Part action game, part walking sim and wrapped in a cinematic experience, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice looks absolutely stunning with lifelike characters, gorgeous lighting and stunning vistas. The graphics constantly impressed me as I travelled with Senua to Helheim on her quest to reclaim the lost soul of her dear beloved, Dillion, who was sacrificed by Northmen (Vikings) when they invaded Senua’s home while she was in exile.
From the get go Hellblade pulls no punches, but before you begin the game there is a warning about the content depicted in the game. This note about psychosis highlights that Ninja Theory have done their homework around the condition, consulting with both professionals and people living with the condition. To fully experience the game, Ninja Theory also recommends that you play with headphones for a ‘full 3D binaural sound’ experience. I of course was happy to oblige and if I were you, then take heed and do so too – the sound engineering is some of the finest I have ever heard in a video game.
The gameplay, while simple, owes its mechanics to the research conducted by the team, which is elegantly detailed in a featurette that is worth watching once you have finished the game. Hellblade’s many intricacies pay homage to the different symptoms of psychosis – it’s a tremendous achievement – not only does the game look at mental health and psychosis, but Ninja Theory have managed to create an enjoyable experience that is sympathetic to its source material.
Indeed it’s an enjoyable experience, but one that is fantastically uncomfortable. The many voices in Senua’s head swirl around you. They argue, they discuss, they talk over one another and they heighten the tension of the game making you squirm under their constant murmurs. Not only is the voice acting top notch, but the intensity of them will set the hairs on the back of your neck to attention.
Senua’s world is one that is made even more unsettling by the character herself. Her body language is incredible. You can feel her pain as you look on; her eyes pierce through the screen as she looks beyond her world. Often she swings wildly around, almost flailing, to piercingly look right at you. Sometimes her eyes are challenging or accusing and sometimes they are frightful. This is heightened by one of the voices calling to you directly as you look on. There is even a scratched lens effect that sits in front of Senua’s virtual world – a device that makes the game almost voyeur in nature – it’s incredibly chilling and extremely intimate.
To progress through the game, Senua must overcome many challenges, both combat and environmental. Navigational obstacles hide the path Senua must follow, highlighting the twisted nature in which she interprets her world – using ‘magic portals’ to reveal past, future and present states of the environment. Numerous puzzles are focused around runes, which require you to locate them within the landscape as objects or shadows – another symptom of psychosis – visualising patterns and images that others would simply pass by.
The combat of Hellblade is very intimate, with one-on-one fights that lock your gaze onto a single opponent and can be swapped with a flick of the RS. The move set is limited to simple button presses for attacking, blocking and parrying; there are no complex combos or unlockable moves. It keeps the game focused on the experience; fights are instead paced throughout the game so as not to make them too monotonous.
There is weight to the combat too and the choreography is wonderful. Each strike feels empowering, particularly as you take down some pretty grim looking enemies – freaky, morbid creatures that grunt and fight unrelentingly, with cow skulls and sticks for hair – they reminded me of the creature from the film, The Village or the warped nightmares of Silent Hill – but no action game would be complete with boss fights and Hellblade’s are superb, it’s a shame there weren’t more of them.
Unfortunately the camera can be a real pain in the ass during combat. Should you back up too far the environment can obscure your vision and if you have multiple enemies, some may even be behind you, then certain death almost always follows and if you die too often then you risk having your save deleted!
Yes, apparently there is perma death, which I think is more of an empty threat. Early on you discover that Senua is obsessed with ‘The darkness’, a threat that scares her, worse is that she is tainted by black rot and should it reach her head the journey is over. You are warned that the black rot travels further towards Senua’s head when she falls in battle. Even though I died numerous times, the black rot never won, whether this ‘mechanic’ is a white lie to heighten the action, I cannot confirm but it certainly worked, it made me on edge when playing and fighting.
There is also an auto difficulty that adjusts as you play. Towards the end of the game I was up against numerous enemies and thanks to the camera crashing, I was at the wrong end of a cleaver. On my next attempt there were far less enemies to fight – a clear indication of just how the setting works.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a story driven experience where combat and environmental puzzles are almost tertiary to the game. The visuals and sound pull you in, offering an experience that had me on the edge of my seat and leaving me with my mouth agasp as the end credits rolled.
Although simple, I found the combat finely balanced – it didn’t take the focus away from what the game is about. I did however feel cheated by the lack of exploration opportunities. The world is terrifically detailed, it may be morbid and intimidating but it is so invitingly stunning that I wanted to explore deeper.
Shut yourself away. Dim the lights and pop on your favourite pair of cams to truly immerse yourself in Senua’s world. If time allows, then play it through in one sitting, which takes around 6-8 hours. The ending is extremely satisfying, punching you right in the gut and staying with you to ponder for days to come. Hellblade certainly has some of the best storytelling I’ve experienced and one that is built around mental health. Bold and sympathetic, it’s a game you simply must experience.