Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that take a lot of risks, exploring themes that might be considered taboo to talk about, and that many developers and publishers would shy away from. Having partnered with various publishers over the years, Ninja Theory are stepping forward with this self-published title, showing the confidence to do justice to these topics as well as in video games as a medium to explore them in.
While there certainly is a historical edge to the narrative as Senua journeys through Norse mythology – specifically Hel – to bring back her deceased friend, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is more of a character study. Senua suffers from a heavy case of psychosis, causing her to hear voices in her head and hallucinate constantly. It makes for great visual effects that can appear suddenly, which in a game as stunning to look at as Hellblade is certainly striking.
Mental conditions are something seldom talked about in our culture, or at the very least seen as something to “overcome”. Hellblade puts this front and centre as a part of Senua’s character and, for someone who’s never been exposed to psychosis before, it’s unnerving. There are times where you will second guess yourself as to what you have heard, what the intentions are of the voices, and just what is going on.
Ninja Theory mentioned in the accompanying documentary that they were keen to collaborate with those who have psychosis to try and accurately depict the condition in videogame form. The visions and audio depicted here are most certainly enlightening for those who don’t have psychosis, and if the reactions from those with psychosis in the documentary is anything to go by, accurate.
As for how that translated into the game, it gives a creepy atmosphere the entire time that more than once made me question my own senses. Eyeballs on trees that vanish, the odd flickering of torches; each act has its own twist as well, such as using perspective to hide paths through gates or seeing blazing infernos that aren’t really there.
Puzzles within this setting are mostly well crafted. You’ll often be trying to decipher where runes are replicated in the scenery, as well as finding hidden pathways and even a few stealth sections. All of these puzzles feel purposefully misleading at times, thanks to Senua’s condition, but also makes them possible thanks to the unique way she perceives things. It’s the best bit of the game and changes constantly depending on her state of mind at any given moment.
The only objectively bad things about the game are that the end feels drawn out and that a section in which Senua has to run away from a thing hiding in the shadows has the tendency to not give you enough distance before she is instantly killed. In all the time I played the game, this was the only place I died and it was multiple times in one section, either because I couldn’t see or couldn’t get to the light in time. It’s a very short segment of the game, but it stood out.
Combat is often one of the strongest parts of Ninja Theory’s games, but there’s a different tone to Hellblade and its combat is based on how well you can react to a potential pummelling or timing your blocks correctly. On the surface it’s not the flashy combat we typically get from Ninja Theory, instead opting for a more visceral approach where each blow landed looks like it hurts. Senua will eventually gain the ability to slow down time for a short period, in addition to improved attack strength and being able to hit things she otherwise would not be able to touch.
If there’s a major case for why Hellblade does such a good job of incorporating psychosis in a meaningful way, it’s the fact the voices in her head warn her when she’s about to be hit from behind, affording her the opportunity to block. It shows Senua using her condition to her advantage in certain scenarios, something that’s seldom ever seen. Her psychosis is not something she’s actively trying to cure, rather something that she accepts as a part of her and can be used to help her. It’s such a simple distinction, but it’s incredibly effective.
In fact the only slightly lacking part of combat is the enemy variety. Once you get towards the end, you’ll be fighting gauntlets of upwards of around 15 enemies in a single encounter. Granted, no more than three or four show up in normal battles at a time, but when it’s the same five or so enemies showing up, things do get slightly repetitive once you’ve worked out the way to beat them.
One thing that had me curious was a message near the beginning that said that a curse had afflicted Senua and that every time she died, the curse would take more of a hold. Should it get to that point, all your progress will be lost and the game save will be deleted. There’s a visual representation of this as the black mark creeps up her arm, but in my playthrough – despite one particular section – I never got to the stage where this black mark reached her head. It’s not that Hellblade is easy, just that there’s ways to avoid death such as rolling out of danger when knocked down.
For those looking for replayability, there are various points where focusing in will allow one of Senua’s voices, Druth, to share his knowledge of Norse mythology. Given that Senua is from Orkney and her culture is predominantly Celtic, the stories of Norse mythology initially seem out of place, except for the fact she is venturing into unknown territory. Across each point there is a tracker to tell you which ones have been collected, which persist through subsequent playthroughs, which is a handy touch for the completionists among you.
Even when playing on the standard PlayStation 4, Hellblade looks ridiculously good, seemingly running at 1080p at 30FPS. Controls are responsive enough at this resolution to not be much of a problem, but those with PS4 Pro will be able to choose between either enhanced resolution or 60FPS. PC owners should get even better performance.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a profound sensual experience that’s unmissable. The way it highlights psychosis and incorporates it isn’t just a part of the aesthetic, but it also makes for fascinating gameplay. This is a phenomenal achievement for the discussion of mental health that we’ll be talking about for years to come.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4