Game Review: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (PS4)

Without warning, I could feel a sting at the very tips of my fingers that slowly worked its way through my whole hand. There were voices in my head telling me that I deserved it, that it was my fault. I tried to ignore them, but I was shaking, unaware of what was going on. I gripped my wrist, squeezing it tight, but it did nothing to stop this sensation from moving its way up my arm. It wasn’t cold, it wasn’t hot, it just, was. I collapsed to the ground, the pain almost putting me into shock, it was too much. The sting wasn’t just a feeling anymore, it was black, darkness. It had worked its way up to my shoulder as I started to crawl on the ground. I wasn’t sure where I was attempting to escape to as it had no intention of releasing its grip on me. The darkness swallowed me whole and then the voices stopped.

This was only the first time I died.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is truly remarkable. Its storytelling, its themes, and its world are unlike anything you have ever played before. Games often have issues crafting real characters, ones that are not just grounded in reality, but those that feel like real people, who have real issues, real problems. The titular character, Senua, suffers from Psychosis, which is a real mental illness and is usually a subject of taboo among many forms of entertainment, let alone a subject handled through video games. It’s a fine line to walk and it’s one that Ninja Theory does so with elegant balance and respect.

Psychosis is an abnormal condition of the mind that involves a “loss of contact with reality” and those who suffer from it can experience a variety of symptoms and Senua is inflicted with bouts of hallucinations and delusions and it shapes not only who she is here, but the world that she inhabits. To get Senua right, to respect the illness that not only plagues her but to those who share in these same conditions around the world, Ninja Theory brought in a small group of people who also suffer from various forms of Psychosis as well as two experts in the field; Professor Paul Fletcher from Cambridge, and Professor Charles Fernyhough from Durham University. This group was brought in to discuss how each of them lived with the illness and how it affected their lives, and it is those very experiences that impacted almost every aspect of development. Ninja Theory was insistent on having absolute accuracy on depicting what this illness is and what it can do to the mind. There isn’t a single frame of animation or sample of audio that isn’t in some way adaptive of those experiences.

Senua, right from the moment you start the game hears voices consistently around her. There are multiple of them each with their own personality and tone. They will often question what she is doing, why she is doing it, or cast doubt or excitement towards her various efforts. To add to how effective these voices can be, the game is designed around wearing headphones to enhance the experience. Now, there are many games that say it is “better played with headphones”, and while yes, many games can sound better with headphones, they, in my opinion, are flat out required here. The team at Ninja Theory used a process called Binaural Audio, a recording technique that utilizes two microphones to simulate a 3D space. This allows each of the voices to naturally feel like they are moving around you whispering in your left ear and then others speaking softly in your right, the effect is quite unsettling, but in such a way that you’ll run to the nearest person and be like “you have to hear this!”.

This process of placing the audio in a 3D space also allows you listen to what direction an enemy is coming from, and one boss battle benefits from this sound based detection greatly. It’s the best use of audio I’ve ever seen, or rather ‘heard’ in a game. Fans of the low rumble soft sounds of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) will fall in love with this game as the voices are so soft spoken and clear yet have genuine weight to them that you’ll swear that someone is sitting right next to you. The voices are meant to distract you, get under your skin, and it is ever more present when you are attempting to concentrate, and this can be during the intense combat or while you are trying to put the pieces together of one of the game’s many puzzles. This is also equally true when you are walking around in the dark, alone, except you never are, the voices will find you here as well, and this can increase the tension of coming into contact with the unknown being told that you will fail, or that you should just turn back.

The way in which the voices are used is just a small sample of the feedback given by the group of people brought in to consult on how Senua’s mental illness can be made more authentic. The distance and volume of the voices, the sheer variety of personalities that they can come in, as well as the subject matter of the voices themselves are all based on real life experiences of those who suffer from Psychosis. Now, that being said, the use of them with regards to the plot is obviously played with to make it fit within context.

The character of Senua was created by Tameem Antoniades, Chief Creative Ninja and co-founder of Ninja Theory when he read about the recent discovery of a Celtic Tribe who prayed to a shrine of Senua, a goddess. Tameem was fascinated by the name and the mystery of the character and took elements of her history to create his own version of the character. When Senua was first shown off during the early stages of development, she had a very different look, but the team then used a process called photogrammetry to achieve a more realistic look. To help in this effort, video editor at Ninja Theory, Melina Juergens, assisted as a stand in for creating the character as a professional actress had yet to be cast. With a character model being built around the 26-year-old German video editor, it was only a matter of time before she would step into the role full time and become the Senua we play as today.

