Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of my favourite games of this year, an experience which I found profoundly distressing, anxiety inducing and, ultimately, hugely moving. I’m very fond of Ninja Theory; I loved the underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the criminally unfairly treated DmC: Devil May Cry. Hellblade is something else entirely though, telling a story in a way that could not be done in any other medium and exploring themes almost any major game studio would either never touch, or do so in the shallowest and most exploitative ways.
Senua is a young Pict woman whose partner dies, prompting her to journey to an underworld based on Norse and Celtic mythology to rescue the soul of her lover. However, Senua suffers from what modern doctors would call psychosis, constantly hounded by voices whispering in her head.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the best depiction of mental illness I’ve ever seen in a game, or possibly any medium. Psychosis is a complex condition and Ninja Theory resisted painting it simply. Mental illness in games is often exploited as an excuse to have a character behave in an outrageous way; GTAV’s Trevor Phillips is the first example which comes to mind, but gaming is littered with, usually male, characters like this. Hellblade does not glorify mental illness, far from it. This game is very distressing; my wife had to actually leave the room and her tolerance for horror is far above mine. It is emotionally intense in a way few games are. A lot of the reason for this is how incredibly good the animation for Senua’s face is; during cutscenes the camera will usually pan around and focus on her expressions, with the camera usually from the perspective of whoever is speaking to her, giving the impression that Senua is talking directly to us. The haunted look in her eyes is utterly believable, and when her face crumples in extreme anguish it’s almost unbearable to watch. If you cannot be captured by Senua I don’t think you have a heart; I wanted nothing else but for her to find some kind of peace. The writing, combined with stunning visuals and sound design conspire to make Hellblade one of the most engaging game narratives I’ve ever come across.
The core gameplay matches the story very well. Although much of the game involves walking through stunning environments, Hellblade is no walking simulator. The combat is excellent, heavy and intense. The battle system is fairly simple, based around light and heavy sword strikes along with block breaking kicks, as well as parries, dodges and dashes. There’s a sense of real danger in the combat and it captures the sense of weight and tension which pervades the story brilliantly; no ludo-narrative dissonance here! Fighting multiple enemies is dangerous, with the camera saying fairly tightly to Senua meaning that strikes from behind, out of sight, are common. This would normally be infuriating in almost any other game, but before being hit one of Senua’s voices will warn her and you can attempt a last minute dodge. It’s shouldn’t surprise me that the developers of the excellent (shut up it was) DmC would nail melee combat, but it’s rare to see something so clearly built to deliver narrative to also be so satisfying from a purely mechanical perspective.
The other part of the gameplay lies with the puzzles, which many seem to have disliked but I wasn’t particularly bothered by. You will regularly come across doors locked by strange runes; you must then wander the environment trying to find something in the shape of the rune, which you can then ‘focus’ on, unlocking the door. I know this sounds pretty awful, but in reality the environmental design is strong enough that I didn’t spend long wandering around aimlessly. Sometimes you need to manipulate the environment to create the rune shape, such as a torch casting a shadow. There are other sections with different mechanics at play, such as a stealth section and one involving switching between two different time periods/ The puzzling is simple, but satisfying. They’re not the most memorable aspect of the game, but they didn’t bother me and were actually sometimes quite fun.
Ninja Theory have referred to this game as a AAA indie; a shorter, more experimental game made with the same production values and aesthetics of a AAA game. I love this idea and would like to see it explored further. Games with simpler visuals and sound can, of course, still be emotionally resonant. I remember being reduced to a blubbery mess by Thomas Was Alone where the main characters are quadrilaterals. However, it’s difficult to deny that Hellblade would not be as successful at achieving what it sets out to do if it’s visuals were not so stunning. The environments are stunning, sometimes beautiful, particularly early on, but descending into truly nightmarish as the experience carries on. As mentioned above, it is the facial animation for Senua which truly elevates the experience and allows her to stand as one of my favourite game protagonists of all time. I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to audio, but even I could tell how good the sound design was, with the constant whispering of the voices and the gently haunting soundtrack perfectly capturing Senua’s descent into her own personal hell. I think Hellblade is a game which would have been make or break depending on the level of polish, with no distractions of irritations to take away from the impressive story woven here.
As you can probably tell, I loved Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It provided one of the most genuinely profound gaming experiences of my life, with a kick-ass combat system to boot. I cannot recommend it more highly.