears. The sounds of the depths of Helheim made my skin crawl, and the giggles and whispers that mocked me on my quest were extremely unsettling.
While the story’s conclusion did cause me to scratch my head a bit until I reflected on everything, it all still adds up to a satisfying climax at the end. The narrative reaches a good resolution both literally and figuratively, and I can honestly say that Senua’s journey is going to stick with me for a long time to come.