***Note: This review has been posted on Gizorama.com. You can also view the article here.
Despite presenting external obstacles that are rinse and repeat of itself, the core of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice‘s message expands far beyond that of its gameplay mechanics. The ways in which developer Ninja Theory uses both visual and audio cues to trick players minds are both clever and important, and bring a strong awareness to the subject of mental health illness. Beyond its emphasis on sensory, the combination of a visually stunning world and powerful protagonist give Hellblade a case for arguably one of the best independent games released this year.
The story of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice takes us into the mind of warrior Senua, whose journey to save a lost loved one pits her against some demons of Norse Mythology, as well as the more important internal struggles she faces. The reason for emphasis of her internal struggles is due to the fact that Senua suffers from severe psychosis, causing her to frequently lose contact with reality. Alongside help from professional consultants, Ninja Theory uses many touch tones throughout the game in an attempt to have players see through the eyes of Senua’s severely impaired mental state in addition to the challenges you must complete.
One of the ways that Hellblade evokes your senses is through the game’s audio. As you boot up Hellblade, the game prompts you to wear headphones while playing in order to place you into the mind of Senua. Though the game will run players roughly six to seven hours, you’re almost always having to deal with the same voices in your head as Senua does. This led to some of the strangest and most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had while playing a video game, as the constant chatter through my headphones made me start to question what enemies I’d face, or what doors I’d have to open. Some of the toughest, yet best moments are when it’s clear that Senua is fighting herself in a desperate attempt to retain the flickering remains of her sanity.
Another area where use the game’s audio cues as a guidance tool would be during a number of the game’s door based puzzles. About a dozen times throughout the game you’ll come into contact with a locked door which can only be open if you find locations in the surrounding area with the matching symbols given to you. The presentation and how to locate these visual keys are cleverly done, but lose their spark during the latter half of the game. They present little challenge as well (though I’d argue that’s not the game’s intention in the first place), as you’ll know immediately once your near of the door symbols.
While the voices in Senua’s head can be unnerving, they actually will come to your aid from time to time. A notable feature which is absent from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is any form of a tutorial. While the control layout is fairly simple and is found in the game’s pause menu, you actively learn the game’s functions by both playing through the game and engaging in combat. The voices in Senua’s head will tell her when there is an enemy behind you, letting you know that you’ll need to evade, or when you can now use your focus ability to fight a certain enemy type. The same can be said while completing some of the game’s larger puzzles, as the voices will act as a sort of progression tracker, letting you vaguely know how far along you are in your task.
Along with the audio cues that kept me engaged, the environment and exploration elements deserve praise as well. As a tighter, liner based story, Ninja Theory was able to give the Norse Mythology inspired aesthetics the TLC that they deserve. The result of that care (and as a now-independent company) are some of the most beautiful, yet eerie locations that I’ve gotten to explore. Each of these environments, while well crafted in their respective tones, evokes numerous types of phobia that may be unsettling to some players. Whether it’s fire, darkness, tight spaces, or heights, there were more than enough times in Hellblade that I was forced to confront one fear of mine or another.
The game’s combat runs parallel to the puzzle system in terms of it’s depth, though does add a nice change of pace to the border-line walking simulation. There aren’t a large number of enemy types, so learning how to approach them didn’t take me too long to figure out, whether it be a shield wielding viking or a behemoth of a man with a gigantic axe. Your moves are fairly limited as well, allowing you to simply attack with a quick strike, heavy strike, or melee attack. Evade attacks are relatively simple, but timing your parry in respect to your enemy’s offense leaves you with some neat counter attacks.
What I enjoyed most about the game’s relatively easy combat was the focus function. After a short while, you’ll be able to prompt Senua to slow down time for everything around her, letting her unleash a flurry of attacks on copious amounts of enemies while avoiding any oncoming attacks with ease. Some enemies can only be taken out while in focus mode, so make sure you’re ready to play offense and defense at the right moments. Again, this already makes an already easy element of the game even more easy, but it’s the visual presentation that caught my eye every time I was ready hack and slash my way through a handful of enemies in a matter of seconds.
Even with exceptional visuals and strong cast, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice deserves most of its praise for its approach to player immersion. The way in which the game placed me in the mind of its main character, and required me to overcome numerous moments filled with unsettling themes gave me an experience that I found uncomfortable, yet enjoyed overall. The exterior challenges that Hellblade presents may not have as much depth as they could, but its the interior horrors of Senua that kept me eager to learn more of her struggle.