It’s always nice to pick up a game that let’s you know its developers have done their homework. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice comes with a twenty five minute documentary, explaining just how much they did. Sure, we’ve had games in the past that have focused more on gameplay than historical authenticity. Or perhaps the other way around. To juggle the two, while explicitly dealing with themes of mental illness would be a colossal task. Yet, Hellblade has carried out this creative balancing act with flying colours. As a game, it constantly feeds the player with new things. Perhaps new dialogue, new challenges in combat or drastically new environments. With that comes a sense that the game is consistently getting better the further you get through it.
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Avg Game Length: 7.5hrs
Hellblade Places Us Firmly Inside Senua’s Mind
Players will inhabit the mind of a psychosis suffering Pictish warrior called Senua. The Picts were the one civilisation the Romans couldn’t beat into submission and supposedly the reason Hadrian’s Wall was built. So it’s fair to say Senua is a badass and can certainly look after herself. Shortly after a Viking invasion on the Orkney islands, Senua travels to a forbidden land of the dead to retrieve the soul of her beloved Dillian.
What follows is basically Dante’s Inferno with a Nordic twist. As awesome as the Pictish girl learning epic Viking tales may be, that’s all besides the point really. What Ninja Theory want players to focus on is Senua’s psychosis. At the very start of the game, a voice invites us to follow Senua on her journey. This breaks the fourth wall, making us wonder if we, the player, are simply another silent voice in Senua’s head, watching her from nearby.
Great Pride Is Taken In The Art Of Storytelling
Any developer will tell you of the importance of dialogue for walking segments in games. Of course this keeps us engaged and Hellblade offers it up in spades. Not only did I never once notice a repeated line from the mad young women in Senua’s head, but there are also rune stones to find. These activate stories in Senua’s head, told by her old deceased friend Dreuth. This was a perfect opportunity to play on the pride Viking society had for the art of storytelling. Here, we learn about ancient Norse mythos, all of which seems academically accurate.
One that chimed with me was Sigmund sneaking into the dragon, Fafnir’s cave to steal its treasure. A fun module I studied back in the uni days. All this extra authenticity can likely be detected by any gamer and Senua’s world is all the more real for it. Ironic. Senua’s personal story is delivered to us in bitesize chunks and we are left to piece them together ourselves. Perhaps the voices in her head will taunt her about past traumas or Dreuth will appear in a vision to remind Senua of her troubled history.
Hellblade Sits Comfortably In Its Own Segment Of The Games Industry
Aside from the experimental cocktail of story delivery, Ninja Theory are trying something else new. Touting their latest work as a AAA indie, Hellblade stands as the return of the mid range game. As a digital only release for just £25 / $30, Hellblade has no inventory management. No character progression (except for the story arc Senua is given) and you know what? That’s fine. What we have as a result is a very polished… I want to say work of art. With this asking price, Ninja Theory are not so exposed to the madding crowd, demanding all kinds of content potpourri and DLC.
Every aspect of what could be delivered in a linear piece of interactive narrative is oozing with quality. We have the best graphics in a game on the market to date. The voice acting is spectacular. The chattering in Senua’s head ranges in volume and jumps from left to right. Lastly the combat which only really makes up 30% of the game, is meaty and involving.
To Some, Hellblade’s Combat May Demand Too Much Of Them
Yet there’s a few tiny issues with Hellblade’s combat liable to frustrate the modern gamer. What we have to work with is a one on one lock-on system. There will be plenty of times Senua faces off against many foes at once. So she will need to position herself to get a full lay of the land, keeping all foes in sight.
She can even block and parry attacks from foes she’s not locked onto… If she’s quick enough. The voices in her head also warn of threats from behind. It all adds up to huge levels of concentration and game design that demands player investment. Players will likely feel forced into being careful with every decision after the game explicitly informs them of a perma-death feature. Should Senua die too often, the rot on her arm will reach her skull and your save file will be gone. At least a forgiving focus ability allows Senua to land a flurry of hits as time slows down.
