Tackling tough subject matter isn’t anything new to the gaming industry. With games like Spec Ops: The Line portraying the effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Mafia III showcasing racism in the 60’s, video game developers occasionally like to utilize their art form make a statement. These attempts at forming a narrative around taboo subjects are easily some of the most interesting projects to experience. The latest title from Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Oddysee to the West) sets out to do the same, this time by presenting mental health issues to the player through the eyes of Senua in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the player embarks on a journey as the titular Senua; a young Celtic woman suffering from psychosis who travels through the Nordic underworld in attempt to save the soul of her slain lover. During Senua’s quest, she will face her inner and literal demons while her mind is in a constant struggle to deal with guilt, fear and loss. Players will traverse the beautiful and oftentimes frightening Nordic landscapes while solving visual puzzles, engaging in combat and allowing the disturbing narrative to unfold before their eyes.
Ninja Theory handles mental health conditions, primarily the effects of Psychosis, very elegantly in Hellblade. The team succeeds at presenting psychosis without exaggerating it or treating it as a mere game mechanic to an unrelated narrative. Hellblade combines binaural audio technology with multiple voice actors to deliver the effect of voices speaking inside of the player’s head, giving a sense of what Senua is struggling with. Also, the game utilizes visual puzzles that skew the environments, as if players need to piece together portions of their reality in order to progress forward. All of these effects were implemented with the help of real world Psychologists, so the condition can be portrayed accurately and sensitively.
Aside from the mental health aspects, Hellblade is a fairly standard action adventure title that leans more heavily on the exploration and puzzle solving spectrum while the combat takes a back seat. Within the first 20 minutes or so, the game warns the player that multiple deaths can result in a “rot” continuously climbing up Senua’s arm. Die too many times and the game insinuates that it will wipe your progress if the rot reaches Senua’s head. This “permadeath” warning lingers throughout the entire game but I never actually triggered it myself.
Throughout the majority of the 6-8 hour experience, players will be progressing through nightmarish situations, solving visual puzzles and witnessing Senua descend into madness. Most of the puzzles in Hellblade consist of searching the environment for the shapes of runes that form from skewing the camera perspective. Once these ruins are found, the doors inscribed with the same shapes will be unlocked, allowing Senua to progress forward. The game includes various other puzzles to solve as well, but rune scavenger hunts pop up quite frequently. I actually enjoyed these visual puzzles and didn’t mind Ninja Theory’s decision to have them pop up as often as they did.
Combat in Hellblade is fairly standard to most modern action titles that include sword fighting. You have a light attack, strong attack, a stun kick, a parry and a dodge maneuver. The enemies are quite predictable and easy to take down even on harder difficulties. If the player can learn to handle crowd control, dodge effectively and listen to the audio cues, the combat scenarios won’t be tough to handle.
What makes Hellblade’s combat stand out is the perspective it’s presented in. The camera zooms in quite close to Senua’s body in third person, giving combat a very claustrophobic feeling. Awareness on the battlefield can be tricky due to the camera’s insistence on sticking so close to the player. Thankfully, the voices inside of Senua’s head often aid the player in awareness by giving tips as to the whereabouts of enemies who are about to attack off-screen.
Sword fights are sprinkled in periodically throughout the game, but not as much as exploring and puzzle solving appears. Halfway through the game I found that I played through a few hours without having a single combat segment thrown at me. The last hour of the game is when the combat is at its heaviest, but at that moment I already mastered the mechanics and breezed through the game’s final moments. For the most part, I appreciated Hellblade’s more narrative and puzzle focus since those segments are when I enjoyed myself the most.
Even though Hellblade isn’t a horror game, I found it to be one of the most frightening experiences I’ve played in quite some time. The game introduces some really creepy environments and uncomfortable situations. One segment had me running in the dark from an unseen force as I struggled to stay in the light. Another area forced me to stagger through a river of blood while the hands of tortured souls desperately tried to grasp and pull at me.
The voices in Senua’s head made me feel as if I was suffering from the same mental conditions. The disembodied voices often times whisper and scream disturbing things at the player that make for an uncomfortable experience. Environmental audio and voice work also lend to the creepy vibe the game delivers. Running through a desolate forest as a demon chants while watching you from a distance will send chills down your spine. Headphones are recommended by the developer to get the full experience here and I certainly recommend using them as well.
The star of the show here, aside from the audio design, is the performances by the voice actors. Melina Juergens voices and performs the motion capure work for Senua. She totally knocks it out of the park with an extremely harrowing and emotional performance. Nicolas Boulton is very convincing as Druth, the tortured soul who accompanies Senua on her journey. Druth delivers backstory and Norse myths related to the world as the player moves forward and finds hidden runes. All of the men and women involved in voicing the characters inside of Senua’s mind are also very convincing.
Hellblade is a masterpiece in terms of technical design. The graphics are gorgeous running on both the PS4 and PS4 Pro, making for one of the best looking games I’ve played this generation. The Norse and Celtic art design is on-point by being both beautiful and frightening when it needs to be. Ninja Theory’s use of binaural audio for the voices in Senua’s head is a brilliant achievement in both a narrative and gameplay standpoint. The game even includes a 60hz mode for PS4 Pro owners that boosts the framerate to 60 frames per second. While the 60hz mode will drop the resolution down a bit, I found it to be a much more enjoyable way to experience Hellblade — especially in combat.
Ninja Theory has crafted a very unique and unforgettable experience with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The use of technology in both the audio and visual department are extremely impressive, making for one of the best audio experiences I’ve ever had in a video game. The narrative is creepy, fascinating and triggered a wide range of emotions throughout its journey. While the combat felt like it took a back seat and the puzzles can be repetitive, I still found Hellblade to be an engaging game that accomplishes something in this medium that I’ve never seen before. It’s an expertly crafted game that’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in 2017. Hellblade is totally worth your time, especially at the reasonable asking price of $30.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was reviewed on a Playstation 4 Pro using a copy The Gaming Outsider purchased ourselves.