Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s arrival on Xbox One took many of us by surprise, especially given the short time between the initial announcement and launch on the console. Having already received one hell of a warm reception on the PlayStation 4 and being a fan of Ninja Theory’s previous works, I was naturally intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. Let me tell you, it didn’t at all take long to understand and appreciate the widespread acclaim. The game throws you into the role of the titular Celtic warrior Senua and takes place in the late 8th century. Senua struggles with psychosis, which serves as the backdrop for the journey at hand. Given the time period and lack of awareness, Senua doesn’t at all understand that she suffers from mental health and instead believes that she is cursed, haunted by entities, in fact. This formula makes for some very interesting and deeply meaningful beats and credit must go to Ninja Theory for their careful depiction of this harrowing illness.
Senua’s story sees her undertaking a dangerous journey to Helheim in an attempt to save the soul of Dillion, her dead lover. This journey isn’t only deadly, dark and straining, but it’s grueling in every imaginable sense of the word. Senua is pushed, pulled and challenged at every single hurdle placed in her path, as well as the harsh hurdle she must overcome, or at least accept, within her own mind. Straight off the bat it’s an emotionally draining and deep seeded story that isn’t afraid of regularly disturbing you. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this game isn’t its portrayal of Senua, or indeed her constant uphill trek, but the battle this character must constantly endure internally, each and every step of the way. You see, psychosis is a very real and very serious condition that’s really only recently been recognized and (to some degree) understood. This condition blurs the line of reality, making it hard for those who suffer from it to fully distinguish the difference between what’s real and what isn’t real. I myself suffer with a disorder known as somatoform disorder, which is a neurological condition that relays physical symptoms (in my case, seizures, nose bleeds and black-outs) when no root cause can be found outside of neurological chemical imbalance.
This doesn’t at all come close to the devastating impact that psychosis has on its victims but it did make it somewhat easier to appreciate and to some degree, understand and mildly relate to Senua’s condition. Conditions such as psychosis are taken much more seriously now, but back in the 8th century it was an entirely different story. Senua is understandably in turmoil following the loss of her lover and has absolutely no understanding as to what she is suffering with. Throughout the entirety of the story, it’s never truly made clear whether Senua is witnessing reality or hallucination, which toys with the player’s mind tremendously well. It also makes way for some interesting confrontations that feeds the narrative of either spectrum, right up until the conclusion. Ninja Theory consulted with neuroscientists, specialists and people suffering with psychosis, to get a firm angle on how they would deal with it in-game, and the end result is one that pays off in leaps and bounds. Rarely do we see such passion and careful execution such as this in gaming, which is something I feel the developer needs to be commended for above all else.
The storytelling never feels too upfront, but instead compels the player to challenge what they believe is unfolding before them. It helps, of course, the whole package is well written and well voiced from beginning to end. The cast performance in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is through the roof, in fact I daresay that it’s the best performance in any game I’ve played to date. Representing a small fraction of her psychosis, Senua suffers from voices in her head, one of which is aware of the player’s presence. This mechanic provides much of the plot’s backbone and serves as a clever way to guide, and even deceive, the player through the six – eight hour journey whilst breaking Senua’s perception in a wide range of different ways. The story is further bolstered by runic pillars that periodically make an appearance. These collectively feed the player more information regarding the backstory and myths, as well as giving a firm understanding of the era’s beliefs and mindsets. It’s not just Senua’s fragmented mind that will have you second guessing every beat, but the visuals too.
Visual effects will distort the screen throughout, as well as some up-close camera positioning and some baffling scenarios that can often prove to be too bearing. This is Ninja Theory’s way of relaying another unique layer of design that once again toys with your viewpoint and it works well in its favor. Gameplay typically consists of a mixed bag of different functionalities, though most notably it’s hack-and-slash as well as puzzle solving, tied together by the overarching aforementioned psychological theme. It’s quite a linear game, but this suits the core format nevertheless. Senua is typically required to take down a band of foes and solve environmental puzzles as the journey moves onward. The combat can be basic and indeed feel a bit hit-and-miss, ironically speaking, but this repetition never really becomes that much of an issue that it derails this exceptional experience. The difficulty never really steps up to new heights, but that’s forgivable when you take into account that the game houses a perma-death mechanic, which makes itself apparent if you die too many times within.
Puzzles, on the other hand, are crafted in such a way that these never feel out of place or implemented for the sake of it. These usually demand some perseverance and perception, seeing as puzzles often toy with illusions, basic sense and shape merging. It’s an interesting design choice and one that sits perfectly inline with not only the theme of the game, but the message it effortlessly puts forward. Touching up on the difficulty again, I suspect this is where Hellblade will split the crowd. Hellblade is a very straightforward journey that doesn’t at all prove to be too taxing despite its perma-death function. This may well turn away or dissatisfy players that prefer something more challenging, but it’s a small trade-off in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say that this is a “walking simulator” with added combat, by any means, in fact it’s more akin to the likes of Ryse than anything else. Though with that being said, players would do well to understand that Hellblade sits in a league of its own, regardless as to what you look for in a game. There’s nothing quite like it elsewhere.
It goes without saying that Hellblade looks sensational throughout. When you’re not puzzle solving or taking on the few enemy variants or interesting boss sequences, you’ll be traversing the stunningly detailed environments within. The level of detail is outstanding throughout and easily showcases photo-realism at its finest and most impressive. Each and every area of the game has been crafted in such a way that it’s captivating to the point of distraction. Whether you’re admiring some breathtaking scenery or witnessing some dreadfully horrific sights, Hellblade will shock and awe you regardless. This is upheld by some stellar audio (outside of the voice acting) that only compliments the game further. Unfortunately however, not everything is perfect. The performance of Hellblade is well rounded for the most part, but I would be lying if I said that the framerate was consistent at all times. Several times, mostly during combat sequences, I noticed a sharp drop in framerate. This didn’t occur for great lengths of time and typically remedied itself in mere seconds, but it does break the immersion when it happens. Though even with that in mind, there’s no denying that Hellblade sits as Ninja Theory’s finest work to date.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s most riveting achievement isn’t how well it functions, nor how well it’s written and voiced, nor how well it looks, but how well all of that unifies into such a dark and compelling experience. The constant tension throughout the entirety of this unique and engaging journey will disturb you, intrigue you and stay with you, long after the credits roll.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.