Despite not having acted in any real capacity, in fact, she often would avoid it in school and considers it to be her worst nightmare, Juergens is stunning, brilliant and incredibly uncomfortable in all the right ways. There are many moments where she will talk directly to you, staring at you with believability and purpose. Each scream, cry, or roar that Senua acts out in-game was always performed in front of her work colleagues, a fact that made her really uncomfortable. She would usually make requests to have their backs turned or have the lights off while she performed scenes that were quite dramatic. There is a moment before a big boss battle that Senua is mad, furious and full of rage, and this emotional moment, which is the picture just above, really got me pumped for the battle, and despite the doubts being hurled at her via the voices in her head, Senua knew she had to put this creature down, and we did.

Senua is real, she feels real and it is because of not just the team at Ninja Theory or the flawless performance from Melina herself, but to the group of people that came in and shared their experiences of Psychosis with the team. You can see Senua fight, not just the creatures that come her way, but the demons that are in her head as well. There are several moments where Senua has been broken down, collapsed to the ground, clutching the skull of her dead loved one that she has brought with her, in her attempt to save his soul. While Senua has some really impressive animations, it is the subtle details that are breathtaking. The quiver in her lip, the darting eyes when the voices are filling the air with their endless chatter, to her reliving tragedy after tragedy with intense screams that feel and look so real, but never once dipping into the uncanny valley.

Armed with a sword from the very start, Senua will have to defend herself from a thin variety of foes during her journey to enter the gates of the Underworld, better known in Norse mythology as Helheim, or simply, Hel. There is far more to these locations than I’ll share here as they are quite literally part of her journey to save the soul of the man she loves, Dillion. There is a gripping backstory to why she is doing this and what she had to go through just to begin this quest, from a religious zealot of a father to a mother than shared in her pain, Senua will attempt to battle her own darkness in order to save Dillion’s soul, but to do this, she must conquer her own demons or die trying.

These encounters can feel very intimate due to their one on one nature. While you can easily take on multiple foes at once, the lock on camera that has you focus on one enemy at a time can feel very intense. Each swing of the sword or roll of the dodge has a weight to it that seems lacking in other games of the genre and I can honestly say that Hellbade has some of the most satisfying combat I’ve ever played.

Senua doesn’t have any sort of skill tree or progression system to worry about, and apart from a fancy new sword that you’ll earn midway through the game, there isn’t any weapon swapping or gear collecting as well, and that’s fine because that isn’t what Hellblade is trying to be. Senua has a light and heavy attack, a block, a guard break, and a dodge. You can also marry your attacks while running to close the gap between you and your opponent and this can lead to a pretty sweet combo attack. There are shield warriors that will change up the usual tactic of charging with your sword drawn and cause you to hold back and effectively use your dodge roll, looking for some sort of opening to take these brutish warriors down.

Apart from a solid swipe with the sword, you can also let loose with a few melee attacks, but I never really found them to be that effective and I rarely, if ever, utilized them. Senua also has a mirror that builds up a focus meter and can cause time to slow down and give you ample opportunity to unload a flurry of quick attacks. This focusing ability is also crucial in attacking enemies that have formed into mist, allowing them to be hit with solid attacks, however; if you get in a solid run attack when they spawn in, it can cause them to solidify and become vulnerable.

It is rare that you will fight more than five or six enemies in succession, but there are a few moments in the game where it will feel like the hordes of foes are endless and it can get very intense during these encounters. When Senua would sheath her sword, I would breathe a sigh of relief that it was over, that I survived, but still very eager to find myself in combat again.

Senua doesn’t have a health bar, but neither do the enemies you face, instead, there are tells that you’ll need to keep an eye out for, enemies walking slower or almost limping towards you, and as for Senua, just be careful for when the screen starts to get very red and very blurry. You can avoid much of the damage by listening to the voices as they often will shout “Behind you!” and should you react with a quick dodge, then you’ll be saved from a possibly fatal blow.

Apart from combat, you will be required to solve a few puzzles, and while it’s rare for the game to blow your mind in their conception, they are still remarkably fun nonetheless. Often to progress through a door you will need to locate Runes that are hidden around the map. Instead of collecting some sort of item, or key, these Runes are hidden among the environment. Some are simply patterns on a wall or carved symbols in wood, but many of them are made by combing multiple pieces of the environment together from a certain perspective. This can be as simple as moving around a selection of trees until you find the desired shape of the Runes.

