A story about one character’s descent into madness and rising above it. This is the central theme around Ninja Theory‘s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Set in the time of the Celtic Pict, the game follows the story of Senua and her journey in saving her love. While also overcoming ancient powers and most of all her psychosis. A dark tale woven within the threads of Norse mythology comes one of 2017’s true treasures.
Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice Review
A Mental Journey to Darkness
Hellblade truly leaves the player in a state of vulnerability. However, it doesn’t do that with visual traps or even difficult enemies, but instead by using audio. The game is set up with binaural audio. This practice allows the actors to record audio that implicates the voices are all around you, instead of one place. Making you hear the voices in her head, and feel her distress every step of the adventure.
Furthermore, the voice that narrates Senua’s journey is like an unseen apparition. Causing the player to question what’s being said, much like Senua does. This is where the game shines. Senua travels to Hel in hopes of saving the soul of her lover. Her journey is the stuff of nightmares, which delves into her inner suffering and abuse caused by her psychosis. The voices in her head are not of one person, but of many. They each fight and criticize her through her journey. Creating turmoil that manifests into the many trials she faces. With each trial being a different test of acceptance.
Balanced Combat with Paranoia
Senua is a warrior of great skill. She isn’t a damsel in distress and refuses to back down. Making each battle captivating and immersive. Her darkness is her turmoil, which in turn manifests into the dreaded Northmen. Savage men that have a bloodlust and will stop at nothing to quench it. Although, Senua has great advantages with her nimbleness and quick response time. Not to mention, the voices in her head also help in battle by shouting anxiously when a deadly blow approaches.
Adding to the atmosphere I spoke of earlier, is the sense of paranoia as Senua fights through each battle and trial. There’s also a legitmate fear of the corruption progressing within her. Due to the threat of darkness overcoming Senua. The game makes this more real for players by threatening that they can lose all saved progress, if her arm goes totally dark. (Don’t worry, you don’t actually ever lose your save.) However, it serves the purpose of feeling Senua’s emotional state.
Senua suffers through her mental illness in every part of the game. How the game addresses the theme of the “hardest battles fought, are those of the mind.” Thus the reason for the voices and the paranoia. If they can overtake Senua, they can also overtake you in real life as well. Making you think about these same serious themes is just one way Hellblade grab’s your attention.
The Runes are the Key
Hellblade does an amazing job at creating difficult puzzles by using the environment. The doors Senua must unlock contain the keys to the runes she keeps in her mind. These runes are found naturally throughout the level map. Taking shape in the shadows, broken down buildings, and even in sacrifices made by the Northmen. However, the puzzles aren’t just limited to locked doors. They differ with each boss trial. For example, when going against Valravyn, the god of illusion, Senua has to go through portals that change with the landscape. Once Senua completes a trial, she gains an ability. Like her focus ability, which clears Senua’s mind and slows down time in combat.
These Runes also serve the dual purpose of telling the story of the Northmen. Drud, who also suffers from metal illness, guides Senua along her journey to Hel with his stories. These stories are based on Norse mythology, teaching Senua not just the culture of the Northmen, but also about her darkness. Players who seek out and find all of the Northmen’s lodestones, are treated to a secret ending to the game as well.
An accurate and strong account of mental illness
An amazing and powerful story
Hack-and-slash combat that’s immersive
Puzzles that are enjoyable and well balanced
Overall Score: 10 Out of 10. Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice is a beautiful game that accurately captures the depths of mental illness. The game doesn’t sugarcoat the constant paranoia and overwhelming presence that psychosis causes. It also captures the them of being unaccepted, with Senua dealing with emotional and physical abuse from the people around her. The puzzles and combat behind the game are an emotional roller coaster.
Even if you aren’t pulled in by the amazing sound direction and serious themes, the combat and puzzles are enough for anyone to give it a try. For me, this was a highly enjoyable game from beginning to end. Ninja Theory took a chance in telling Senua’s story, and they nailed it.
Writer’s Note: If you, or a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, please seek help. You are never alone and the stigma of mental illness is slowly disappearing as more and more people become informed.