Mental illness is an incredibly difficult subject to cover in any medium. Visible and exterior scars are easy to portray and understand, but these types of wounds go far deeper than just flesh and bone. We all have our burdens that we carry, but the mental ones are the heaviest of them all.
Enter Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This new story-driven action game tells the story of a woman named Senua who suffers from psychosis. Her journey takes her into the norse underworld of Hel, where she seeks to reclaim the soul of her love, Dillion. Does this game expertly handle a sensitive subject, or does it stumble during its grandiose journey into the mind? Let’s find out!
A Story That Delves Deep Into The Human Psyche
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that will live or die based on the story. Let’s get this out of the way right now: this game has an absolutely incredible story. I’ll do my best to describe it, but if you’ve been watching this game and you were hoping for an incredible tale, you’ll find one here.
While the game is third-person, you never leave Senua’s mind during the experience. Her mind is a truly beautiful and terrifying place to spend 6-8 hours of your life. The slow and methodical opening scene sets a haunting tone and establishes one of the several voices that will join you on your adventure.
One of the other things you’ll notice, is that Senua’s mind is ruled by several different voices beyond the narrator. As events unfold, these voices whisper speak out loud, commenting on situations, offering advice, or even criticizing the situation. The game recommends that you play with headphones to enjoy 3D binaural sound. Doing so allows you to hear which direction the voices are coming from as they surround you with their banter.
Senua herself will sometimes respond to the voices, or speak directly to people that appear in her vivid visions. She’s such an incredible character who feels real and authentic. We’ll discuss how this is done from a performance and presentation standpoint later in the review. If we look at her character from a writing and story standpoint, she is incredibly well developed.
Nothing in the game is ever force-fed to you. While the story is linear, it’s constantly open for interpretation. For example, Senua herself is haunted by a mysterious force referred to as a darkness, and a rot within her.
Combine this with references to her having an ability called “the sight” and you’ll soon realize that these are the terms used to describe her psychosis. Since Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is set in a celtic/norse world, there’s nothing in this lore or time period that can properly explain what she is going through, so supernatural tags are applied to it.
This makes for excellent parallels between what we define as psychosis, hallucinations, and hearing voices, and how people in this time period would have done so. All of this is thanks to developer Ninja Theory’s dedication to portraying mental illness in a way that is creative, but also true to life.
Included with the game is a free featurette entitled “Hellblade: Senua’s Psychosis.” After you finish the game, I highly recommend giving it a watch. It shows how the developers spoke with a wide variety of experts in this field. They also interviewed and collaborated with people who experience the kinds of things Senua goes through in her journey.
The voices and narrators that exist within her mind, along with Senua herself, offer positively stunning monologues and soliloquies. The writing is verbose without being self-righteous, and profound without being cryptic.
It’s an absolutely wonderful balance that made for numerous spine-tingling sequences throughout the adventure. There’s a certain creative passion and care that goes into the entire narrative. It all feels hand-crafted and purposefully placed in a way that most modern stories fail to achieve.
Beyond the main story, you’ll also come across stones that can be triggered. These provide additional exposition that expertly weaves norse mythology with the events of the game. I highly recommend you listen to every one, they add more story that further reinforces the events happening all around you.
It’s certainly the most concentrated story I’ve experienced in some time, and one of the most draining as well. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice fills every moment it can with exposition, leaving only tiny pockets of silence for you to take a breather.
In many ways Senua is a prisoner within her own mind, and it seems as if everyone is out to get her. Sparks of hope are the only thing that keeps her going. You immediately connect with her based on the writing and narrative alone. She feels real, and she feels truly fractured.
It’s interesting too, because it would have been easy for Ninja Theory to portray the negative aspects of mental illness and leave it at that. Instead, Hellblade offers a secondary perspective. While much of what Senua experiences is horrifying, there are also moments of true beauty that exist within her mind. Moments of shocking imagery are paired with emotional conversations and stunning vistas that simply could not exist in the world as we know it.
Senua is deeply scarred and shattered, but she also sees the world in a completely different way than those around her. Her way of thinking is different, but as the story shows, it’s not necessarily wrong. We’re so quick in our modern society to judge anything different as wrong, instead of stopping to consider the fact that it could be something special.
Senua can speak with people who are no longer with us. She can hold conversations with family members and old friends. She believes she can rescue her love’s soul from the underworld, and she sets out to do it. Who’s to say that she’s wrong? What if she can just see more than everyone else? Why would that make her wrong or someone to be stigmatized? What if this disease, this rot, exists in more than just her mind?
Those are the kinds of questions that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice offers to the player through its storytelling. Again, it’s never forced, but it forces you to think and truly experience something that people in our modern world struggle with.
