Madness takes its toll as warriors, myths and mayhem are unleashed in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Developed and published by Ninja Theory, Hellblade is a third-person action adventure game that takes us on a psychological journey to the very core of Insanity. Ruthless battles and uncanny illusions plague our every step as we delve further down the rabbit hole and into certain doom.
We play as the unrelenting Celtic warrior Senua, who embarks on a nightmarish vision quest to the gates of Norse Hel in a bid to save her dead lover’s soul from torment. Senua is relentlessly pestered by multiple voices that are a symptom of her acute psychosis which is a subject that permeates the entire game. Senua’s journey becomes highly personal as her visions take on the form of psychotic manifestations, formed from her very own memories and experiences, making you question what’s real or imaginary. The voices that haunt Senua were recorded through the use of binaural audio to simulate three-dimensional space. This technique not only heightens your experience but also ties into the game’s plot. During development, Ninja Theory consulted with various mental health experts to convey this sensitive subject matter thoughtfully and accurately.
Hellblade is set in the Viking age and is brimming with mythological tales and legends. The game’s dynamic character Druth will continuously fill your head with riveting stories of Norse lore upon finding the many lorestones scattered throughout the game. Senua’s story is one that’s shrouded in mystery that very slowly takes form. Hellblade is extremely linear and leaves you with very little room for exploration. The entire game will only take you roughly 8 hours to complete. You’ll spend the majority of your time solving various puzzles with a mix of combat thrown in here and there.
You won’t find any hand-holding in Hellblade, in fact, there’s not so much as a tutorial or even a user interface to lead you. The only way of remotely figuring out what you need to do is listening to the incessant voices that speak to Senua. These voices question Senua’s every action making you second guess yourself. The voices play an intrinsic role in combat from telling you when enemies are close to death to warning you when they surround you. Each time Senua succumbs to death a black “rot” will start to creep farther up her arm until it reaches her head. Die too many times and the game tells you that you’ll be forced to restart your adventure from the very beginning. This is the first of many deceptions, designed to make your experience all the more tense. Although the voices sometimes help Senua, they also put her down when you’ve taken too many hits, almost in an attempt to physiologically thwart you when a fight may not be turning out as you’d planned.
The combat itself in Hellblade can be tedious with enemies always feeling like they soak up too many hits. Fights become more challenging as different enemy variants are introduced making the combat feel claustrophobic when more foes overwhelm you at once. Battles can be unbearably close quartered, however, the flow of combat always remains the same. More often than not you’ll feel as though you’re profusely mashing buttons to stay alive. Although the act of combat can be tiresome at best, the actual swordplay mechanics alone are intuitively designed. You can block and dodge incoming attacks as well as time parries and utilise combos. The only skill Senua has at her disposal is her focus ability which when used in combat can temporarily slow down time, enabling you to hack and slash through enemies with ease.
While the combat may leave much to be desired, the puzzle solving sections of the game are a different story. The puzzles you must solve include opening sealed Rune symbol doors, locked gates and navigating through illusions. The symbols you must find to unlock doors are particularly interesting as Senua will have to match the same Runic symbols that exist in plain sight around you. Not only are these puzzles clever and let you interact with your surroundings in an innovative way it also serves as a good plot device with Senua’s mental illness allowing her to connect shapes and patterns in the real world.
It goes without saying that Hellblade is a visually stunning game with impeccable sound design and cinematic gameplay. The game’s delicate theme of a person suffering from psychosis is thoroughly personified, completely immersing you into Senua’s character. Unfortunately, its repetitive combat and limited exploration make Hellblade fall a little short. In the end, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice thrives as a thought-provoking experience rather than an actual game.