Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review
A gripping journey into Helheim and the mindset of the less mentally sound
Throughout my 8 hour journey I became emotionally drained. Tired. On edge. But I wanted to keep going, to see what was next. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a psychological horror action-adventure and follows the story of Senua, a Celtic warrior who suffers from a mental condition, on her quest into the underworld, to save her dead partner.
Hellblade is a departure from Ninja-Theory’s usual action-adventure games; combat is more claustrophobic, with close camera angles shoehorned into specific, small arenas. You can’t simply pull out a sword at any stage; Senua will automatically un-sheath it in certain areas. Moments later, an attack comes. There isn’t much time to react in most encounters.
Combat is not the main focus though. Throughout the entire game Senua’s cheered on, mocked and helped by the voices in her head — the game encourages you to play with headphones on to get the best experience. If you play Hellblade, do this. A bi-directional microphone was used to record the voices, which vary in tone, volume and location delivering a spectrum from hard to make out, to frighteningly loud and shrill. While this sounds gimmicky Hellblade deals with mental issues sensitively. Senua doesn’t contract a mental illness part way through the game as a trope; she suffers from the start.
The game comes with a short documentary which discusses the research Ninja-Theory conducted on mental health, which involved interviewing neuroscientists and those unfortunate enough to suffer from mental conditions. Watch it. But only after finishing the game. I genuinely felt overwhelmed at times by the shear amount of voices and noise in my head. They’re. Constantly. There.
I did eventually get used to the voices but some still caught me off guard. I didn’t ever know if they wanted me to succeed or fail. Even in some later sections, where I’d already failed and knew what to expect, the games sound design still managed to shock me just at much, to the point I had to take my headphones off once.
A narrator, delivers the majority of the story, the rest is presented through a series of other voices and flashbacks. It starts out vague; you’re told Hellblade is a story of Senua’s quest and death. Throughout her journey, Senua’s backstory and quest is drip-fed. It’s delivery was effective. The only exception is at the start, where the game tells you if you die too many times, your save will be deleted. This mechanic polarised other critics, but adds to the dread of dying.
Senua gets infected with a curse, which starts at her hand and spreads further towards her head anytime you die. If the curse reaches there — it’s game over, no continues. Back to the beginning. This mechanic never became an issue in my playthough, the thought of failing too many times was there throughout the story.
On top of the main story-line there are various, collectable, rune stones to find throughout the game, which tell a Norse tale. They act much like voice logs do and carry on playing while doing other things. But they can get interrupted. If you activate one while the narrator is speaking, the rune’s story won’t start until the narrator stops, this is a nice touch. They will however play over and fade out other voices, which can get a tad annoying when trying to work out what they’re saying.
Runes and symbols also make up the puzzle aspects of Hellblade. Between the story and combat you’re presented with a variety of puzzles, which increase in difficulty as the game progresses. One of the main puzzle types involves finding symbols in the environment, by manipulating camera angles. Some of the more interesting puzzles involve finding and passing though gates, which change the environment slightly. Another takes you between alternative versions of the same environment; I really liked the variety, as constantly finding symbols can quickly become tiring on its own.
Generally, if you’re stuck on a puzzle, or where to go, some voices will give you hints. While Hellblade doesn’t pressure you to finish puzzles quickly, a few really limit your time to solve them. One section, in the latter part of game, you must venture though some areas in the dark, take too long, and you die. While the story fully explains the reasoning, it has to be the most frustrating part of Hellblade. At the same time it was one of the more intense areas — I guess partly due to the fear of losing all progress.
Colourful imagery complements all of the puzzles; walking into a symbols rough location fills the screen with miniature luminescent versions of it. This really aids some of the more tedious feeling sections — not everyone will enjoy going crazy manipulating the environment to match symbols. Without hints, you could spend hours wandering around looking at trees, shadows and everything in-between, trying to find a symbol; this doesn’t mean puzzles can be immediately cracked when signs say you’re close, areas are still big enough to make you hunt.
It’s the environments though that really make the game feel stunning. Even the ‘grey’ sections have a spectacular look to them. I spent a while watching the virtual waves crash onto the shoreline and wash back out. Some of the later areas, such as the River of Blood were so colourful and too verbose to describe. The River of Blood seemed to be a major area for battle.
Senua’s move-set is fairly simple; she has both a light and heavy attack, along with dodge and block. She also gains a ‘focus’ ability later in the game, which recharges over time. Activating focus slows some enemies and allows you to attack others who have phased out.
To start with, I found combat extremely easy, but as the number of enemies per encounter increases, this becomes more tricky. In total, excluding bosses, there are 5 different enemy types; all of which become fairly predictable — it’s easy to learn their attacks and how they’re best dodged or blocked. This can make combat feel a bit similar by the end of the game, but varying combinations will keep some on their toes at times.
The real difficulty comes with the small area’s and limited view. As the camera’s directly behind Senua, it’s almost impossible to see anything behind her, meaning you have to rely on the voices in Senua’s head telling you to block. Some voices will aid you by giving tips — others won’t — I heard the phrase “she’s bleeding, she’s going to die” numerous times.
While Hellblade gripped me, my immersion was broken anytime Senua died. There seemed to be a bug. I believe it was caused by NVidia’s screen capture software (at least the issue stopped when I disabled it). This left the game hanging for minutes at a time on a black screen, before finally loading again. Others on the Steam forum seemed to have similar issues, but they attributed the issues to their AMD processors (I run a AMD FX-8350), so maybe this was a factor too. The only other bug I found made Senua fall through the floor, meaning I had to exit and reload; luckily this only seemed to be a one off and didn’t leave me stranded like Jim Sterling.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the experience Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice gave me. While I thankfully don’t personally suffer with any mental conditions, I’m glad the development team took the time to carefully research and entwine the symptoms into the game, in a way that didn’t feel like a trope or gimmick. Although the price-tag of £25 seems a lot for an 8 hour game, it didn’t feel too slight, or too long. I felt I had my money’s worth. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available on both PC and PS4 now.
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Available on: PlayStation 4 and PC (reviewed)
Release Date: 8 August 2017