It’s impossible to truly understand what people with Psychosis suffer from as an outsider, but Senua’s story, to me, seems like the most profound, accurate, and beautiful portrayal of something that we write off as an illness, a disease to be cured. Regardless of its nature, mental illness is something people cope with everyday.
Ninja Theory approaches this subject with respect, creativity, and authenticity. Through Senua’s journey, they’ve given a voice to the countless people who struggle each day with conditions that they don’t understand. It’s a massive step forward for gaming and for art as a whole, that such a topic has been portrayed so perfectly.
Beautiful, emotional, horrifying, and gut-wrenching are all terms I would use to describe the story in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Even those words don’t do it justice. It’s a stunning example of how video games can tackle even the most difficult of subjects and do it with both creativity and grace.
Puzzles, Visceral Combat, and a Lurking Darkness Within
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is played from a third-person perspective, but that doesn’t stop you from experiencing the world through Senua’s eyes. The camera stays locked in behind her as you explore, keeping the focus on her while still giving you the freedom to rotate the camera and take in the world around you.
Senua moves at a slow pace most of the time. There is a sprint button that can get her moving along at a decent pace, but she’ll only run when her life is in danger. Interestingly enough, the game features very little in the way of tutorial and practically zero in the traditional sense.
When you pause the game, controls are laid out on the right side of the menu, so you’ll want to review this when you start playing as the game won’t remind you. Other mechanics are revealed through the voices that echo all around you.
While they can be chatty, oftentimes they also lend a hand when you’re stuck. In other cases, a direct explanation will be offered to establish a puzzle mechanic. Even in these situations, though, it never feels like a tutorial. Just like the story, the design of the game has some expertly crafted elements.
Beyond simple exploration, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice also includes a number of puzzles and intense set pieces that use the same pieces, but create a different puzzle with them. It begins with doors that must be unlocked by finding runes in the environment.
It sounds simple, but these runes aren’t just carved into rocks or plastered on walls. Instead, they can be found in the environment through the trick of a light, the arrangement of a ruin, the shape of a wall, and plenty of other dastardly solutions. This is yet another example of how Senua’s condition lets her see the world different, finding shapes and patterns where no one else would.
Other types of puzzles emerge as the game goes on, and the rune searches continue to offer unique solutions throughout the experience. While a few concepts may repeat themselves, it’s largely a continued surprise what the next puzzle will bring.
Scattered throughout the game as well, are set pieces that require you to make split-second decisions and quite literally run for your life. These can be exciting, but in some cases, I found myself unsure of how to proceed and I continuously died until I could figure out the path to victory.
Speaking of death, before we get into Hellblade’s combat, I’d like to address an aspect of the game that has received polarizing feedback since launch.
MILD GAMEPLAY SPOILERS AHEAD
In case you want to go in blind, you can skip this part (I’ll mark the end of spoilers below). Shortly into your playthrough of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a particularly striking moment will occur, at which point you will be informed that every time Senua fails, the rot spreads further across her body.
Die too many times, it says, and all progress will be lost. Taken at face value, this is a declaration of permadeath. I still remember the lump that formed in my stomach when I read those words. Every moment mattered now, every combat encounter was a test of my abilities, and most importantly, seeing the game to the end depended on my skills.
Let me stop you there. While it is possible to trigger this form of permadeath in Hellblade, it is not as easy as one would think. Various corroborating tests from other gamers have proved that you must die a lot to lose your progress. You must also do it across multiple checkpoints.
In short, it’s not as bad as it sounds. You don’t need to skip out on the game for fear of encountering a Dark Souls roguelike. That’s not the case here. Now, some people have expressed displeasure with this mechanic, but I firmly believe it is yet another part of what makes this game so great.
The darkness/rot within Senua is a part of her, and it represents the dark side of her psychosis. It would make sense that this physical manifestation would spread as she lets it take hold. Not only does this mechanic make complete sense from a narrative perspective, but it also adds an excellent tension to the entire game that never wavers.
Yes, you most likely won’t lose your progress, but just knowing that it’s possible is harrowing and, in my opinion, exhilarating as well. Does it make me frustrated when I keep dying on set piece moments? Of course, but knowing that I won’t lose everything after three or four deaths keep the tension at a reasonable level.
So, with that discussion finished, let’s talk combat.
END OF MILD SPOILERS
The combat in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a bit of a departure from previous Ninja Theory titles. Heavenly Sword focused on fast-paced fighting with combos and massive enemy counts. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West had simple, but nuanced combat that grew and evolved as you purchased skills.
DMC: Devil May Cry was a hack and slasher’s paradise. Hellblade feels like more of a Dark Souls lite with more methodical combat than previous Ninja Theory games. Senua’s strikes are strong and deliberate. You will only fight a handful of enemies at once, but most of the time it will be one-on-one encounters.
