Ninja Theory is one of my favorite developers, in their past games they have always attempted and (mostly) succeeded at showing complex emotional scenarios and their repercussions. Heavenly Sword and Enslaved gave us characters conflicted about their paths and destinies, DMC, well DMC was fun, but with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Ninja Theory truly brings us into a world that is as compelling as it is painful to experience. This game is one I think about often, much like a movie or book that resonates with me on an emotional level, and while it has its flaws the emotion and story is one that impressed me at a deep level.
In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice you play as the titular character Senua who has lived her entire life shrouded in darkness. As the story unfolds that darkness is undeniably a mental illness, but in her world of Norse Vikings and Mythology it is seen as a supernatural darkness and Senua is segregated and viewed as an outcast. Her only light comes from a man she meets called Dillon; he sees her beyond the darkness and gives her hope and peace. As the game opens I learned Dillon is dead and Senua is on a quest to save his soul from Hel carrying his decaying head as that is the soul’s repository.
The representation of Senua’s mental state is impactful and often painful to experience, especially if you have ever dealt with loved ones who suffer from mental illness. That representation is the cornerstone of the narrative experience and one Ninja Theory took great pains to represent as truthfully as possible. One of the lead credits as the game starts is a Mental Health Consultant and watching some of the behind the scenes diaries and short featurette included with the game it is apparent the developer was passionate about showing this in a way that was not glorified or insulting, but personal and emotional.
Senua hears voices in her head as she travels, there are many of them and they argue, motivate, berate, and warn her as the journey progresses. She also hears and old mentor who imparts Norse myths to her from lodestones encountered on the path, but Senua also talks to him as if he is there with her. These interactions often happen without Senua acknowledging them; instead, I am the one paying attention, but at times she responds. When she does it is with a weary and sometimes angry acknowledgement that her darkness is in fact her fractured mind and Senua just wishes she was normal, but her guilt and self-loathing keep cascading over her.
While HellBlade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a stark portrayal of mental illness it is also an adventure game at its core with some aspects that are stronger than others. The majority of the experience is exploration and puzzle solving as Senua pursues her path into Hel to restore her loves soul. The puzzles are varied and often interesting in how they use the aspects of Senua’s illness and the Norse Mythos. Some are repeated such as finding runes to unlock doors, others have Senua following paths switching between perspectives or using angles and doorways to recreate broken structures by focusing on them. The whole experience has many supernatural components that propagate a few ideas. Is this all in Senua’s mind or is this truly the worlds of Gods and humans interacting?
There is also combat as Senua makes her way into Hel, these battles happen periodically throughout the story and I felt it was one of the few weak points in the game. Hellblade is at its best when exploring the world or Senua’s mind. The combat is fairly basic and often stretches on too long. There is also a shocking difficulty spike late in the game that lead to a lot of frustration on my part especially as the developer has stated if too many deaths occur the save will be wiped and I would be forced to restart. In their other titles (aside from DMC) they have also struggled to integrate action effectively into their narrative and Hellblade is no exception.
Despite the minor annoyance of the combat mechanics Hellblade is a truly stellar title and one that Ninja Theory should be exceedingly proud of. The aesthetics of the game are as strong as the narrative and emotional impacts they are representing. The world is realized in starking contrasts of light speckled fields mingled with burnt out and destroyed homesteads. The motion capture and characters models, especially Senua as played by Melina Jurgens is stunning to behold. The raw emotion, incredible face and eye capture, as well as smooth animation brought me into Senua’s world that is almost hard to describe. I encourage anyone even remotely interested in this title to check out the Ninja Theory website as they show numerous behind the scenes videos chronicling how they created the world and visuals.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a one of a kind experience that looks at the personal effects of Senua’s illness while delivering an immersive, impressively detailed adventure game. There are some wrinkles with basic combat but the end experience is one I continue to think about even after the game has ended. The game is darkly beautiful and made me think about how fragile and powerful our minds truly are. This game will probably end up being very divisive with the community as people will be divided on their views of the game and how it handles its subject matter. I for one am grateful to have played it as the experience has had an impact on me, and that impact will stay with me as I move on to other experiences.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available now on PC and Playstation 4.