Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a groundbreaking achievement. Ninja Theory has somehow managed to tell a personal story through the eyes of someone suffering from psychosis, a terrifying mental disorder where its victims suffer from hallucinations and hear voices in their head among other things. It’s a terrifying experience and its depiction in Hellblade is one I will surely never forget.
Hellblade follows Senua on her journey to save the soul of her love Dillion from Hel: the Norse Mythological version of Hell. I won’t say much more about the story as it may potentially spoil your enjoyment, but suffice to say, Senua’s journey is a harrowing and terrifying one. A journey that had me questioning everything I was encountering and seeing.
Senua’s disorder is depicted in multiple ways throughout her journey, both from a visual standpoint and also through the fantastic sound design. The visuals in Hellblade are quite stunning. The landscapes vary from desolate beaches to destroyed villages as well as some beautiful flower meadows. Though it’s mostly dark and gloomy, Ninja Theory has somehow found a way to make it beautiful but terrifying all at the same time. Senua’s hallucinations also play a key role in messing with your perception, especially when it comes to the game’s many puzzles.
Depicting Senua’s mental disorder couldn’t be done without the amazing performance by Melina Juergens. Her efforts in the role are not only incredible but could even give Academy Award nominees a run for their money. It’s not just her performance that’s stunning either; all of the game’s animation work is superbly crafted and shines through consistently through the adventure.
As I mentioned above, the sound design in Hellblade is probably one of the best i’ve heard. Sound plays a key role in everything that transpires throughout Senua’s journey. One of Senua’s afflictions are the voices that haunt her, constantly whispering in her head, providing clues to solving puzzles, and even aiding our heroine in combat. The voices are persistent and never really go away, some judging Senua, mocking her, while others try and help, providing her with courage and hope. As such, I can’t stress enough how much playing the game with surround sound or headphones will enhance your experience. Being able to hear what Senua hears on a constant basis is just another way that Ninja Theory manages to draw you into the experience.
Senua’s psychosis also plays into the combat and exploration of Hellblade. Most of my time with Hellblade was spent solving puzzles. While exploring her surroundings, Senua must solve trials placed by the gods in order to prove herself. Most of the puzzles will involve you having to manipulate your surroundings by creating specific symbols by aligning objects in the environment around you such as trees and shadows to create the symbol you need. Others have you moving from past to present of a location to unlock pathways. There are many other unique instances but some may feel that the puzzles overshadow the rest of game, and none of them are really that difficult to solve.
Ninja Theory is known for crafting some brilliant combat mechanics, with titles like Heavenly Sword and DMC: Devil May Cry showcasing their talents to full effect. With Hellblade, Ninja Theory took a step back and created a simpler combat system but still managed to keep it entertaining and fresh with each new encounter. Mixing the traditional light and heavy attack combo system, Senua is able to dodge attacks, stun her enemies, block, and parry attacks.
The camera in Hellblade is constantly over Senua’s shoulder and never cuts way, even for cutscenes. Due to viewpoint, one might assume combat would be a frustrating mess, but because of the game’s brilliant sound design it works out beautifully. During combat the “voices” help Senua with any incoming attacks from her surrounding, so you’re never feeling to overwhelmed.
When an enemy is about to strike from behind the voices will scream telling her to dodge out of the way or block. They will even help you find weaknesses of the different enemies you encounter. There is one boss in particular that forces you to listen to the sounds it makes to find out when and where it’s about to attack you from. Another neat feature of the combat is Senua’s ability to focus her mind and slow down enemies putting her in a somewhat “bullet state” mode.
Indeed, every time I felt the combat descending into monotony, Hellblade managed to introduce a new enemy that required me to use a new strategy to defeat. This was even more evident in the great boss fights that utilized Senua’s psychosis in order to defeat them.
Unfortunately, outside of the main campaign there really isn’t much else to do in Hellblade. There aren’t any side-quests or any real collectables to find and really no reason to go back to the game unless you just want to experience the story again. There are monuments that you can interact with where you will learn more about Norse Mythology, and interestingly, I learned more about this topic playing Hellblade then I ever did in ten years of schooling.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a haunting journey through Viking infested lands seen through the eyes of a mentally disturbed individual. Its use of psychosis can be seen in all aspects of the game. Overall, Hellblade is an incredible achievement that I just wish would have lasted longer.