Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review (PS4) – “Enter Madness”

Developed by Ninja Theory (Devil May Cry 2013, Heavenly Sword), Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tells the tale of a young Pict (think Celtic) warrior who travels into Norse Hell to beg for her deceased lover’s soul back. His head, strung around her waist and wrapped in burlap, is a constant reminder of her loss and motivation. From the beginning this literal symbol sets the tone of the journey as we witness this round bag begin to take form of a skull and “breathe”. You see, Senua is not a normal warrior, due to the trauma she has undergone, she is forced to live with symptoms of severe psychosis. Ninja Theory uses this story as an attempt to de-stigmatize the culture surrounding psychosis and shed some light on what people who suffer from this ailment have to live with. So, does Hellblade deliver the innovative and delicate package in an enjoyable game, while simultaneously educating its player base? Or will it make you go mad just attempting to comprehend the complexity of it?

Story: 4/5

Luckily for us, Ninja Theory has indeed accomplished their quest to not only provide us with an incredible game, but properly portray mental health issues in a medium that has not really been utilized before. Hellblade puts you inside of Senua’s mind from the beginning. You start by cautiously rowing down a dark, eerie river and though you can see no one besides Senua, you hear voices – many voices. Some are encouraging, some are scared, and some mock you. This goes on for a good few minutes until you finally reach your destination. By the time you disembark your hand-crafted boat, the voices are already permeating into your own personal thoughts and you become quickly emerged into Senua’s way of thinking. She is scared but determined, and as one of the voices tells you to turn back, you push the boat away, out of reach, and you know that you are now fully committed to the task.

Senua’s journey starts her at the gates of Hellheim, Norse mythology’s depiction of Hell. They are locked and therefore you must travel to the two gatekeeper’s lands in order to defeat them and unlock the gate. Before you can advance too far, you are rushed by a number of demons who would thwart your efforts to enter the land of the dead. During this, you are presented with a very interesting mechanic. Considering Senua’s mental state and the strain of the tasks that fall before her, Ninja Theory has given the player a way of monitoring her mental degradation in a visual way by creating what is simply called “the Rot”. A grotesque depiction of her ailment is emblazed on her right arm. Brown and oozing, as flesh melts away it slowly eats at her, growing up her forearm to her neck and eventually her head. The game specifically and blatantly states what will happen if you let the Rot devour Senua by dying too many times: Senua will be consumed by it, perish, and your entire progress will be lost (or will it?). This instantly creates a feeling of anxiety in the player to match that of Senua’s. The constant reminder that too many mistakes will cost you everything is all too real and intense, and instills an incredible ongoing experience.

Upon venturing to the first gatekeeper’s land, your host of voices are joined by another, Druth, who helps guide you and keeps you moving forward. He acts as Senua’s reasoning and persistence by helping her make sense of the world. Senua’s entire journey is symbolic in many ways and the gatekeepers are a fantastic way to display this. One represents Senua’s physical suffering. As you traverse the scorched, scarred and barren wastelands of this region you are reminded of not only her own anguish, but of those around her; those she lived with and watched die. The atmosphere of this adventure evokes a feeling of helplessness, guilt and pain.

The other keeper represents Senua’s mental suffering. Illusions and hallucinations fill this area to give you a paranoid feeling that at any time, from any place, something is going to come after you. By the end of this section, you feel you can no longer trust anything you see, perfectly embodying what Senua herself would be seeing.

Upon opening the gate and venturing into Hellheim, you are presented with a feeling of accomplishment and assurance that you may actually be able to do this. You are then knocked down a few pegs and a new voice emerges to cast doubt upon your every action. “The Shadow” as he is called, has a terrifying air about him and will take any chance to demoralize you and berate you. Senua must learn to press forward with all of these conflicting voices in her head as she struggles not only to physically continue, but to build up the courage to do so as well. The journey becomes more difficult as she progresses and with every gripping cutscene you experience, you become more and more attached to her until her story becomes yours.

Laid out along your path in the story are objects called “lorestones”. They are treated like collectibles, but only a few are truly difficult to miss. They give insight to Senua’s Norse religion and world; how things are explained by her people and why certain beings are present, as well as any lessons we can learn from them. They may not all relate directly to the story, but many give background and are at the very least intriguing to hear about, it would also be wise to collect all of them, as this is the only miss-able trophy for a one playthrough platinum.

