You are attempting something difficult, maybe for the first time. Your mind starts to race with positive and negative thoughts as you prepare for, learn about, struggle with, and, finally, complete this task. It is like the world around you is muffled, and all you can hear are these voices telling you you can’t figure it out and you should just give up. You continue to struggle in the dark, pushing forward with the hope that everything will make sense in the end. However, you know you can’t trust yourself, because the voices only continue to grow darker.

“Give Up!”, “You can’t do this!”, and “You’re all alone!” are just among the few lines you hear echoing through your head.

You continue on in your journey afraid – not because a beast is chasing you, but because your mind starts to cling to the dark thoughts. Yet, if you stop, you will be trapped there, forever, in the dark; you will be alone, frantic, and clinging to the little light inside.

Many of us struggle with this. Anxiety, hurt, pain, guilt, and fear all give these voices strength, and its one of the key elements of the self-titled ‘independent AAA’ game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. With Hellblade, Ninja Theory (makers of Heavenly Sword and DmC: Devil May Cry) nail every factor of mental illness and makes a badass mix of a Viking (Norse) and Druid (Celtic) game while they are at it. I must say right off the bat, I suggest, if you play the game, that you play with a decent pair of headphones on. You play as the warrior woman Senua, who struggles with an unnamed mental disorder, as she embarks on an adventure that leads her to slay monsters and gods alike. Throughout the game, voices are almost constantly whispering in Senua’s head, and the headphones really get you in the right, delusional head space.

It’s A Beautiful Mind

In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you will walk through a nightmarish land steeped in Norse lore. Senua, the last of her tribe of Celtic warriors, embarks on a journey to find and release the soul of her lost lover, Dillian. To do this, she must walk the land of Nifilhiam, to Helheim (or Hel), where she believes Dillian is being held captive by the Norse goddess Hela (Daughter of Loki). However, as the story unfolds and the player comes to know Senua a little better, it becomes clearly obvious that her mission has another layer to it. While her ultimate goal is the salvation of Dillian, Senua also seeks, through her quest, redemption from the cruelties that have been wrought on her people. It soon becomes painfully apparent that she believes her people’s sufferings are her own fault.

The story of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice unfolds in many different ways, which are all beautiful and horrifying in their own right. One is told through the very unreliable character of Senua’s mind. The creatures, gods, and landscape all come into question while you play because of Senua’s disorder. It is hard to tell what is real, and what she has created as real in her own mind. For example, while in the world of Surt, you experience Senua’s trial as she is surrounded by fire. The smoke is billowing out of control, choking her, and the screen becomes hazy as tears develop in her eyes. An instant later, it’s all gone. You find yourself questioning what she is experiencing, asking, “Was the fire ever there? Is this a memory? Is it vision?”

The whole journey feels like a falsehood, yet it also feels entirely real at the same time.

The other manner in which the story is told is through Senua’s visions of Dillion. The superimposed flashes are a wonderful work of story telling, because, again, Senua’s mental stability comes into question. Dillion does not just tell us about the past, but also how he is currently feeling. It’s a complex story only in that everything the player experiences is through Senua – as her perception of reality.

Hellblade, for all its 6/7 hours of gameplay is an amazingly complex story because, as I stated before, everything you experience as the player is through Senua; as her perception of reality shifts, so does reality itself. When Senua comes to a new revelation, the tone and the imagery of a scene can transform entirely. It’s an unusual narrative tool that pulled me into the experience right from the start. It resonated with me, as I believe it will for many others who struggle with mental illness. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a very different kind of game, and it sucked me into the world extremely easily – more so than what I would expect from any other action title.

Not Always Your Typical Gameplay

Actually, to be honest, it is very difficult to pinpoint what type of game Hellblade is solely by its gameplay. Is it an adventure game, a narrative-driven game, a hack & slash, an action game,  or maybe even a horror game? Honestly, Hellblade falls a little under all of these genres, depending on the circumstances. Players may be looking for obscure symbols within the environment at one moment (which sometimes can be harder than it sounds), then battling Norse fire demons, then right into listening to a fantastic mythological lore woven to a magical Rune you found while walking along a shipwrecked coast.

However, even though Hellblade‘s gameplay varies widely from action to walking-simulator it always finds ways to keep its momentum, even when you just spent the last ten minutes trying to find a rune mark in the trees so that you can pass through a locked gate. Even while stranded in some parts, lost, the scenery and graphics are gorgeous enough to keep you looking at everything.

Hellblade really is a cut above the rest as far as gameplay goes. First, know that while combat is important in normal hack-and-slash games, Hellblade first and foremost ensures that you are immersed in its world. Having said that, while combat still is a core pillar, the game doesn’t go overboard with offering the God of War-esque number of weapons or complex skill-trees to work through. Other than some new combat abilities that will be unlocked at key story milestones, Senua’s arsenal of skills and weapons are kept light until the end. The true challenge and satisfaction of the combat areas come from mastering the base combat mechanics. The movement is fluid and wonderfully responsive. The mastery of combat allows you to bounce between multiple foes easily. Senua’s awareness of incoming attacks come from her inner voices, which warn the player of incoming strikes based on the position they’re coming from.

