Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Review
As someone all too familiar with the trauma and anguish of mental illness and the lasting effects that said illness can have on a person’s well-being, Ninja Theory’s intimate story of one warrior’s struggles with the life-altering condition will, for many, hit uncomfortably close to home all-too-frequently. Yet despite that uncomfortable familiarity, it’s the developer’s creativity, boldness and sensitivity to a fragile subject matter affecting millions of people around the world each day that makes Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice such a special entity. Moreover, it’s a captivating experience you’ll want to savour from beginning to end.
Steeped in Norse and Celtic mythology, Hellblade tells the remarkable story of Senua, a warrior from the legendary Pict tribe, who after being outcasted from her tribe because of an illness, must embark on a vision quest through the nightmarish Viking underworld of Helheim in a bid to save her dead lover Dillion’s soul after he is used as a sacrifice by the Vikings to the goddess Hela. More than a simple tragic tale of Senua’s plight to rescue her lost lover’s spirit, Hellblade also doubles as a metaphor for the effects of psychosis, a condition with which our hero is horribly afflicted.
Outcasted by her own tribe because of her ‘darkness’ and consumed by inner voices and horrific hallucinations, Senua’s quest is as much about conquering the demons inside her own head as it is about saving Dillion’s soul, a dual premise that makes Hellblade a compelling prospect. Of course, handling a delicate condition widely perceived by many as taboo required a mindful approach from the developer, but with Ninja Theory’s care and thorough research of psychosis including collaborations with long-time sufferers of the condition and University of Cambridge Professor, Paul Fletcher, comes something extraordinary and refreshingly honest – the result: a beautifully crafted work of art and sound that is one part absorbing and the harrowingly real.
A victim of her own vision; upon arriving at her destination, Senua’s perception of the land of the Vikings is a twisted hellscape: an eerie fusion of terrifying atmosphere, ungodly imagery and eye-catching views of a derelict apocalyptic-like landscape that plays home to the villainous Northmen, a group of villagers who appear to our hero as terrifying black manifestations with animal skulls for heads that serve only to stand in the hero’s path like a gauntlet of horrors. The contrasting colours of Hellblade‘s Dark Souls-like environment’s lend to the game’s surreal sense of space exceptionally well. Furthermore, those areas enveloped in almost complete darkness are infrequently broken by momentary glimpses of light or vibrant colour that appear to Senua as nothing more than a memory such as a picturesque sun-drenched day on a field with colourful flowers and a large green tree, only reinforcing the characters internal sensory struggle.
Taking everything you’ve read into account you could be easily forgiven for thinking that the main character wouldn’t be in the best frames of mind to take on a set of physically and mentally demanding trials, but rather than weaken or keep her a prisoner of her own mind, her condition acts as the catalyst for true strength, and because of that very reason, Senua is the real star of Hellblade. Courageous, gutsy, determined, fearless; the list of superlatives you could use to describe the hero’s character traits is seemingly neverending. A pariah consumed by the darkness inside her head, Senua finds courage where she ought not to, finding strength where others would eventually falter and fall. Her sheer will and fortitude to complete the arduous quest she embarks on through the nightmarish underworld of the Northmen makes Senua one of the most instantly relatable and likeable characters of any video game in any genre.
Bringing the realism of Senua to life is Melina Juergen, whose emotionally invoking performance as the afflicted warrior would be worthy of an Oscar nod if Hellblade were a film, which at times, it feels like it could very well be. Thanks to Ninja Theory’s one take approach to the development of Senua’s Sacrifice, stunning live-action cinematic cutscenes transition in and out of gameplay by clever design that doesn’t disturb the immersion of the narrative one bit, but in fact, elevates it to new heights. Juergen’s raw yet utterly powerful performance as Senua and Hellblade‘s environmental work help bring this idea to life in such a way that it’s hard to know when gameplay has paused for the start of a cutscene.
Another wonderful facet of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the games audio work, which alone deserves its own plaudits. As part of her condition, Senua doesn’t merely experience horrid hallucinations, a lot of what is conveyed to the hero during her maddened quest to save Dillion’s soul comes from a delightful piece of audio work that’ll have multiple voices fighting amongst themselves, frequently scratching at the very fabric of Senua’s disturbed mind. Motivating, encouraging, warning, worrying; the conflicting voices inside Senua’s head work exceptionally well as a tool used to constantly torment both character and player, a torment which is made all the more effective with the inclusion of a pair of headphones that’ll draw the player in even further.
