Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
After nearly a lifetime of playing video games I’ve become numb to the promises of upcoming games. So when I heard Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice promised to deliver a character driven story with themes of mental illness I was intrigued but expecting disappointment.
Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.
Developed and published by studio Ninja Theory (DMC, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Heavenly Sword), Hellblade pushes the limit of the “indie” label through incredible atmosphere, motion capture and storytelling. The $30 price matches a well-paced playtime of about 6-8 hours through forbidden and forgotten places.
Hellblade sees the eponymous Senua through a quest to bring back her lost love Dillion. A world of empty ruined beauty, there is little comfort found in the environments that Senua passes through. There is even less comfort found in her own mind, as Senua is afflicted with voices that constantly speak to her, whispering things both helpful and harmful as the quest progresses. Their endless banter is unsettling and annoying in a way that brings home what it is like within the confines of Senua’s mind. Headphones are highly recommended and I’d argue even mandatory to fully capture the whispers of the voices as they speak into one ear and then the other.
As Senua travels the voices describe her ability to see patterns in the air, often taking the shape of Elder Futhark runes. This ability becomes the cornerstone of the puzzle solving in the game as Senua must match runes to similar natural shapes in the environment. While some could certainly find issue with the amount of these puzzles I found their nuance and clever solutions as a welcome addition. Additionally they’re made easier to spot by the appearance of runes in the air when Senua approaches the solution of the current puzzle.
Along with the puzzles Senua must also use her sword to advance. Battles in Hellblade are deliberate and visceral affairs against primal looking Norse enemies wrapped in bone and wicker armor. Though it should be no surprise coming from a studio like Ninja Theory, the combat feels solid and a perfect fit for the game. Senua has quick, brutal moves and reacts to damage with a face that hallmarks some of the best motion capture I’ve seen in a game. Later on things can become slightly repetitive however as encounters become overly long against an admittedly small variety of enemies. Changing your locked enemy can also be difficult in busy encounters and in one arena the camera was obfuscated by a piece of environment.
But if you’re playing Hellblade you’re here for story, not puzzles and combat. Thankfully the story is where Hellblade shines the most, eclipsing any issues with the gameplay itself. It’s difficult to tell very much without spoiling the story but Senua’s path to discover and come to terms with her past and present are done in a way both meaningful and respectful to the themes Ninja Theory was trying to display. Different areas represent specific parts of memories and thoughts, with the gameplay advancing forward as Senua reaches backward into her mind.
Considering the asking price this game is a must-buy for anyone looking for an involving story that manages to be both unsettling and fulfilling. While the accuracy of Senua’s mental illness may be discussed in a later article, it feels natural and fitting in the gameplay as presented. An incredible entry for either a new franchise or a new trend for established studios to fully and independently design their own creative visions.
I’ll close with a quote Dillion, spoken to Senua in a memory she recalls along her quest. It fully captures the theme of Hellblade in only a few words.
“The hardest battles are fought in the mind, not with the sword.”
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Considering the asking price this game is a must-buy for anyone looking for an involving story that manages to be both unsettling and fulfilling.