In the featured documentary on the process of creating Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, director Tameem Antoniades said something that stuck with me; regarding his research on mental illness, and more specifically psychosis, he said: “I didn’t have to look far to discover my own ignorance of the subject.” That’s how I felt in my first year studying Psychology and Sociology in University; how little I actually knew of the theory and practice of such important social sciences. This may seem a weird way to start off a game review, but I think it is important to give a prelude that makes the reader understand what the game is actually about; in theory, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an action-adventure game, set in a dark-fantasy inspired by Celtic culture and Norse Mythology. In practice though, it’s a game about dealing with mental illness, and all the beauty, and hardships, which come with it. It’s not about voices trying to make you uneasy, its voices that help you or frustrate you or they simply keep you company in a lonesome, long and scary journey. It’s about dealing with grief, guilt, self-doubt, and pain, alongside the side effects of psychosis; I don’t want to get into the story and the mechanics of the game, because it is what separates it from other games and makes it special. However, it is a game that is worthwhile of the 8 hour-ish playthrough and is, definitely, one of my favorite experiences thus far; a true testament of what games can achieve as a medium of entertainment and art.
To start with, the game centers on Senua, a warrior with serious psychosis, travelling to Helheim (Norse Mythology’s version of hell) in order to save the soul of Dillion, her now deceased lover. That’s about the same synopsis the developers provide in their description and I think this is the right amount of information to know about the story, before playing it, as the game isn’t really focused on delivering twists or mind-bending revelations; instead, it is very focused in making Senua a believable and nuanced protagonist, with a backstory and character traits, and place her in this mystical and fantastical land, that has its own mythology and set of rules that it adheres to.
The game takes its time to set up Senua and her character; we eventually learn who she is, what drives her and why, but the slow start actually highlights one of my favorite elements of the game: The atmosphere. The game is dark and gritty, as it is set in a dark-fantasy universe, but it is oppressive and moody as well, without falling into the trappings similar games fall into; the developers do not try to provide variety or relief for the player by bringing levity and humor into the world. Instead, the game switches environments to become slightly less oppressive or more horrifying or introduce natural settings, that provide the necessary variety and, surprisingly, levity; I was stunned by how relieved I was when I left some thematically dark areas for a much-needed break to solve a couple of puzzles in a serene forest. This atmosphere helps sell the danger and the gravity of Senua’s mission, as well as her state of mind; when considering that Senua’s mission starts at the border of Hel, it would not make sense to find goofy writing or funny side characters. In my opinion, it would also undermine the stakes that are at play. A big component to the atmosphere is the standout feature of the game; the sound design. Senua suffers from psychosis, and Ninja Theory did extensive research into what it means to live with such a condition; in the feature documentary included with the game (which you should watch after finishing the game, as it is worth the 25 minute runtime), Tameem described the process of talking with patients who live with the condition, and how the game integrates certain aspects of it, as gameplay or narrative mechanics.
