When Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrificed was announced some time ago, the trailer looked beautiful and eerie, it became clear that this was no ordinary game. As the release got closer, I was even more excited at the prospect of playing. This new title from Cambridge-based Ninja Theory combines Norse mythology with movie-like cinematography to deliver an experience you’re unlikely to forget, or have in such a way again.
Senua is a celtic warrior, plagued by psychosis and on a quest to seek out Helheim, the Northmen’s version of hell. If you have some knowledge of Norse mythology, then you may already know a little (or a lot) about the journey Senua must embark on in order to rescue the soul of the man she loves. This world of mist, darkness and death is not a place you would expect to be presented so beautifully, but Ninja Theory have excelled at producing a stunning landscape to explore with an exquisite performance from Melina Juergens. This is magnified by the binaural audio design (or three-dimensional sound simulation) which feeds you the voices Senua hears throughout the game. I would highly recommend wearing headphones if you are considering purchasing this title. At first, I found it disorientating, but after a short while, I felt as though I needed them with me, even more so later on in the game. You never feel alone, even when the voices are arguing indirectly about Senua’s choices in an attempt to tear her down but moments later they praise her and build her up again. Everything they say is clear and crisp even during battle during the cacophony of music and sound effects, they cut through with a ‘Behind you!’ to warn Senua of an imminent hit that she would not have seen coming otherwise.
The voices are not just those of Senua. There are other important voices that she will need to guide and pusg her through this journey. Whether they are memories or hallucinations, they play a role in telling Senua’s story and making you care for her wellbeing and survival. Their physical appearances come in the form of distorted or blurred visions or just a voice sent to guide you through the fights and trials you will face. The creators of this game have been sure to research the subject matter thoroughly with psychiatry experts and the charitable foundation, Wellcome, and they have also spent time with people who live with psychosis which becomes clear in the presentation of this story. The team wanted to be challenged by showing the whole experience rather than simply focusing on just the voices and involving their audience in the full range of possible manifestations that a person may experience. This game is harrowing at times, dangling moments of hope in front of you before throwing you into combat or puzzle areas giving the voices an opportunity to knock Senua down again.
Along this journey there will be many foes to overcome. The inhabitants of Hel are not kind and will not just step aside and let you wander through their gates. Runes seal locked doors which you will need to seek out by observing your surroundings while other areas require you to be quick and cautious in order to make it through. There is no tutorial to guide you so your first taste of combat may be met with disappointment resulting in The Deep Rot seeping in and beginning its corruption. Suddenly you are told that death will not be left unpunished and dying too many times will result in your progress being reset. I died a few times throughout the course of this game and fortunately, the rot did not reach my head but I didn’t want to test the theory at the risk of losing my progress. If this is real, it’s harsh, but if not, it’s incredibly clever as it adds real stakes to Senua’s survival and hopefully you will want to do everything in your power to prevent her from dying. Every hit Senua took filled me with a sense of dread, especially when I couldn’t parry or dodge in time but once I got a handle on the controls and the use of her focus to slow time and provide some stellar slow motion action, I felt that it was possible to get her through this. I imagine the hardest difficulty will make enemies harder to take down resulting in longer combat sequences, but with the threat of a possible save wipe, I was not willing to test this theory on my playthrough.
The combat is relatively smooth with light and heavy attacks mixed in with the ability to block, dash or try to break guard. If you button mash, you will just hack, slash and possibly miss so a more calculated approach will pay off. When a parry is perfectly timed, there is a satisfying clash of swords which will build your focus allowing you to use your slow-motion flurry. The enemies get a little tougher and combat spaces become smaller as the game progresses. When the foes appear from the shadows, you will have to be ready to dodge and block as best as you can. The only time I had difficulty was with multiple enemies as changing target was a case of trying to look in the right direction. During busier encounters, I would often focus and unleash my flurry but miss enemies because I couldn’t change direction. It was only an issue when Senua’s life was at stake as the sudden panic sets in and I had to find my rhythm again. I did enjoy the combat overall, but the open areas tended to make it clear that an encounter was about to commence which lessened the tension for me a little. This is only really a problem for those players who would prefer to be surprised, but it just made the fights a little obvious for me. Still, these encounters can be pretty intense which made them all the more enjoyable!
Nothing in simple in Helheim. Nothing is as it seems. Everything is a trial and the story will only get darker the further you go. As mentioned previously, to progress you will need to solve puzzles which you require you to use your focus. The puzzle element doesn’t really change throughout the game with only some variations on the theme of lining things up to form runes or break illusions. I wouldn’t say the puzzles get harder, but you do have to look around a bit more and use your wits to figure out the order of things. I didn’t find the puzzles overly challenging, but with the voices doubting Senua’s ability to succeed, I was determined to solve them just to hear them praise her and build her up again. Senua’s vision is filled with runes the closer you get to the solution so you’ll know if you’re on the right track. In other puzzles, you’ll unveil illusions to remove walls, change your surroundings and possibly even time. These were a little trickier but I found myself enjoying them even when everything around Senua is so dark and twisted. I can see that some players may have wanted more of a challenge but when everything Senua faces is there to torment and confuse her, solving them makes you feel like you are helping her on this quest. I would say that as you pass the halfway point of this 6-8 hour title, the game shifts and throws you into the trials which may seem straight forward but will plunge you into darkness leaving you to fumble around and hope that you make it to the end. I found these particularly effective as there’s nothing like the threat of an enemy you can’t see to get your blood pumping.
The story itself is harrowing and emotive with a powerful performance from Melina. It can’t be an easy task to convey such a complex character who is experiencing something that many would not understand. The torment and conflict Senua experiences as she tries to come to terms with her illness and her past draw you in and make you feel as though you are discovering this with her at the same time. As the journey draws to its conclusion, Melina’s portrayal really comes into its own as Senua battles with her internal struggles to fight the darkness which has plagued her for so long. While I didn’t want the game to end, I didn’t want Senua to suffer anymore and as the ending got closer, I hoped that her fight had not been for nothing. I really enjoyed the story and found myself feeling quite emotional at the end of it all and I know that I will revisit this game again in the future just to go through it again. I really wish I could say more without spoiling anything but I must hold my tongue!
Hellblade has left an impression on me. Ninja Theory have produced a beautiful, engaging, action adventure while handling a subject matter that requires care and sensitivity. Senua is a complex but sympathetic character who I cared for throughout the game thanks to a great performance which was enhanced by the stunning motion capture and visuals. The use of sound was incredibly effective and to get the most of this experience, you will definitely require headphones to appreciate the full effect. As a person interested in Norse mythology, I liked the way the story involved these tales but also seeing these places and characters brought to life just made it all the better. Ninja Theory have not only handled the subject of psychosis well, but they have also done a great job of creating Helheim and its inhabitants. The one thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that if you get a chance, I would suggest turning photo mode on and taking some time to capture some amazing images and moments. I have been sure to include some of mine below just to give you an idea of what you can achieve with the tools provided. If may not be as advanced as Horizon Zero Dawns, but it does the job if you get a little creative. Overall, Hellblade is an enjoyable decent into the heart of darkness making it one of my favorite games of the year so far. I would highly recommend this title to anyone who wants to go on this journey with Senua… I would like to think that by the end, you will be glad that you did.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available now on PS4 and PC for £24.99.
Our thanks to Taylor Herring for providing Darkworld Gaming with a review copy of PS4.