Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a genre-blending action and puzzle game developed and published by Ninja Theory. Originally out on PC and PS4 last year, the game has recently been ported to Xbox One. In it, the titular young Nordic woman finds herself coming to wits with a bad case of psychosis while trying to fight her way into the mythological dimension of Helheim in order to fulfill a promise. The game strongly encourages the user to play with headphones, as many recordings of people speaking to you using binaural audio techniques highlight the struggle Senua has against her own mind. In a time before mental illness was truly understood, you have to deal with voices that are constantly criticizing everything that you do while battling the Northmen who guard the realm in an immersive melee combat setup. The game put a lot of work into verifying the historical accuracy of the Norse Mythology being utilized along with having several medical professionals on board to accurately depict the psychosis. It’s an ambitious project from what used to be a AAA developer who decided to carve its own path on the game-o-sphere.
Dour and grim, the high fidelity graphics are exactly what you would expect out of a big budget game, only done on a much smaller scale. As a far more linear game, a lot of craftsmanship went into every location. This was especially important when various uses of lighting were implemented, having some sections make you navigate successfully from near pitch black environments to dark and stormy vistas and bright and sunny vales, and then swim in a terrifying river of blood. The Northmen NPCs who you fight all had a lot of care put into their design and animations, with enough detail to make them as imposing as they are every time you encounter them. And then there’s Senua herself, mo-capped and acted in the performance of a lifetime by Melina Jeurgens, whose motions and behavior are so jarringly true to life, it many times puts the big budget games to shame. The graphics never broke, the immersion was constant, and everything meshed perfectly.
It’s really hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it, so I’d prefer to just expound on the game description and what it means for the future. This game is a physical and emotional journey wherein the deeper and deeper Senua gets into Hell, the deeper and deeper her traumas manifest. The ending will give you some thinking to do with some final actions that may leave you puzzled, but that’s not all. Upon completion of the game, you are informed that if the game had any psychological impact on you, then they strongly recommended you to go to a website to either contact a hotline or take several brief mental health screenings (only one page of questions) for anxiety, depression, psychosis, eating disorders, and several others. It’s poignant that this game is boldly going places that other games only scraped the surface of (Get Even or Life is Strange come to mind). Plus in terms of the sheer intensity of the experience and the impression it leaves, I have to say that this is the true video game equivalent of Dante’s Inferno. That’s the book, not the game EA put out in 2010.
Another masterwork is the audio. As stated above, the game utilizes binaural sound in order for it to sound like there are voices talking to you in your head coming from any 360-degree point. Jeurgens herself nails every emotion and line the game gives her flawlessly. It’s one thing to be able to handle the script you are being given; it’s another thing to express every grunt, flail and scream with raw power every time. The sound design intertwines with the soundtrack, frequently warping ambient noise slowly into some roaring nordic chants and chamber orchestrals as if someone took the Skyrim soundtrack and then Hans Zimmer asked Satan himself to do a remix. Also of huge importance is hearing the voice of one of the antagonists, whose booming timbre comes in about a third of the way through the game to recite a soliloquy about Senua and the inevitable end of her journey. Truly a masterwork.
With nothing in the way of a HUD or tutorials, this game throws you in, but it’s easy enough to understand what you need to be doing to figure things out (And you can always just check the menu for key bindings). The immersion is great and requires you to listen to your surroundings while occasionally relying on the voices to help you, even if they sometimes lie. There are about 3 forms of gameplay: first, there is the melee combat in which you fight the Northmen, in a very satisfying and intense fashion with an automatic difficulty scaler that keeps the challenge just right, so that every encounter you get, you need to be at your best. Then, some levels have a gate with runes on them and the only way to unlock the gates is to find the runes in your surroundings, often using forced perspective or looking at certain objects at unique angles to find them. Finally, there are environmental puzzles where the challenge you must complete in order to continue isn’t always spelled out for you. All in all, the runes can sometimes be a pain but you will always eventually figure it out because the game helps you at least know where you need to be to find them. This game is one of the many new games out there that manages to find balance in using different forms and genres of gameplay that create a cohesive experience. Ever pushing you forward to fight nightmare after nightmare, this game can create a true force of willpower in the player, egging you on no matter how difficult or scary it gets.
The game never disappoints, is almost completely devoid of bugs and glitches (a couple major ones were fixed from the original launch) and just keeps you going forward, eager as ever to explore this horrendous land of anguish. The game isn’t ever outright a horror game and there are no cheap horror tricks employed throughout the length of the adventure. But it’s also hard to call this game fun. It is a game that will leave you in awe, dread, and discomfort. It might even evoke some self-discovery, again, as the game draws to a close. Overall, this game is a modern masterpiece that deserves to be played, but be prepared before doing so- it’s not easy to stomach some of the things you’ll see.
Very few games will be able to evoke what makes Hellblade such a good game, but this game along with several other unique experiences are paving the way to a new genre of gaming that far extends the “walking simulator” monicker of its predecessors. It’s also one of the greatest arguments for video games as independent works of art, as this experience would not be even close to the experience if put onto any other medium. Unless you are particularly squeamish, do not pass off on this game. And of course, if you yourself feel in the grips of mental distress, a game like this may offer you a new perspective on your whole life.
In this waking nightmare where all dreams come true, you searched for control. A way to pull through. When you were in love you left him in tears. To smother your furies and banish your fears. But in darkness they came, through stormy black seas, they raided these shores. Do you still hear his screams? And now that you’re home he’s so far away. They’ve taken his soul. To these gods you cannot pray. They can break you, but not your promise. Even death won’t keep you apart. Through this darkness, you will find him. In your sword still beats a heart. You fought for love unspoiled. By your darkness within. You fought for your dreams, now there is no way to win. In the head of his corpse lies the seat of his soul. So you must carry his vessel and bring him back home.