For the first time, I’m hesitant in how I approach an article. I feel odd saying that I enjoyed a game that is centered around the protagonist’s struggle with trauma and mental illness. But, well…I did. I’ll try my best to walk through my feelings about this game in a way that won’t get me flamed.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows the journey of a young Celtic warrior named Senua as she makes her way to the depths of Helheim (Viking hell) in a desperate attempt to recover the soul of her murdered lover. For plot, that’s more or less it. Senua, however, suffers from psychosis, which given the state of medical knowledge at the time is deemed to be a curse. This led to mistreatment and trauma in her youth at the hands of her father and people, which only made her condition worse. Ninja Theory, the developer, went to great lengths to portray elements of psychosis in the game in order to communicate this kind of experience to the player. As a quick caveat, I’m not going to comment on whether or not they nailed that. I don’t know enough about psychosis, and trolling Wikipedia for information does not, in my opinion, qualify me to offer an opinion on that.
The way they incorporated it, however, was damned impressive. Right from the beginning, as you follow Senua while she rides a hollowed out log towards the entrance to Helheim, you’re greeted by one of many voices who will follow you for the length of the journey. This is a game that absolutely must be played with headphones to get the full experience, and I would heavily advocate for playing it on the PC… if your setup can handle it. My computer is pretty decent but it struggled with the highest graphics settings. Anyway, if you’re playing this with a headset on you actually get the experience of different voices whispering inside your head. This is almost constant, sometimes with the voices taunting and mocking Senua, sometimes confused and asking questions, or occasionally trying to be helpful. While in combat they tend to be the most useful, shouting a warning when an enemy is about to get the drop on you.
Perception is also a huge part of it. The game alternates between puzzles and combat and almost all of the puzzles are based on ‘seeing’ things differently. The most common theme involves aligning specific Viking runes with shapes in the environment that match. There are a variety of others, but almost all of based on Senua’s perception of the world around her. Many of them involve hallucinations or shifts in the environment depending on what is happening at the time. One puzzle that occurs later in the game has you dropped into a pitch black area with your vision hazy and limited to only a foot or so in front of you. Guided by the voices, you have to make your way through buildings, water and woods, trying to be as quiet as possible while misshapen creatures shuffle around you. It’s an absolutely nerve-wracking experience. The tension you feel during the puzzles and trials later in the game is palpable.
So let’s take a look at the gameplay. For the most part, the world is fairly linear with minimal need to explore. Having been trained too well in other games, during the first hour or so of play I spent a lot of time hunting into every nook and cranny for potential secrets without finding anything. There are a number of runestones scattered throughout the route that will provide some information on Viking mythology, and unlocking all of those will provide an additional ending scene, but they aren’t (mostly) difficult to find. The environments are amazing throughout and the graphics and music are very well done, which was impressive given that the game was done solely by Ninja Theory with a fairly small development team.
Combat was interesting. It isn’t overly complicated, consisting of a dodge, block, heavy strike and quick attack. A little farther into the game, you gain the ability to ‘focus’ which will slow time for your opponents while allowing you to score multiple hits on them. This will be a key factor in winning battles and its availability is indicated by the runes on the mirror Senua carries. Most of the enemies are undead Vikings or their mythology figures. The first ones you run into are fairly easy to dispatch, but the difficulty ramps up as newer and more intelligent enemies show up, usually in groups of two or three. Like I mentioned the voices are actually helpful here, warning you when a foe is spawning in behind you or is about to strike. Battle isn’t quite as unforgiving as I was expecting from the details I read about the game though. Senua can only take three hits before going into a weakened state, but the enemies are very telegraphed and if you can use her ‘focus’ ability you’ll be back to normal when it wears off.
Senua’s Sacrifice was an impressive offering, and the developer made a thorough and earnest effort to accurately represent psychosis, so while I will not comment on the success or failure, I do applaud the effort, especially considering the sensitive nature of the topic. If this does help in some way to raise awareness for a very real problem that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, that will be awesome. I do strongly recommend this game, it was worth it and then some.
Have you played Hellblade? If so, what did you think about it? And if not, does this sound like something you’d be interested in? How do you feel about what Ninja Theory was trying to do with this game? I’d love to know. Drop a comment below if you feel so inclined, and as always, happy gaming everyone. Have a great holiday season!