My favorite puzzles here were the arches, portal-like doorways that alter the reality around you. Since it is sometimes hard to understand what is real and what is an illusion, you will use these arches to shift elements around like removing a wall to unlock a door, or creating a bridge where there previously wasn’t one. When you look through the archway you will see the changes to the world and you simply just need to pass through it to benefit from that change. Sometimes you will need to use multiple arches to get where you need to go and this can lead to some very fun experimentation.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is gorgeous and this is made even more impressive knowing that the team behind it is comprised of only 15 people. Ninja Theory was convinced that having an outside publisher on the title would compromise the project and chose to fund and publish the title mostly on their own, hence why the game is only available as a digital purchase and half the price of a normal AAA release. Most AAA games have outlandish budgets that are $50 million and upwards, but Hellblade comes in “well under $10 million” and that comes from Ninja Theory putting in much of its own money as well as a partnership with the Wellcome Trust, a medical research charity that has done what it can to support not only the game but to help with its depictions of mental health.

Despite the small team. Hellblade is visually stunning and can at times flat out embarrass other games that have multiple times the budget. Hellblade is a very small and personal game and the small compact levels still manage to impress with their size. Textures are sharp, crisp and each environment comes alive with tiny details like water splashing up on the rocks, or the splashing of swamp water as you attempt to run through it. The lighting in most areas is flawless and I can’t honestly think of one single location in the game that didn’t impress me.

The enemies you battle are mostly humanoid demonic forces that come in all shapes and sizes. The antler topped bone masks become nightmare fuel when you dodge out of the way of a strike that you couldn’t see coming. The game can feel like it’s tapping into the same design styles of something like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and that is mostly true to a point. Much like the environments, the detail and subtly to these creatures is again made even more impressive given the incredibly small dev team.

I’ve already mentioned a bit about how great Senua looks and moves and this is due to some very impressive tech used for the game. The small details in her face, the believability in her emotions is inspiring. The only issue I can honestly say is her arms tend to clip through her upper body when she holds her arms in front or right next to her chest, it happens only a few times, but it can be a bit noticeable if you look for it.

The only part of the game that I felt wasn’t as well handled is the inclusion of live action characters into the game. There are several moments during your journey where you will interact with some form of a real person dressed in real costumes that are talking to Senua in some fashion. The first time it happens is rather cool, but there are a few encounters where it simply didn’t mesh as well as it should have.

The last part of this review is going to dive into a bit of the controversy regarding the game and how it has explained one of its mechanics. I don’t want to spoil exactly what it is or isn’t, but It can be rather hard to talk about without that very discussion hinting at what it really means, so let’s try, but feel free to skip ahead to the final paragraph. Near the start of the game, you will be told that should Senua fail too often, that the game will delete your progress. This is known to players as Permadeath. Many games use this and it’s usually some sort of hardcore mode that is meant to create real tension and stress that should you fail, you’ll lose it all.

This threat is made within 20 minutes of starting the game and was not mentioned during any trailers or promotional material for the game and this mode has had many players regretting buying the game because that isn’t what they signed up for. And this is where it becomes hard to talk about without spoiling much of what this mode really means, so this is the last warning before I give you a fair sized hint. If the Permadeath worries you, if you don’t want to play this game because of it, don’t worry, the game isn’t that difficult and the threat isn’t exactly as they describe, it really isn’t.

I died only once during my playthrough and the only threat of losing my progress was really the glitches that have been affecting a few playthroughs of the game. Widely known gaming critic Jim Sterling couldn’t complete the game due to a glitch that prevented any further progress in his game. This lead to him releasing a score of 1/10 and then after thinking about how it was his anger talking, he then changed his score to a 7/10 and had to be content with not completing it. The glitch in question is when a waterfall douses your torch and should you run past the first chance to reignite it, you are screwed as the game will autosave and prevent you from using the torch again.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice so far, is my favorite game of 2017, and one that might very well be my favorite game of all time. Mental Health isn’t a typical subject matter for entertainment, yet Ninja Theory was determined to get it right, to do the research, to talk to the right people; both those who suffer from it and those who spend their lives attempting to treat it. This is the type of game that comes from a team that is looking to create something with passion and not just some marketable product and that can be a very rare concept these days. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice gets my highest recommendation I can possibly give and needs to be experienced, with headphones, as soon as you possibly can.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from some form of mental illness, please click here to find help.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was played and reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro via a digital purchase on the PSN store for $39.99 CAN.

All screenshots were taken on a PlayStation 4 Pro either in-game or via the built-in photo mode and formatted to fit this review.

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