A (mostly) spoiler-free review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
I had been reading about the development of Hellblade for over a year, and was immediately captured by two things. The first was the dark and foreboding visual representation of Norse mythology and Celtic culture. The second was its genuine, respectful approach to dealing with psychosis. I’m not talking about the often-blatant misrepresentation of psychosis portrayed in movies; this is actual psychosis, with the developers working closely with leading professors on the subject.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows a Pict warrior, Senua, on a journey both physical and metaphorical as she tries to save the soul of her dead lover, Dillion. Accompanying her on this journey is the narrator, one of the “Furies”, or voices, she hears. The Furies themselves are unreliable, offering conflicting advice or commentary on her every action. The narrator is aware of the player, as well, inviting the player to follow Senua. Another of the voices, and the only one that is consistently truthful, is Druth, her dead friend who serves as her guide with his vast knowledge of the “Northmen” from his time as their slave.
Also along for the ride is a cloth sack that contains Dillion’s head. Yes, her dead lover’s head, as Senua believes it would serve as a vessel for Dillion’s soul after she saves him from Helheim. At the very beginning of the game, she holds the sack in her hands, and as she speaks to it, if one looks closely, one can see the sack cloth move as the skull inside seems to breathe once. Chilling.
Finally, there is there is “the Darkness”, a manifestation of the “curse” she believes she has. It stalks her wherever she goes, tormenting her, and causes her psychosis to worsen. Battling this Darkness is a recurring theme in the game, and I found it to be quite intriguing.
The game is absolutely beautiful. From the haunting, nightmarish landscapes to the gorgeous scenes of natural beauty during those brief moments when Senua pushes the Darkness back, I can’t think of a game that looked so good. There were even moments when I had to pause to remind myself it was just a game. I was so engrossed in the story and the ambiance that I was teetering on being scared.
The gameplay consists mostly of controlling Senua as she tries to navigate the environmental puzzles she encounters. The game designers worked closely with leading experts and people suffering from psychosis to make these puzzles interesting as well as remaining respectful. For example, people with psychosis may see patterns where others don’t, so Senua must walk where she sees a tree branch align with a post to form the symbol of a rune. Another example might be a broken bridge she must cross, but first she has to align herself at an angle where a fence seems to cover the broken portion, allowing her to then cross it. Solving these puzzles wasn’t terribly difficult, but some were time consuming. I found them to be one of my favorite parts of the game.
The combat is brutal. I found myself quickly dumping it down to “easy”, and even then, I often found Senua being overwhelmed by the demonic Northmen. I finally learned to not button mash and instead look for the patterns in their attacks, much like in the puzzles. During battle, the camera is fixed, so that just like in real life, one can’t see what’s behind. The Furies will often warn of an attack from behind, but they’re not always reliable, as mentioned earlier. The more hurt Senua becomes, the louder and more desperate the Furies become, heightening the sense of anxiety and dread. With no health bar, the only choice one has it to listen to the Furies for the clues one needs.
Along the way, Senua encounters standing stones with Norse runes inscribed on them. Activating them results in Druth recounting part of a Norse legend, and finding all of them throughout the game provides a hidden scene that, while not crucial to the story, elaborates on Druth’s own backstory and sheds new light on Senua’s.
How much of Senua’s journey is physical, and how much of it is only in her mind? Part of what I loved about this game so much is what it doesn’t address in addition to what it answers directly. Revealing portions of the story through her own twisted lens, one can piece together what happened leading up to the start of the game, but it’s up to the player to decide what is real and not after that point.
All in all, this was one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. Extremely thought-provoking, intriguing, and even eye-opening, I would heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys a beautiful blend of puzzle solving, survival horror, and hack-and-slash.