Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a dark-fantasy tale set in the sublime, brutal and almost incomprehensible world of Nordic myth. With stunning visuals and chilling environments, the story of Senua is one of desperation, loss, struggle and an overwhelming pain that the player feels, almost as raw and visceral as that experienced by Senua.
In fact, it admittedly took me a little time to get embroiled in the game because the beautiful visual tale that Ninja Theory have woven struck me to my very core. It wasn’t just another video game to me. Hellblade explores the almost taboo topic of psychosis, creating a story in the way only a video game can.
The story follows Senua, a Pict warrior on a quest to recover the soul of Dillion, the man she loves, from Hela, the goddess of the underworld. Norse myth, by its very nature, is beautiful, harsh, violent and full of unknowable magic. Pairing it with the almost unfathomable virtues of psychosis is a match made in Valhalla and twisted in the depths of Hel, and it only gets more twisted as the game progresses.
Not content with formidable foes that are intent to cut her down at every turn, Senua struggles with her own personal demons in a raw, emotional experience that players cannot help but feel in their very souls. Senua is a broken-yet-determined warrior, driven to her breaking point, only made more real by the alien and brutal arena that she finds herself in.
Told through an association with the ‘Darkness’, an everpresent feeling of despair, isolation, anger and sadness, the quest Senua embarks on and the battles she fights become an extension of her own internal pain. Despite the isolation or perhaps because of it, Senua is never truly alone, having a series of voices in her head known as The Furies. Ranging from tearing her down, mocking her and even encouraging her at certain moments, the Furies are a persistent presence for Senua throughout the game. And it is most likely the closest most players will come to hearing the constant murmur of voices in the back of their minds.
These Furies have an echoing tone, almost as if they are right next to Senua, and to you, layering their voices for an ethereal and haunting effect. Senua’s internal struggle is placed front and centre in such a way that players feel every vehement moment and powerful emotion. This is where the storytelling of Hellblade shines, as it embodies multiple mediums to not only showcase the tale of Senua but the conflict that psychosis creates and prolongs.
However, it isn’t all bad news with The Furies, as they offer occasional and, frankly helpful warnings during combat. Lacking a heads-up display you do not get any indication as to when an enemy is attacking. You have to rely on your perfect situational awareness for the most part. The Furies will chime in with ‘behind you’ or other such warnings, giving you a split second to spin around and parry.
This is flipped on its head when you get knocked down or are close to death. Choruses of ‘she’s bleeding’, ‘she’s injured’ and other discouragements will ring out if the battle takes a turn for the worse. What struck me was the sheer pain on Senua’s face when she gets into those states, one strike away from being one of the lost souls that roam Hel.
Somehow Ninja Theory captured a primal pain that, to me at least, goes above the simply physical. It is desperate, potent and deadly.
Primal and desperate is how I would describe the combat system, at least prima facie. With the more exploratory and puzzle-solving nature of the wider game on a whole, combat is relatively simple. That doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable or without its challenges, but there are only a few moves you will need to master.
Quick and heavy attacks, parrying, dodging and Focus are the staples, and will comfortably get you through to the end of Hellblade. But with the lack of a HUD, you really have to be on your guard and aware of your surroundings.
One of the more irritating things about combat for me was the camera, which occasionally switched to other enemies I wasn’t prioritising which affected the flow of my perfect parrying. I’m obviously lying, it was quite a desperate series of parries and counter-strikes until I got into a good rhythm.
However, venture a few hours into the game and you will feel the difficulty of combat begin to ramp up, often throwing large numbers of enemies at you within the confined, intimate setting that your combat arenas usually consist of. You need to think tactically, using whatever strategy you can come up with on the fly.
And while it is a smart strategy to avoid death in any video game, Hellblade takes it a step further by introducing permadeath. Not a traditional permadeath, but each death or objective failure you suffer will show as a visual corruption, the Darkness, extending up Senua’s arm. It represents a complete and utter takeover and should it consume you, you will have to begin anew.
From the moment I entered into the universe of Hellblade, I was floored at the gorgeously brutal world that Senua was semi-voluntarily entering. And that feeling of amazement never went away, in fact, the world got more violently beautiful the further I progressed. No matter where you go, there is a decisive and awe-inspiring beauty surrounding this game which, when combined with the Norse setting and psychosis, take it to a whole new level.
It has been a very long time since a game has left me truly stunned. I remember almost being breathless first entering the realm of Valravn, I remember the heart-racing panic going through ‘the house’ and I remember the alarm and fear I felt in the dark. In the simplest of terms, Hellblade shows the turmoil and dystopia that resides within Senua herself.
But one of the core tenets of the game is that nothing is ever as it seems, with your perception constantly changing. Experienced notably through the rune puzzles throughout the world, the path to venture deeper into Helheim is blocked by enigmas Senua must unlock using Focus.
Focus is a special ability that grants Senua the ability to see beyond the physical plane, allowing her to manipulate the world around her and see the patterns hidden in what appears to be quite normal – albeit a terrifying and brutal normality.
This is a characteristic way that Hellblade flows psychosis into the core structure of the game. Senua being able to perceive the world differently can be said to represent delusions and hallucinations in an unobtrusive and respectful way.
Much like how Senua is not truly what she seems from the exterior, the puzzles require you to really look at the world. Hellblade doesn’t explain to you how to solve the puzzles so it can be confusing at first. Something I didn’t realise until later on in the game, and after countless hours of roaming aimlessly was that a large number of glowing runes begin to sparkle around you when you are getting close. I thought it was simply a notable design feature.
Focus also allows you to interact with special lorestones hidden around the world, prompting memories and stories of the Northmen. These are told by a wanderer known as Druth, who, like Senua, suffered at the hands of the Vikings.
Hellblade is mostly a game about exploring and puzzle-solving, with generous helpings of combat strewn throughout its entirety. While that can sound slow-paced, which it generally is at the start, the gameplay pacing begins to pick up quite rapidly as you venture deeper into Helheim. Culminating in an ending I personally loved, Hellblade‘s gameplay seems to react to Senua and the progression of her psychosis.
In a weird twist, I do not have enough words to describe how amazingly well psychosis was portrayed, and that is coming from someone who doesn’t necessarily suffer from delusions and hallucinations like Senua (and many others in reality) do. I felt it vividly in my core as I witnessed Senua’s struggle with the Darkness, and explored the savage land with an unshakeable tension and excitement.
Hellblade is a visual marvel, centring itself around an intensely personal struggle that resonates with and grips players, pulling them into an emotional story. While it does become a little hard to bear Senua’s pain at times, the writing, voice acting and the savage-yet-beautiful surroundings have elevated this to be one of my favourite games, without a doubt.
Video games are uniquely placed to tell powerful stories and I consider it a privilege to have played/heard this one. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game you should definitely consider picking up and embracing.