Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s eight hour journey is a wonderfully woven experience that is hard to put into words. It’s a game that captures the intense, frightening, and often tender emotions experienced by one suffering from mental illness. The story of Senua is one of madness and beauty, a heartfelt, emotional journey of love, loss, despair, hope, and strength. It’s the most human journey I have played to date, only because Ninja Theory has done a phenomenal job in crafting a game where each element is not only a game mechanic but also plays an important role in enhancing the experience of being Senua.
As Senua, a celtic warrior, you return home from exile to find a terrible tragedy befallen your tribe and your loved ones, an event that — compounded with Senua’s past (which I do not want to spoil) — tips her over the edge and throws her into a storm of insanity. While the game is full of wonderfully narrated Norse mythology, it mostly serves to expand the setting — as well as allegories — to the main story arc of Senua’s descent through the hells of madness, literally and metaphorically.
This particularly dark theme is augmented by the gameplay mechanics and sound design. Throughout the journey, Senua is accompanied by several voices in her head. Their presence often showcase the emotional turmoils that we human beings go through when facing any challenge, and not necessarily only linked to people with mental illness. One terrified voice will, in a trembling tone, urge you to not cross the narrow beam. It will scream at you that you will fall and die. Another voice will be encouraging you that you can do it. Other voices are there, too, often confused themselves and chattering and bickering among themselves. “Can she do it? She’s going to kill us. What is she doing? Is she mad?” — And as soon as you find the courage to cross halfway through, the voices cheer on — “YES! Yes she’s doing it!” These voices never annoyed me, and in the case where they became a bit too much, it is by design. After all, the game is trying to let you experience mental illness. You cannot simply switch these voices off or tell them to go away.
Other audio cues come from monsters, screams of pain, and other ambient sounds that bring this dark world into life. More importantly, though, is Senua herself. Her monologues and dialogues are genuine and human; when she’s screaming in pain or crying in particular scenes, I couldn’t help but identify with her emotions, and in a couple of scenarios, I, too, had tears rolling down my cheeks.
the descent into madness is a terrifying experienceFrom the visual part of this insanity, the art design is absolutely phenomenal. There are moments where it felt like some elements have been borrowed from Alan Wake — an impressive game in its own right — like how clouds and darkness will roll in, how enemies start to emerge from this darkness, and how “light” is used to expel these shadows. The latter environments are especially outstanding, and hauntingly disturbing given the literal and metaphorical state of mind Senua develops into. Areas which are particularly noteworthy are where you have to walk through near-darkness guided by a certain voice (which serves as a wonderful metaphor of bringing someone out of a dark place), an area where you’re chased by a demon in dark corridors but find solace in the light (reminds me of Amnesia), and an exceptionally well-made boss fight near the end of the game which uses audio-visual cues to such an extreme that it was distressing (in a non-frustrating way) to endure that ordeal. That boss fight will be in memory for a long time to come as one of the best-executed boss fights in history.
Aside from the audio-visual narrative, the “game” elements in Hellblade revolve around perception-based environmental puzzles. These puzzles, unfortunately, do not have variety, and involve finding symbols in environmental patterns that will unlock doors. In a way, it’s a clever mechanic that shows you how people with mental illness see different patterns in everyday things. In other ways, some sections involve a complex environmental manipulation to find these symbols, and it isn’t much of a flaw in the game mechanic as much as it is that these segments slow the pacing down. Earlier doors play into the narrative, but a couple of the late-game areas are devoid of an actual narrative and are simply a long pattern recognition exercise that feels like it’s there only to prolong the game by half an hour to an hour.
When you’re not dealing with voices and visions of madness or environmental puzzles or exploring, you’re engaged in limited combat. Combat is not that frequent and consists of purposely-placed set pieces that you have to fight your way through to progress. The mechanics are quite simple, with light-heavy-parry-dodge that feel more like simple button mashing than actual strategy. Larger groups of enemies require more dodging finesse, and the voices in your head warn you of any danger from an off-screen foe. There is no skill tree or powers to activate (other than the “light” power that slows down time, which you get early on), removing any head-scratching nuisance of skill points and progression. Death is not very likely to happen (and combat difficulty can be adjusted), but should you die, a certain story-element kicks in where the darkness gnaws at you more and more with every death. Die enough times and it becomes permanent death, and you have to repeat the journey in its entirety all over again. The mechanic serves mostly to put you in further distress, but the risk can be minimised by paying attention to the voices and managing the swarms of late-game enemies intelligently; the game is never unfair.
Despite these minor flaws, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an exceptional game that should serve as a benchmark of excellent inter-relalationship of story telling and gameplay to give players a cohesive, impactful experience. It’s not a perfect game, but its flaws and annoyances are too minor in the grand scale of things, and by the end of Senua’s journey, you’re left with a profound feeling of awe, exhaustion, and achievement that is hardly found in most games these days.