One of those designs was “the voices”, and the developers did an excellent job implementing this feature in the game; they are frustrating, likeable, reassuring, terrifying, helpful, doubtful and condescending. They are the feature that makes the game unique and excellent, and had the developers messed up the execution, then Hellblade, at least for me, would have been an okay game and much less powerful. The voices help the player, by pointing out things in the environment that can help Senua progress, they frustrate the player when they want to explore by mocking them for going the wrong way. When you are trying to solve a puzzle, they taunt you, and when you are under duress from a scary being, they make you anxious and scream at you. In the narrative, they assure Senua that she is doing the right thing, only to doubt the validity of her cause, seconds later. They call her weak and pitiful, like she always has been, then shower her in compliments; I won’t go on, but I would urge you to play the game with headphones, as the 3D audio really immersed me and the role of the voices was really well done and impactful. (Please note that the video below shows how to solve an early-game puzzle, alongside showcasing how effective the voices can be. If you don’t want to be spoiled on any aspect of the game, then skip the video)
Another component to the atmosphere are the visuals, which are truly impressive, considering that, theoretically, this is an indie game; the game looks astonishing and the character models are gorgeous to look at. Looking at the sun tearing through the trees looks beautiful, while the motion capture work is extremely well done, with only a few moments of a few stiff-looking animations that break the immersion. Not breaking immersion seems to have been a focal point of the developers, and this works surprisingly well; there are no UI elements (besides the infamous permadeath warning, which was admitted by the developers, to be a design choice, so that the players are more on edge and on par with Senua’s feelings) and no tutorials, but the player picks up on a lot of those elements quite quickly and organically. I’ll spoil the easiest one to figure out, which is that the combat system has a combo mechanic, depending on which buttons you press; there is no tutorial for this, I just figured it out by the animations and the presentation. The game also has the inventive solutions, paramount to similar indie games that go for something beyond their financial capabilities; for example, there are a few cutscenes that feature FMV (Full Motion Video) elements, which are striking and appropriate, as a lot of what the player sees, are meant to be a blur between reality and fantasy. Also, the game goes for a one-take aesthetic, and hides a lot of loading screens and limitations behind that choice, which works thematically, due to the game feeling like a long, descending and dangerous trip to literal Hell, however there are occasions where this does not work as well; for example, after loading in, it takes a few seconds for the animations to kick in and many times I moved a hovering, still Senua for a few seconds before the animations worked. This was a small annoyance, but the technical performance of the game was not; there were numerous bugs and pop up issues, which left a lot to be desired from a technical perspective.
As I mentioned before, the story does eventually fill in for the player and it is a fascinating one; without going into too much detail, the game slowly but surely fills in a lot of the gaps on what happened to Senua and her lover, why is she making this risky trip and what her life was like. Without getting into spoilers, the player will find out about Senua and some people in her life, to form a complete narrative with some side-stories that complement the main one really well. The writing of every line was focused and inspired; the whole narrative was very well-though-tout and executed, with a few missteps in pacing in the latter parts of the game, partly due to a sudden spike in difficulty for some combat encounters, and partly due to the level design of some wider levels allowing me to roam in circles, trying to find where the correct path is.
In both cases though, these are the few problematic outliers and not the norm; the combat encounters may not have the best gameplay system I’ve interacted with, but it is excellent in expanding the game’s themes, as well as immersing the player, placing them into Senua’s place, and the mechanics are solid on their own. On the surface, Hellblade has a very simple combat system, with a parry, a dodge, a focus mechanic that slows down time and allows you to hit multiple times once it charges, light and heavy attacks, as well as a melee that stunts enemies, but all of these options have a bit more depth to them; time the parry just right and you can stun the enemy, combine the attacks to get combos or execute a charge attack by running and attacking an enemy.
These are solid mechanics, with enough depth for the duration of the game, but they are not what stand out about the combat; the camera and the sound design are the standouts. Firstly, the camera is from a third-person perspective, but it is so zoomed in that it acts as a first person perspective as well; and that is deliberate and annoying. You have a very narrow, field of view, which makes it easy for enemies to attack you from behind, but that is where the sound design comes into play; the voices act as a combat mechanic, when Senua is fighting. They advise you to dodge or parry an attack, depending on the enemy, or they warn you of enemies lurking behind you; without the voices, the camera restrictions would be annoying and bad design, but with the voices, they work in unity to create a different feeling combat. Some people will still find these restrictions annoying, and I can’t blame them, but I actually enjoyed most of the combat situations. Besides this design choice, the game features a surprising amount of enemy variety; there are the basic enemies, a stronger version of them, a shield-bearing enemy alongside a stronger version of them, enemies that are faster and can fight from long range and enemies that are slow, but deadly. These are pretty standard variations, but Hellblade is not afraid to throw multiple enemies at you, of all variances, and those combat encounters are actually very good; when there is space to move and deal with these enemies in a strategic and fun way. Towards the end, there is a combat encounter that really frustrated me, due to the lack of space and I found it 5 times harder than anything before or after that, which was one of the few times the level design, frustrated me in Hellblade.