In spite of its irrefutable beauty, stellar audio work and powerful ensemble of cast performances though, Hellblade‘s gameplay doesn’t always live up to its other accomplishments. Although it’s plainly evident that Ninja Theory has poured a lot of love into creating an intimate and powerfully evoking experience, areas of combat in the games early stages aren’t nearly as engaging or taxing as it might have been. Because of that, Hellblade‘s opening combat utilises a simple yet effective set of techniques that won’t ultimately hold the player back for too long. Armed with only a heavy, quick and melee attack, dash and block; the arsenal of combat at Senua’s disposal is enough to make light work of early enemies as the hero squares off against lone Northmen or enemies arriving in small groups of 2’s and 3’s. Whilst Hellblade‘s early battles feel more like a distraction from an otherwise compelling experience, it evolves beautifully later on to become something far more engaging and intense.
In its later stages, Hellblade will work the player over a lot harder than previously mentioned, and it’s only then that the simple early approach to combative techniques truly pays dividends. Groups of Northmen, each easily distinguishable from the last arrive in much larger groups and body size, and rather than lie in wait as Senua takes on one at a time, will attack the player from a variety of blindspots. It’s in moments like this where the player can chain attacks together to begin a combo or continue fighting an enemy head-on by blocking incoming attacks from behind to buy themselves some time to finish off an enemy. There are no tutorials to assist the player, however, the voices inside Senua’s head will alert the hero of an imminent attack, giving the player just enough time to counter before stringing together a set of impressive attacks to devastating effect. Battles evolve from arguably tepid encounters into intense drawn out fights where you’ll need your wits about you to survive an onslaught of Northmen. Additionally, as Hellblade story grows, Senua will learn the gift of focus, a handy tool to use in battle as it affords the hero the chance to temporarily slow down time to allow the warrior space and time to get around the side of larger enemies with wooden shields or larger weapons.
Like combat, focus can be used to great effect when solving Hellblade‘s collection of puzzles, which similar to its early tentative and simplistic scraps, go on to become a key focal point of the game’s core mechanics. Senua’s quest isn’t just about trials of strength, but also of the mind, which is showcased perfectly as the warrior encounters Valravn, a slim in stature boss who uses the art of illusion to lose Senua in her attempts to hunt the infamous trickster down. To reach and defeat the elusive, Valravn, Senua must work her way through an elaborate maze of hidden pathways and ever-changing perspectives which can be every bit intriguing as it is perplexing. Rather than throw boss after boss at Senua, Hellblade wants the player to earn the right to face each particular one, whether that’s hunting down a mischievous trickster, navigating complete darkness using only the gentle sounds of environmental noises for a guide or altering a world from past to present and vice versa using a mask in order to solve a puzzle, the intelligent and intricate design of Hellblade‘s puzzles makes each as interesting as the last.
Much of what you see or hear on Senua’s journey is crafted to give you a better understanding of how Senua perceives the world around her as the heroine battles her inner demons. Every vision, every sound, acts as an intricate or elaborate way of allowing us to feel exactly what it’s like to be Senua, and in that respect, it couldn’t be more real. With one of the strongest pieces of storytelling I’ve ever experienced and a wealth of lore thanks to an assortment of runic stones offering tales of Odin, and Norse mythology, Hellblade is an absorbing adventure that immerses the player in both narrative and environment, but more than that, its lead character, who rightfully steals the show. Conclusion
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t arguably Ninja Theory’s biggest game to date, but it may very well be the studios most effective yet. The story of Senua’s quest to save her dead lover’s soul while battling the darkness inside of her is a deeply affecting one that draws you in with its absorbing nature and seldom lets go. Portrayed brilliantly by Melina Juergen, Senua is an instantly relatable character who you’ll want to root for as the protagonist battles evil manifestations and her own demons on a quest of personal interest. Hellblade‘s beautifully paced story will put you in the shoes of a character battling a harrowing condition that is accompanied perfectly by the games stirring environments, powerful audio work and simple puzzle and combat mechanics. Senua’s Sacrifice won big at the recent BAFTA Game Awards and on this evidence, it’s not too difficult to see why.