“Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is another indie game that has found a special place in my heart. It excels as another great example of games as an art form, while still providing an atmospheric game experience that blends mythology and psychology into one. “Hellblade” follows the story of Pict warrior Senua as she ventures into the Northmen’s version of hell, Helheim of Norse mythology, to free the soul of her dead lover, Dillion.
Developed and published by Ninja Theory, “Hellblade” is an excellent character study as players venture into Norse mythology through the lens of Senua’s mental disorder, psychosis. In order to position her condition in the center of the game, the developers consulted with psychiatrists and recovering patients to accurately portray how psychosis affects an individual. All of this knowledge is well-incorporated into the game.
From voices to hallucinations, Senua’s condition becomes part of the game, immersing the player and forcing them to see the world through Senua’s eyes. Only through this are certain game mechanics and the story building made possible. In one area of the game, Senua must solve puzzles by peering through illusion gates that physically change the world, opening up new paths to explore. In order to open up rune doors, Senua must focus and explore her environment to find the runes through a change of perspective or distortion.
From the beginning, the game recommends you wear headphones for the best experience. Because of the nature of binaural sound, simulating three-dimensional sound, the voices in Senua’s head come to life within the game, further immersing the player. They’re more than just a plot element; they become a gameplay mechanic. They provide exposition to the narrative and audibly voice Senua’s feelings throughout the story, constantly panicking or insulting Senua for her shortcomings. The chorus of voices provide assistance during combat sequences. They’ll yell “Watch out!” or “Behind you!” before an enemy lands their attack from behind, giving Senua a moment to dodge or parry before being hit.
The audio and visual direction of “Hellblade” truly makes this game a unique experience. The world of “Hellblade” mixes beautiful and serene landscapes with the dark fantasy of Norse mythology. Throughout the game, you never really know what’s reality and what isn’t. But maybe that’s just the point of “Hellblade,” everything you see and experience really is Senua’s reality as she struggles to accept her condition for what it is, rather than what others have told her.
Senua is visually modeled after the actress who portrays her through motion capture, Melina Juergens, and her performance is spectacular. The game is rendered so beautifully that it seamlessly transitions between gameplay and cutscenes, which often look so realistic and feel like a movie. Side characters like Druth, Galena, Zynbel and Dillion are portrayed through audio and video segments that are superimposed into the game, furthering the visual realism of the game.
Despite the fact that “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is an absolute artistic achievement, its gameplay feels less polished than it could have been. The combat is smooth and fluid, but brutal and impactful. During the first few fights, combat is fun and exciting as you discover new combos and experiment between light and heavy attacks mixed with parries and counterattacks, but this quickly becomes routine. As you progress through the game, there are dramatic sections that introduce waves of enemies for Senua to defeat before a pivotal moment in the story. These moments are few and far between, but they feel like stunning spectacles and impossible feats. However, the other combat sequences outside of this feel like a rinse and repeat of slashing, parrying and counter attacking until the enemies are gone.
“Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is a stunning game and an artistic feat. Though you may find yourself wondering how to piece together the story the first time, the 6-hour-long game is definitely worth a second playthrough to discover all the secrets and lore that “Hellblade” offers.