Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is perhaps the most surprising game released this year, dealing most prominently with themes of mental health and set in a desolate hellscape based on both Celtic and Norse mythologies. Senua is a warrior suffering from psychosis, who bravely embarks on a spiritual journey in an attempt to come to terms with trauma and grief. Throughout her dark vision quest, it becomes difficult to determine what is real and what is a deceptive illusion. Developer Ninja Theory do their very best to create an accurate portrayal of mental illness and ultimately succeed, even in light of some repetitive mechanics.
During the prologue, it becomes very apparent that Senua is not truly alone on her quest. She is accompanied by voices within her head that seek to simultaneously help and damage her. These voices are present throughout the entire game, overlapping and interrupting each other to create a confusing mental whirlwind. They weigh heavily on the tortured protagonist, indicating to the player that she battles them on a daily basis. Hellblade is best experienced with headphones in order to hear voices coming in from all directions. I spent the entire game entranced by the constant doubt, encouragement, and curiosity of Senua’s own inner demons, which motivated me to examine my surroundings in new ways.
In addition to struggling with her own demons, Senua faces a perilous journey through bleak landscapes that reflect an end-of-the-world hell. Like Senua’s story, the various environments are as beautiful as they are devastating. Bodies are piled high and shoved into the corner, burnt corpses hang from dead trees, and animal heads are impaled on pikes. It feels as if every inch of Senua’s linear journey is illustrated with care, making integral moments seem that much more meaningful. There are plenty of awe-inducing set pieces, but Senua’s arrival to the desolate shoreline is especially beautiful. Before entering into a beautiful man-made cavern, she weaves through a graveyard of massive viking ships accompanied only by the voices in her head. In some way, the voices also serve as a replacement for a quest marker or waypoint. They encourage Senua to keep going down a certain path, turn back the other way, or go through a doorway. This is especially helpful since the camera is always set very close to Senua.
Though Hellblade does have numerous combat sequences, they only occur in specifically scripted areas. When traversing the world, the game focuses on one task at a time, which allows the player to take in every detailed environment without the distraction of dealing with enemies. In these designated combat areas, Senua encounters demon-like beings with elaborate headdresses called the Northmen, who wield swords and axes. Swordplay feels heavy and brutal, as Senua holds her own against these powerful beings despite her broken will and growing sickness. Each death causes the black rot on her arm to grow larger, slowly creeping up to her head which the game notes will eventually result in permanent death.
Engaging in combat at first feels very rewarding, as Hellblade’s simple strategy of dodging, blocking, and waiting for an opening works exceptionally well here. Hacking away at the Northmen and seeing wounds where the blows have landed makes Senua feel like a master of “death by a thousand cuts”. Even when she is overwhelmed by multiple enemies, she is able to handle herself by utilizing a slowdown ability acquired later in the game. Also accompanying Senua in battle are her own inner voices, which often warn of attackers from behind and notify her when to strike. It’s a clever way to integrate her story with the combat, and ultimately replace visual HUD cues with vocal warnings.
While the combat certainly isn’t complicated, it serves its purpose in the story and feels great most of the time. However, problems begin to arise fairly early on in the game with its repetition. Combat sequences often last too long with waves and waves of enemies thrown at Senua. It becomes frustrating to have a beautiful emotional journey weighed down by what essentially become obstacles. I found myself beginning to dread every moment when Senua would draw her sword because I knew I would be “stuck” in this sequence for a little longer than is necessary. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice can largely be compared to a ‘walking simulator’ with a deep focus on character development and story. The combat, which is fairly solid, begins to feel unwelcome after fighting the same five or six enemies over and over again with no new strategies. Simply put, it just doesn’t feel as important compared to the rest of the game and is a bit over saturated.
This issue comes to light during the game’s puzzles as well, but to a much lesser extent. Progression is halted by puzzles where Senua will have to find certain shapes in the environment in order to progress. This reminded me of certain puzzles in The Witness, which involves a similar mechanic of lining up angles and curves within the environment to make a specific shape. It is at first fun and rewarding to locate runes within the branches of a tree, but eventually begins to feel stale with overuse — just like the combat.
Where Hellblade excels is in its melancholy storytelling, which slowly unravels over the course of the six hour playtime. The game doesn’t put any emphasis on what is real and what is in Senua’s imagination, which demonstrates Ninja Theory’s considerate approach to mental health. For the individual struggling, the effects are devastating whether it exists in the real world or not. Senua’s story isn’t about determining the real from the unreal, but rather about coping and recovering. Loss and trauma are not taken lightly in this game, which seeks to constantly remind players that Senua struggles with every moment. You can see it on her face every time she experiences tragedy or remembers where she is. Additionally, her facial expressions and voice acting do her character justice, making the entire premise that much more convincing.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice succeeds in delivering a fantastic story with incredibly sensitive content in a spectacular way. It delivers its emotional narrative in such a simple, elegant way that is harrowing and effective. Despite some repetitive mechanics, Ninja Theory have crafted a deep and beautiful experience that charts some new territory for the video game medium. At the very least, players should come out of Hellblade with a better understanding of the mental health issues that affect so many people on a daily basis.