Perma-Death Should Have A Place In Today’s Spoonfed World Of Gaming
Hellblade’s perma-death feature is something of controversy. I feel strongly that it is a good thing. Not a popular opinion but this was a smart design choice as developers these days are spoon feeding us a little too much. It’s not even that punishing. Some people out there have died a huge amount of times and it’s not happened to them. Some believe this warning message at the game’s start is a fake. Something to get us on edge. Regardless of whether the mechanic is real, as players, we don’t really want to find out. That adds massively to tension in both combat and certain trap laden areas.
As beautiful as it may be to watch Senua wreck her foes, screaming passionately as she does so, combat does threaten to go a little stale near the end of the game. As things build up to their epic crescendo, hordes of enemies will be thrown at Senua. By then, every unspoken combo will have been discovered. After killing so many, what originally felt like a deep movement system begins to feel a little limited. Regardless, carrying out Senua’s Pictish warrior moves remains a pleasure as she is animated so well. After all, combat is not the reason you should play Hellblade.
Ninja Theory Have Taken The Time To Truly Understand Psychosis
As a psychosis sufferer, Senua will see shapes and patterns in the world. Every day for a psychosis sufferer is a grim puzzle demanding to be solved. Only for another to pop up. A slave to these, we must see Senua through several perspective puzzles. Certain items in the world can be lined up with the right perspective to match runes, unlocking the doors blocking our progress. What’s delightful about this is the idea that, really, Senua is wasting a lot of time playing by the rules of her psychosis and not the real world.
It could be said that these puzzle segments are a hindrance to Hellblade’s fast momentum of storytelling. Admittedly, they do bring things grinding to a halt until you find the solution. It is here that players will learn how Hellblade revels in making the player feel ill at ease. Voices with conflicting opinions may inform Senua she’s doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Yet it will have no bearing whatsoever on the actual solution in the game. As the player we should ignore these voices and focus on what it is we want to do. So, even when the game is being annoying it’s still brilliant.
Technically, Hellblade Is A Success. But Will The Consumer Base Reflect That?
Ninja Theory’s experimental new product is safely a rip roaring success. At this juncture, I should say that if your gamer tastes are far from swords and mysticism… You still need to experience this game. Hellblade delivers an unapologetically intensely told story. One that not only informs players accurately and tastefully of what it’s like to suffer with mental illness but also that’s faithful to Viking brutality and mythos.
Some of the experiences in this game are sheer artistic disturbia. So much so that we have a warning screen at the start of the game. But unlike most horror games, these disturbing images are not there simply for the sake of it. Every part of Senua’s personal struggle has purpose. Every hallucination, a metaphor for past traumas. Some parts of Hellblade are equal parts horrific and riveting. That’s the idea. As a psychosis sufferer, you’re not supposed to be having fun. The hardest battles are fought in the mind and Ninja Theory have conveyed that as effectively as they possibly could have.
Here’s Why Hellblade Is So Important
What makes Hellblade so important is what it is as a result of its asking price. We’d normally expect these kinds of visuals and story beats from a full priced game. Other AAA titles remain slaves to investors, barking orders at developers to create a product they believe will appeal to the widest demographic possible. As a result, they end up being the content packed, emotionless bang for your buck packages we’ve all gotten used to (though exceptions like The Last Of Us or Spec Ops: The Line spring to mind). In fact, it has almost become the norm for a full priced game to come with no holds barred action from start to finish. Yet, the messages Hellblade has to tell about mental illness could have only ever been told through the medium of videogames.
As a daring, frontier piece of work to help us understand mental illness compassionately, Hellblade not only deserves success but it needs it. We need it as this can bring about good change in the games industry. We don’t have to be blowing things up all day long to be entertained and Hellblade is proof of that. And we can still feel like we got our money’s worth if a strong story can be properly delivered. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice really has to be experienced to be believed.