One of the cool mechanics that the game has is the alleged permadeath mechanic. Towards the beginning of Hellblade, a message appears on the screen front and center that indicates the game will permanently end in the event that Senua dies too many times. Not only that, but all progress will be lost. You will have to start all over. Very much like those unrelenting retro games from our past.

This screen will put the fear of the gods in you.

 

While it might be an odd message to see in a newer game, it keeps the tension on the player. It makes sure you calculate your every move. Be wary, however, because the game has no HUD, no visual input prompts, and no written tutorials; it makes the game even more unsettling from the very beginning.

So if there is no HUD, how does the game keep track of your deaths and, more importantly, how does the player? Well, the progress towards the potential ‘Game Over’ is tracked by a black, inky muck that creeps up Senua’s right arm. Once this muck reaches Senua’s head the player will be met with a permanently ended playthrough. It’s a wonderful visual and forces the player to work harder to keep Senua alive. If Senua is incapacitated in any way, a short scene plays that will show her awakening to the movement of these black tendrils, creeping closer to their destination. It’s a worrisome sight, to say the least.

There are some that argue the message is a red-herring, only there to make the player feel a heightened sense of tension, as there are no confirmed reports of anyone triggering the save-erasing permadeath. Unfortunately, I never tested the authenticity of the game’s claim. Regardless, its intent was clear, and felt throughout my entire playthrough. It puts you in the somber headspace that your life is truly forfeit at any time.

Jump To A Different Head Space

While I could go on and on about how perfect this game is regarding story and gameplay alone, there is another factor that the developers really knocked out of the park. Senua’s mental illness is graphically detailed, so much so that there is a warning when you start the game.

The crew worked with an actual doctor to ensure the game’s authenticity: Paul Fletcher, psychiatrist, and Professor of Health Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. His job was to make sure Senua’s mental illness as accurate as possible.

Sadly, part of real-world psychosis can involve hearing the voices of people who aren’t there. Like many, Senua hears voices of her own. Some of the voices represent her hesitations, her doubts, her fears; others are there simply to mock her, to shame her, or to convince her that her quest is folly. While an open speaker system while you play is nice, these voices seem to be echoes for the player; they don’t seem terribly terrifying. I implore you, dear player, that you play with headphones if the option is available to you. Through headphones, this game is intensified in a way that makes it impossible to not become truly immersed, as the voices become a complete binaural experience, you will hear the voices from all around you. It was a mechanic that I found to be pervasive in my playthrough. It sometimes made me cry, pausing my own efforts. It was disturbing, humbling, even frightening at times at how accurate the experience was.

Senua’s mental state is what brings this game to a new level. While most games that attempted this are almost lighthearted, and make the illusions totally wacky, Dr. Fletcher and the team made the game an almost teachable moment about hallucinations. Not so much in the way of an empathetic moment, but more on the side of a visceral, immersive example of a very specific experience. While many gamers may not totally identify with Senua’s specific issues, many of us have versions of this. For me personally (and I don’t mind sharing this) it was the anxiety-driven and depressive voices that constantly surround you on a day-to-day basis. No, I don’t hear voices the way someone with schizophrenia would. However, Dysthymia and high anxiety gives you the feeling described in the first few paragraphs of this review. “You are never good enough”, “You are alone”, “You are worthless and unloved”, “You will fail”, are a constant berating all of the time, and all you can do is accept the dark torture or resist. You know none of it is true, yet feel as if it is. So, you fight like Senua, even if not in the literal sense. Hellblade has a character that I can personally identify with, and so can many others. The rest of you will love her, also, for her engaging adventure.

Overall

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice spoke to me on a level that may not hit others. However, the game is completely worth a playthrough (or five). It is wonderfully written, beautifully landscaped, and rich in culture and knowledge. The game’s sound design is impossibly real. The colors and detail of the world around you immerse you in the mood changes of Senua’s adventure. She is the strongest female character ever created, and Ninja Theory has a game to be amazingly proud about. You can get Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice now on the PlayStation 4 and PC for $30.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Review
The Good
  • Amazing Gore & Beautiful Scenery
  • Immersive Norse and Celtic Lore
  • Satisfying Combat Sequences
The Better
  • Wonderful Sound Design
  • Description of Mental Illness is Accurately Immersive Yet Sympathetic
  • Incredible Storytelling
10Overall Score
Reader Rating: (2 Votes)
10.0

About The Author

John D
Chief Operating Officer

John Donadio a.k.a. SomeBeardy2Love is the COO here at GAW. He once had a show that he produced, wrote, and co-hosted called the Wide World of Games, you can probably find it on youtube. He is also a co-host on a podcast called Party Up! John is an Action-Adventurer, platformer, RPGer, and FPS kind of gamer. Quick to play any game that has magic, swordplay, and/or stealthy elements. If you can customize a character he is in it for the long haul or just give me your 2D platform and he's a happy camper. What else do you expect from a gamer with a beard and a bow tie tattoo? Seriously.