Loss, sadness, fear, darkness, beauty, strength. These words are just a few that can describe the journey that Senua goes through in her 6 to 8 hour journey to Helheim in Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. A Celtic warrior returning from a Viking raid, to find her love sacrificed to the Norse Gods, she embarks on a journey to save his soul from Hela (The Norse goddess of death). From the outset we begin to learn just how broken our protagonist is both physically, but most of all mentally.
As we begin the journey, you hear them...the whispers in Senua's head. At first you feel they are just coming from around you. Hidden faces within the landscape perhaps? The multiple voices you are hearing are all somewhat familiar, almost the same, yet different. They start creeping in from all around you. You hear them in your left ear, then your right. In front of you, then behind you. All eerily similar. It's not long until you finally realize they are only getting louder and louder. Soon it becomes impossible to tell how many actual voices you are hearing. Then the realization hits you, they all belong to Senua and they are all in her head. This is how Hellblade shows its best feature. Through its sound design the game gives you a sense of what it's like to have unrelenting voices in your head. They warn you of dangers around you, shouting in a panic, "BEHIND YOU!" when enemies are about to attack. They will also give you some directions on where they think you should go or not go. This isn't to say they are always helpful. They also let creep in a real sense of self-doubt and unrelenting questioning of yours and Senua's choices to keep down the stories path. Bottom line, wear headphones when playing this one. The way Ninja Theory implemented the ambient sound design makes everything work so well. If you struggle with or have struggled with any type of mental illness or personality disorder, you may get a little uncomfortable as the voices may seem all too real at times. You're never truly alone. There's always a voice inside your head that will help and/or hinder you on your journey.
Graphically the game is one of the best games to look at I've seen in a long time. The facial animations are top notch. I haven't seen anything look this good from a smaller game. The full-motion video and motion capture utilized in the game evokes almost film quality characters. Melina Juergens does almost Andy Serkis levels of work here and it's really impressive, again, for a smaller game. Not only the character animations are great, the levels are on a whole other level as well. They run the gamut from the dark recesses of ancient caverns that you will struggle to see your way through, but they will eventually open up in to sunny rock covered beaches. Throughout the game there are filters applied to the world that amplify the sense of mental illness as well. You're never quite sure if what you're seeing is real or all in Senua's head. There's no mini-map or HUD at all. No objective markers or arrows to guide your way. There are sometimes audible clues that you can use Senua's "focus" ability to hear that will guide you, but not always. This can become frustrating as you can get lost and have to backtrack through levels. However, those clues are not always truthful and it plays in to the mental side of the game even more. That just makes things even more uncomfortable as you're making your way further down the path of madness.
Combat is fairly sparse, but great when it does come around. Throwing waves of enemies at me to frustrate me and drive home the sense of unrelenting madness. There are a basic set of moves (light attack, heavy attack, parry, dodge, and charge) that do give you enough variation to make it fun. There is no life bar or anything to let you know how hurt Senua is, however as she gets hurt, she becomes less responsive and her attacks slow down. Combat as a whole is not really the main element in the game. Even with that, when it does come around Ninja Theory throws another wrench at you to make you feel dread...the perma-death system. Early on, you are told if the rot reaches Senua's head, its game over. And by game over they mean your save data is erased and you start your journey over again. This made me question my skills in combat and I got even more panicked. There were a few overwhelming sections towards the end of the game that had me yelling at the screen. As you try and fight through, there is the nagging dread of losing hours of gameplay. Having to start over. It's always there, a silent voice mixed in with all the others. This does a great job at playing in to the story and playing with your mind.
Story is where Hellblade cements itself as one of the most surprising games to come out in a while. Everything is based in Norse mythology. Senua has been told all her life by her father that she has a darkness inside her that causes everyone around her pain and suffering. She finds love with Dillion through it all but is forced to set out on her quest to Helheim to save Dillion from Hela. He was sacrificed by the Northmen after they attacked her village. She reasoned through the numerous stories she was told, that she could take Dillion's head to Helheim and win his soul back. Along the way there are lore stones to find and a few light puzzles to work through to drive the narrative along. I love Norse mythology as a whole, so this one really grabbed my interest and held on throughout the game. I loved finding more and more lore stones to get more background and insight in to the world as a whole.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice really shows what care and attention can bring to a game. Ninja Theory spent time with real mental health professionals to ensure their story would strike the right chords and be as accurate as it can from that standpoint. The atmosphere and stellar sound design both play a huge part in my enjoyment. Also, the game is graphically impressive beyond most games, standing toe-to-toe with some AAA titles that are just releasing. The combat is both fun and engaging, with a real sense of panic setting in once you realize you could lose your game save (Well, sort of, but I don't want to ruin anything). Overall I think Hellblade is something everyone should give a play through. It's not overly long and some may even say it's too short, but I'm glad to have played the game and helped this young woman along on her amazing journey.
Name: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Developer: Ninja Theory
Genre: Action-adventure game, Hack and slash
Platform: PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows
Release Date: Aug. 8, 2017