Throughout the story we get glimpses at Senua’s life before the incident. Most of the tales are not happy ones, but they all give way to pieces of information that help explain why Senua is in her current state. Her story is rarely laid out plainly in front of you; it takes a little bit of critical thinking to truly grasp what has just unfolded at times. There are flashbacks and dramatic changes in environment that cannot often be explained right away. Normally, this would be too confusing to follow in a game. However, Ninja Theory repeatedly introduces you to this concept of seeing through Senua’s eyes and you begin to understand that perhaps not everything she sees or experiences is 100% truth. This is not a story that should be played only once to fully grasp what has happened. Even at the end, I still had to take a minute to grasp what had transpired and what it meant for our beloved character.

While it doesn’t dive into the entire story, Ninja Theory has provided a bonus excerpt that should be watched once you complete the game. Due to the game’s dealings with psychosis, Ninja Theory thought it would be wise and helpful to include a 25 minute video explaining their creative process and the reasoning behind so many decisions. In this video, there are a few explanations to some of Senua’s experiences and background that help shed light on what has transpired if you have difficulty grasping it from the story.  This video was highly enjoyable and informative. My wife, a social worker who has studied psychosis and other mental illnesses, watched it with me and agreed that what they were showing and explaining was quite impressive. It was very comforting to know how and why they approached the game the way they did, and what they were trying to convey about psychosis. If you are to play this game, you should watch it (after completing it once of course).

Gameplay: 4/5

Hellblade splits gameplay into two successful sections: puzzles and combat. The former takes precedent, while the latter is treated as more of a break, until you reach the end of the story. The puzzles in Hellblade range from simple to moderate, and rarely frustrating. In an attempt to better showcase the effects psychosis might have on someone and their actions, most of the puzzles provide a demonstration of how Senua would try to make sense of her world. For instance, many locked doors have runes on them that appear to be random arrangements of lines. However, spend enough time looking at the world and you can find those exact lines somewhere hidden in say, the formation of a few downed trees. Once you locate the symbols, you can focus on them and the doors will open. Of course, the entire time you’re solving these puzzles you are constantly being led astray or doubted by the voices in your head. Other puzzles include seeing through illusions and altering your perspective of the world to drastic levels. While many of the puzzles won’t keep you hung up for long, they do a very nice job of helping you understand Senua’s mind, which in a game about psychosis is a very smart and tactful experience.

The combat in Hellblade is tremendously satisfying and rewarding. You can view the controls from the main menu, but outside of that there is hardly a tutorial on how to survive when up against demons. The game kind of throws you into the fray rather quickly, which aids in its quest to make you feel outnumbered, underprepared, scared and cautious – but capable. You can attack with quick, heavy or melee attacks (kicks/shoves to throw off balance); as well as dodge and block. Different hits and combos can be strategically used depending on the enemy, and this adds a nice layer of complexity and variation to the battles. Each hit you land on an enemy has a substantial weight to it, really solidifying your connection. Of course each hit the enemy lands on you puts you close to dying and subsequently allowing the Rot to grow. Senua is also able to build up a focus meter during combat which will allow her to slow time down and deal more damage faster to enemies. This mechanic saved me time and time again in the late game!

Combat is typically handled in a slow, standoff fashion as anywhere from 1 to… many… enemies dauntingly take their time advancing upon you. You can lock-on to a single enemy and take them on one-on-one, but you’ll need to be cautious about the other encroaching threats. Thankfully, the voices in your head will warn you if you are about to be attacked, or when you should dodge, block, or finish an enemy off. In a world all by yourself, it’s good to have some backup. Boss fights tend to be a little faster-paced, but that doesn’t mean they will only last a short while. A particular boss fight took me 20+ minutes to defeat even with constant attacks on my part (this may be patched out in a recent update). Each fight you are presented with is a tense battle, and though I never failed a fight sequence, there were many times when I had to take a minute because I thought there would be no way out of this – that surely, I was meant to die to progress the story instead of defeat everything the game had thrown at me. This terrible feeling of unavoidable failure is paramount in delivering Senua’s experience to the player. You are not a one woman army. You will struggle. You will doubt yourself. But you will persevere.

There were times when I was frustrated by the combat however. A few sequences pit you against seemingly endless enemies in small quarters, and to navigate around to avoid them is difficult when you have to stay locked-on to one at all times. You find yourself dodging repeatedly just to move faster and it kind of takes you out of the experience – not to mention get you killed easily.

The game is quite linear with very little actual exploration, though some is necessary to find all of the lorestones. Advancing through the story, the gameplay is a fantastic way to exhibit Senua’s evolving emotions and really helps pull the player in more.

Graphics: 5/5

From the beginning, Hellblade is a gorgeous game. Textures, lighting and physics all play well together to form a complete package that surrounds the player and plunges them into the world. With the game focused on Senua in third-person, it is reassuring to see her dreadlocks, matted and torn, in such great detail. Her face shows life throughout the game and easily shifts from emotion to emotion. Her clothes are worn and get progressively worse as you tread through the underworld. The environments are clean and detailed, to the point where simply walking around is a pleasure.

