Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a dark and brutal game set in the time of Viking invasion of Orkney. The titular character, Senua, is a Celtic warrior who survived the slaughter of her village and has since been driven mad with grief. She also suffers from an extreme form of psychosis, resulting in a disturbing and thought-provoking experience.
Hellblade, developed by Ninja Theory, uses a small team of just 20 staff members featuring their own video editor, Melina Juergens, as the voice actor and motion capture for Senua. What makes this number even more impressive is the fact that the developers built their own mocap studio in their office using Ikea furniture and leading facial capture technology from 3Lateral. The team documented their development progress with 29 dev diaries via their YouTube channel. In these, they state that the original goal of Hellblade was to make a AAA game for half the price and half the size, a goal I would say they achieved excellently.
Hellblade explores the mind of Senua, a Celtic warrior who suffers from devastating grief resulting in an extreme form of psychosis. The development team consulted closely with mental health experts as well as individuals who suffer different forms of psychosis to accurately portray what it’s like to live with such illnesses.
The combat mechanics in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice are overall satisfying. The game is categorised as a hack and slash, and it definitely lives up to the title as the combat primarily consists of evading and well-timed attacks. I found myself dodging for most of the combat, accompanied with quick slashes while my enemies’ backs were turned. The game doesn’t delude the player into thinking Senua is as strong as the many brutes she will encounter on her journey, and so taking advantage of her size and speed is absolutely key to successful fights.
The only element of the combat that I did not find enjoyable was fighting multiple enemies. While I got used to this pretty quickly after the first few fights, it still didn’t sit right with me. Once in combat, you are locked onto your closest target until you either kill them or roll around enough to change your perspective and look at someone else. While this can be fine if all of your enemies are in front of you, it quickly becomes very annoying when they spawn behind you and the player has no way of turning around to swap targets. More often than not, I was only alerted to the inconveniently spawning enemies by the voices in Senua’s mind warning me. The automatic lock-on mechanic in combat does have its advantages, however, as it allows the player to make smooth combo attacks which look and feel very impressive when executed well.
When Senua isn’t fighting gods or hordes of brutes, problem solving is a feature of the other half of the game. The player must utilise Senua’s unique view of the world to solve puzzles and gain access to new areas. This mainly consists of looking for hidden symbols in the environment that match up with a door blocking your path. This element of the game was very rewarding, as the player has to get creative to be able to see the secrets of the world, often positioning Senua to be able to create shapes out of trees or architectural elements which would otherwise remain hidden. Although this is a very unique way to view the game and allows players the chance to explore the environment, there were times during my playthrough that it got a little stale. Despite this, exploring the environment is one of the most rewarding elements of the game, and glyph finding allows the player some much needed respite from the brutal combat and haunting story whilst also building up the world through environmental story telling.
The story is truly what makes Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a unique and harrowing experience. Senua is a character so overcome with her grief that she would literally go to Hel to bring her lover back from the dead. Through the environmental story telling alone it is made very clear just how disturbed Senua is, both because of her sorrow and her illness. This is only heightened by the fact that her psychosis manifests itself in various forms throughout the entire game. The two most obvious ways this impacts gameplay are the voices that guide or berate her, as well as the very way she sees and interacts with the environment. The voices that can be heard throughout the game serve to disturb and assist the player. As they whispered self-doubt and insults at Senua, I felt motivated to prove them wrong and keep fighting. Ninja Theory consulted with mental health experts as well as sufferers of mental illnesses so that they could portray Senua’s “darkness” as accurately as possible. This, coupled with the fact that the developers also made excellent use of their historical consultant, makes for a truly authentic and dark perspective on Celtic societies and how they might have dealt with someone who suffered from a mental illness.
The characters themselves are rendered beautifully, although this sometimes causes elements of the environment to suffer in comparison. Ninja Theory also makes use of live actors during the game, presenting them as frightening visions. While this is effective on its own, it does look a little odd sometimes when Senua is also on screen. Hellblade is definitely not for the faint hearted, as the brutal combat and disturbing visuals, such as immolation, can make even the strongest of stomachs feel queasy.
Although there are elements to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice that I feel could have been done a little better, the horrifying beauty of the world as well as the harrowing story more than make up for my minor complaints. Hellblade is a game that will stay with you long after the end credits roll, as its unique perspective of mental illness and grief linger heavily on the mind. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is more of an experience than just a game, and it is one that I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone, as its brief 6-8 hours of haunting gameplay will stay with you for days to come.