Speaking of the level design, for the most part its excellent; the levels are structured to allow exploration and a straightforward approach to them, minimizing back-tracking by warping back to where the player needs to be, as well as allowing for some secret areas to discover for those who want that. The design also adapts to the theme of each area in satisfying ways; the areas where you have to solve a puzzle, by aligning segments from a rune together, are more interesting to look at and have architecture elements to provide challenge, while areas where you have to make haste are structured like mazes, subtly guiding you to the correct path. Some of these areas are more rigidly structured which works well with the linearity of the game, however in certain circumstances, the level will feature both a combat encounter and an exploration opportunity, which was harmful to one of those, in some ways; either the combat encounter would feel too restrictive or the exploration would feel too open, allowing me to get lost or backtrack unnecessarily.
Finally, there is a strong puzzle element to the game, which was an overall positive experience, but not as high quality as other elements of the game. There are a few puzzle mechanics that lack any challenge, but are interesting visually and in the ways they are designed (such as walking through portals to change something in the environment), then there are puzzles that require you to find rune symbols in the world and focus on them to unlock the pathway to progress; these are the most common ones, and they are used in different context and design, some are really well done, and some are an interesting idea that does not work as well. They are all plagued by the same issue, which is that sometimes, you focus on what you are supposed to but the game won’t accept it, which leads you to micromanage movement so that you can hit the right spot. There are other kinds of puzzles, but I’ve found them to be a welcome surprise and don’t want to ruin them; all in all, the puzzle element is fine, but I wish it was better implemented and explored differently in some occasions.
As a small side note, one of the reasons I was hesitant in playing Hellblade, was the horror elements. If you pointed a gun at me and made me tell you my favorite movie genre, I would say “why are you pointing that gun at me, you crazy person? Okay, its horror movies”. You don’t have to point a gun at me to tell you that, the only games I actively avoid and have no interest in, are fighting and horror games; thus my hesitation in playing Hellblade. Having said that, I was not really scared when playing Hellblade, even with the headphones on; I did play in a brightly-lid room, but I never got the feeling that I was supposed to be scared either. I was anxious and nervous, and it was very clear that I was supposed to be, but I was never scared nor did I feel that there was intent to scare me. Thus, if you are worried about the horror elements of the game, as a genuine wimp when it comes to horror in video games, I would say that you should be fine.
I’ve seen a lot of the talk surrounding Hellblade’s success centered around their “independent AAA game” categorization and other controversies, including their portrayal of psychosis (some claiming that it was surprisingly realistic and refreshing, while others not appreciating it as much); and those are all valid points to focus on. I want to focus and, by proxy urge developers to focus, on Ninja Theory’s commitment to their work and taking advantage of the medium, to make the best possible end result. In Greek, the word for ‘entertainment’ is “ψυχαγωγία”, which literally translates to “the growth, training or expansion of the soul” (this is my translation, not an official one) and that’s how I consume a lot of entertainment; if it does not help the growth, training or expansion of my soul, then it is not worth my time. That does not mean that every game, movie, music, book or art piece should have a complex and deep narrative; mindless, dumb fun is just as important to the “entertainment” process as anything else, because if you can’t forget about, or take a break from, your real life, then the process becomes too tedious and counter-intuitive. However, the commitment from Ninja Theory, in creating a game that takes creative inspiration from a real-world issue and uses the medium’s strengths, to create a “proper” entertainment product that can immerse players in a different world, that is fun and engaging to interact with, but never forgets about its noble goal of showing and educating the player, on the real-life condition and the issues dealt with by those who have it, is something I would like to see more developers attempt. I’m not saying that all games have to do this; I still love Wolfenstein 2’s over-the-top sensibilities which use the medium’s unique capabilities, to deliver a different experience, or the ludo-narrative potential of games like Darkest Dungeon, or even the simple yet effective narratives of gameplay focused titles such as the Mario games. I just hope that, beyond the financial lessons developers can extract from the success of Hellblade, they can also find the strength to develop something as risky and as bold as Ninja Theory’s masterpiece, even if that means that they may fail or may piss off a lot of people. For now though, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice will have to suffice, for those looking for a masterpiece of that quality.