Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice released on August 8th and since then, it has permeated my thoughts. It was independently developed and published by Ninja Theory. The basic premise is a story about Senua, a Celtic woman who suffers from schizophrenia, a form of psychosis. Her goal is to travel to Helheim (essentially Norse Hell) and free her loves soul from the Norse God Hela (this is the comic book spelling, in Norse mythos, she is just Hel).
Ninja Theory characterizes the game as an independent AAA title. My interpretation of that is that it’s intended to look like a traditional AAA game, but created on a budget with a small team and independently published. In an attempt to portray the disorder with authenticity, Ninja Theory contracted with a licensed counselor, and once the game started finalizing, they had a team of mental health professionals that provided valuable feedback on how Senua should be portrayed, and how she would likely react and interact with the world. This is the very cornerstone of the experience, and finding enjoyment in the narrative aspects of the game is important to your overall enjoyment.
Senua’s Journey begins as she is rowing to land; right off the bat the world, environment and tone is set. One of the several voices Senua hears kicks in in what feels like a narrator role. Throughout the 5-9 hour experience, Senua will hear upwards to 7 voices, often times several concurrently, aiding her or cutting her down and attacking her. The voices will help her in battle by warning her to do actions like “evade” or “don’t let them get behind you”, they will talk about her like she isn’t even there discussing her actions amongst themselves, and overtly insulting her directly and calling her worthless. To achieve the feeling of the voices being in your own (the player) mind, Ninja Theory employed binaural audio. Essentially what this is, is utilizing duel microphones to create a 3D soundstage. What this does for the player is that if you are wearing headphones, or, have an acceptable surround sound stereo, you’ll hear the voices all around you and feel like the voices are in your own head. This effect goes off without a hitch and starts as the game opens. As you’re playing, it will feel like one voice is talking in one ear, then another is talking in another voice to your other ear, they’ll get loud and then quiet; all producing an engrossing soundscape that provides the best experience, to date, of someone with mental illness. As a result, I spent the majority of my time with the game, trying to figure out who Senua was and what her story is telling us. It provides a snap shot of the scary reality of living with psychosis. It is truly a masterpiece when it comes to sound design and atmosphere, a new bar has been set.
As the story progresses, we will see various environments. The environment changes dependent on whether Senua is lucid, as lush green fauna can become engulfed in flames in a fiery, scary landscape. All of the landscapes offer ample opportunity to use the photo mode that is baked into the game. The locations are varied, making it difficult to become bored of the world as you see different sets of scenery every time you progress the story. Each new environment introduces new puzzles to solve ranging from lining up patterns to see a symbol, running through a gauntlet of fire or finding your way in the pitch dark. Some of the puzzles, in particular the “find X shape” ones can be a tad repetitive, but it had no impact on my enjoyment of this title. All of the puzzles are various manifestations of her psychosis and are a symptom of her disorder. If you find the puzzles tedious, or “annoying”, Hellblade likely won’t be for you as they play a decent size role in the game-play loop.
Coupled with the puzzles for the dynamics of game-play in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the combat. My experience with combat was very positive. It isn’t deep; there’s light, heavy and melee attacks along with a parry action, block and evade defensive capabilities. You don’t learn new skills, you don’t earn new weapons – what you start the game with, you will also end the game with. There are no traditional RPG mechanics to the game; it’s a straight action adventure. Combat is smooth and intuitive while tying in Senua’s schizophrenia. As I noted earlier, her voices will assist her in combat by warning her of impending danger. As the game progresses, combat gets continually more intense as you will face larger waves of varied enemies. You face a mixture of different enemy types, all of which need to be approached differently. This adds a layer of strategy as you need to dodge one enemy type with their own unique set of attacks while dispensing of a different enemy type. Waves generally come in waves of 2-3 enemies and the way it is presented to you, your vision is focused on one enemy at a time. This causes you to rely on the voices that Senua hears to warn you of damage. On top of these, Senua has a mirror that grants the ability to slow time which allows the ability to deal heavy damage in a short period of time. There are several boss battles that further vary the combat scenarios and can be very tense, and challenging. When it comes to the combat, these events were a high point and require another level of planning. The enemies are further manifestations of Senua’s psychosis, they aren’t actually there but they seem very real to her. I thoroughly enjoyed this game play loop, as it provided a way to break up the puzzles, world exploration and story as a way of a palate cleanser to keep the experience fresh. By the end of the experience, I was facing upwards to 20 enemies at once, of all varying types.
Overall, my experience with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was transformative. It is not what I would consider a “fun” game; it’s an experience that provides a deep and heavy narrative. It is one that can stick with you for days after you complete it, and I believe it will stick with me, years after the fact. No game has ever tackled mental illness with the same deft hand as this, providing light to what it feels like, as opposed to a vehicle for why antagonists are acting the way they do. Her disorder is the focal point of the experience, and the driving force for everything that is happening around you in-game. The voices Senua hears, the way they were recorded, provides a potentially unsettling level of immersion that can be in equal parts incredibly interesting and insightful or scary and cruel. This game draws empathy from you like a weapon and you can be left emotionally drained, depending on how immersed and invested in Senua and the world you are. It is a stunningly beautiful title and that screams “screen shot!” and gameplay is varied and expertly tied to the psychosis focus. I cannot recommend this game enough, and I hope more people experience it. For me, this is the kind of unique experience that gaming has been missing, a tight narrative unique experience at a budget price point. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the game!
- Written by Jesse White