You have a light attack, a heavy one, a kick, a block, and a dodge roll. The combat evolves somewhat as the game goes on through the introduction of other abilities, but for the most part, what you see is what you get.
When I finally nailed the perfect blocks, the combat really came into its own for me from a visual standpoint. There’s no denying that it’s smooth, flashy, and satisfying. The animation is exquisite, and the visible damage on enemy bodies only adds to the satisfaction.
Despite looking awesome, it’s not extremely deep. Don’t expect skill trees or new combos as the game progresses. The combat is simply there to break up long stretches of narrative. While some would argue that it’s not needed, I enjoyed seeing Senua in action, and being able to fight back against the darkness in some tangible form was important for me as a player.
If the game didn’t have combat, I would have felt helpless, and that helplessness would have been crushing. I would have simply had to watch Senua go through this alone. So, for me, the combat, even in its simplistic form, is an absolute necessity for the experience as a whole.
Top-Notch Presentation Proves You Don’t Need a Massive Budget
From the beginning, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was billed as a game that would be independently published by Ninja Theory and made on a smaller budget than their other titles. With a relatively small team as well, it’s incredible to see what they’ve managed to create.
From the moment you start the game, Hellblade oozes AAA production values. With graphical detail in the environments and character models that most games would dream of having. Using the power of Unreal 4, Ninja Theory has managed to create one of the most visually stunning games to date.
It certainly helps that the art direction and visual effects surrounding Senua’s visions are bold and unique, but there’s no denying that the underlying detail here is incredible. The only thing more impressive is Senua herself and the supporting cast.
Melina Juergens is the actress who plays Senua, and I would like to nominate her for any and all types of awards surrounding video game performance. Not only was her face and body scanned into the game, but her actual performance from an acting standpoint was nothing short of inspired.
The amount of emotion she conveys is overwhelming in some scenes. For a less experienced actor, this would come across as overdone, but Melina’s performance explodes with anger, sadness, and pure terror in all the right places.
All of this is captured using revolutionary new motion capture technology developed in partnership between Ninja Theory and Epic (the creators of the Unreal 4 Engine). If you get a chance, definitely check out some of the developer diaries for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, because they detail this technology in full.
In summary, it allows the actor’s performance to captured and transferred into the game engine in real time. Every aspect of the moment is captured. From the wide-eyed stares to the small nuances in facial expressions.
It makes for one of the most realistic portrayals of human emotion that gaming has ever seen. It manages to evoke real empathy without ever falling into the depth of the uncanny valley. It’s truly a testament to the technology at work here, and the performance from Melina herself.
In the past, games have managed to nail the faces, but the eyes always break the immersion. There’s just something about Senua’s eyes here in Hellblade that have that spark of life. I don’t know if it’s shaders, lighting, or just plain magic, but Ninja Theory has managed to create perhaps the most human and “real” feeling character I’ve ever journeyed with.
Other supporting characters appear as live action forms of themselves, but you’d be hard-pressed to notice at first because of the excellent post-processing used to make them feel like part of the game world. They blend so effortlessly with the visions that I had to double-take just to see if they were real or digital.
For PS4 Pro owners, there's also some additional support. You can play with a higher resolution, or enable the 60Hz option for a 60fps frame rate. I personally opted for the higher resolution, but the choice is there for Pro system owners.
Next up, we have to talk about the voice acting performances. As I previously mentioned, Melina’s performance as Senua is nothing short of stunning. The other narrators and supporting characters also deliver incredibly nuanced performances that bring the already excellent writing to life.
There’s a passion and understanding in the game’s performances that is hard to describe. The actors really seem to understand their characters and roles, to the point where it would be hard to hear them play anything else.
Finally, there’s the music. The soundtrack for the game pulled from multiple talents to create tracks that are filled with haunting melodies and harsh, sharp sounds. At the same time, the sound track can also turn reflective and thoughtful, but it never strays too far from its roots in both darkness and madness.
It all comes together in a way that very few games can. From the story to the graphics, to the gameplay and the incredible production values, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is nothing short of a masterpiece in my eyes.
Not only that, but it breaks new ground for gaming as a medium. It dares to tread where very few games have ever gone before, and it does so with both beauty and grace. It stands tall amongst some of the greatest experiences I’ve had as a gamer, and it shows that your budget does not dictate the quality of your experience.
I would have paid $60 for this game and never looked back, but for $30, this is an absolute steal. Join Senua on her journey, and I promise you, you won’t regret it.
Final Score: 9.5/10
A copy of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes
Author’s Note: If you, or anyone you know, is suffering from any form of mental illness, it’s important to seek help. Ninja Theory has set up a page at http://hellbladehelp.info where people can find support in their area. Don’t be afraid, and don’t suffer alone. There’s always help if you know where to look.
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 8/10/17