While the game is primarily set in dark tones (considering it IS Hell after all), the game does offer a few glimpses into a lighter, warmer atmosphere that is equally as detailed and enjoyable.  Due to the consistent darkness of the world, these breaks into a more joyous environment really pop and provide a feeling of being at ease, if only for a moment.

Enemies are just as detailed as Senua, and will show injuring and scarring as you damage them. The interesting thing is how the developers handled cutscenes and other characters. The times when Senua is alone and featured in an important scene, Ninja Theory uses their new technology to achieve incredible precision in facial feature tracking. At one point, my wife walked in during a scene and was taken back by how she thought Melina Juergens herself was being shown. These moments are breathtaking in their graphical fidelity and accuracy in facial expressions. Other cutscenes take a less impressive, but still effective, route of delivery. Senua is portrayed closely to how she is in gameplay, which is still very well done, however the main voices she hears in her head are shown as distorted renders of live-action actors. At first this contrast was a bit jarring, however upon thinking on it for a few minutes it makes complete sense. Everyone Senua talks to is not actually there. The stark difference in illustration of the characters is a clear portrayal of Senua’s suffering: that she knows, on some level, that these voices she is hearing and these people she is talking to do not exist. This visual aid for the player may seem a bit unpolished at first (also considering this was potentially done in part to save on costs), but it works with the theme of the game and yet again delivers an amazing experience to the player to keep them in Senua’s world.

There were only two instances in the game where physics seemed to overrule the laws of the game and constant pieces of enemies began to convulse rapidly, becoming very distracting and off-putting but not persistent. With a simple, yet satisfactory photo mode active during almost the entire game, you can capture some truly beautiful or haunting moments. The graphics also seemed to hold consistently with no noticeable drops in framerate.

Sound: 5/5

The perfect bow to wrap up the gift of Senua’s journey is how Hellblade handles the game’s audio. Upon starting up the game, you are notified that it is best enjoyed with a headset. I was using a 7.1 virtual surround sound headset, as well as listening to the game straight from the TV for comparison. There is a stark difference and I highly recommend playing this game with a headset, even if it isn’t virtual surround sound. This is because (as detailed in the bonus “Hellblade Experience” video) Ninja Theory captured their audio tracks in 4D, so the voices that Senua hears were literally coming from certain directions. Considering the voices are omnipresent, they need to feel like they surround you and it is pulled off near perfectly. This feeling of being unable to escape the influences of your own thoughts is essential to the experience.

Hellblade not only uses these voices to create an atmosphere for the player, it also chooses when they are most frequent or in the most eerie of times, not present at all. This careful balance of voices, music, environment, and ambience audio tracks are so meticulously crafted you won’t even notice them changing. The audio alone captures the entire motif of Senua’s adventure. Not only was the background exceptional, Melina’s, and the other actors’, performances were among some of the best acting in video games in the past few years. They were able to draw you in and create the emotions they needed to portray with ease and consistency.

The game also had a very natural flow to it. Using the audio in parallel with the story, the game was able to control the player’s feelings to help smoothen out the more “intense” events of the game, as well as build you up with self-assurance when it needed too! Hellblade would not have been half the game if it slacked on the audio aspect, and thankfully for all of us it truly delivered a flawless experience.

Overall Score: 18/20 = 9.0 out of 10

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is much more than a warrior’s journey of love. It is about overcoming, as well as accepting, aspects of one’s self that were previously holding you back. It marvelously ensnares the player into the emotions and state of Senua, and effectively ensures that you are right there with her the entire time. Through a clever system of puzzles, overwhelming combat, as well as audio and visual trickery, Ninja Theory created a game that simulates aspects of psychosis in an effort to better destigmatize the illness. Acting in Hellblade is impeccable, and while it can at times feel like a slower-paced game, it is thoroughly enjoyable and challenging. The story can be a bit confusing at times, so multiple playthroughs are recommended (only about 6-8 hrs per playthrough). This $30 game should not be passed on by anyone who wants an experience different from any other game.

Pros:

+ Only $30

+ Satisfying and challenging combat

+ Complex story

Cons:

– Somewhat repetitive puzzles

– Never ending feeling of doubt

– You may start to hear voices…

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was purchased by the reviewer and tested for the PlayStation 4 system.

Enjoy our review? Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter: @GamersXTREME for the latest in gaming news and reviews.

Curious to how our review system works? Check out the About section.