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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review – Defeat Your Demons

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Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua's SacrificeDeveloped and Published by Ninja Theory

Available on PS4 and PC

Rated M for Mature


Despite being a heavy advocate for mental health rights in the real world, I’m that kind of guy who gets all picky about their depiction in media. This is probably why I avoided Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice until my end of the year wrap up. I didn’t relish the idea of spending four hours watching a girl’s face contort as she screams at the demons in her head and swats away imaginary monsters. Having schizophrenia doesn’t inherently make you see demons flying around, and it’s debatable if dissociative identity disorder even exists. Mental illness is much more subtle than that. More importantly, it also isn’t the entirety of what makes a person. No matter how severe, you are not your disorder. It’s just a part of the whole you.

Luckily, the people over at Ninja Theory seem to understand this. I should have expected no less from the team that brought us masterpieces like Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. A Pict warrior from a now demolished and depopulated village, Senua is a warrior, hero, lover, and sufferer of mental illness. She’s a badass on a quest first, and just so happens to also be afflicted by what she calls the “Furies.” Her illness manifests as a number of doubting and contradicting voices that ceaselessly whisper in her ear. The effect in game is quite haunting.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

I can’t actually SHOW you what the voices are saying, but at times like this it’s a lot of, “can we please not get murdered like that?”

You meet Senua as she begins her journey into Helheim, the literal Norse underworld. She has come with the head of her dead lover Dillion, who for reasons later revealed was killed while Senua was away. Failing to reach a bargain with lord of the underworld Hela, Senua has to God of War her way through some lesser Norse mythical figures to take Dillion back by force.

Right off the bat, I said to myself that if this turned out to all be in her head that I’d give the game 2 stars. I really hate when mental illness is portrayed in such hyperbolic light. Though there is some ambiguity in the ending, it does seem like all of the stuff that Senua accomplishes really happens. There’s a hell of a lot of metaphor to it, but I’m going to choose to believe she really did kill Garmr in that cave and the relevance it had to her life was just coincidence.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

At this moment, Senua realizes she might be in a little bit over her head…

I’ll talk about the gameplay before I get to praising the shit out of the visuals, as there isn’t really much gameplay to speak of. It’s all basically divided into two parts: combat and environment puzzles. Combat is that now familiar fast/heavy attack/counter/block system that is best described as functional. There are about 5 different types of enemies in the game, all which require slight variations on the basic tactics to beat. You can also periodically use your focus to slow time and heal up if things get too heated.

Outside of the game’s few impressive bossfights, it’s nothing to write home about. Some of the longer segments are a nightmare to get through, but apart from maybe two parts I’d be hard pressed to remember a single fight. The way that cuts are laid into your opponent’s flesh is impressive, but this is a game that really could have taken advantage of some impressive finishers. The way your sword flashes and camera zooms when you perfectly counter an attack looks great, but the follow up is just kind of bland.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Thwack one hellspawn to death, you’ve thwacked them all

The other main mechanic is the environmental puzzles, which 90% of the time involves looking at things at weird angles to make the shape of runes. The game does a pretty decent job of hinting at where to go. I only once really got stuck on it, and for a game with 0 tutorials and HUD it’s an impressive display of good level design. The concept is cool, that you have to look at the world in a different way to find the hidden secrets, but I’m honestly just trying to drum up praise for something that rarely raises past filler content.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

At least now I have an excuse for staring through small openings into people’s houses.

What really stands out about Hellblade is the aesthetic design and character. Ninja Theory have always had some of—if not absolutely—the best facial animation in the industry. This is on full display in Hellblade. Senua looks fantastic. From her matted hair to her darting eyes, everything looks perfect. In some of the cutscenes she’s across from a real actor, and it took me a good while to figure out that those were real people. She just looks that good.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Granted, the real actors are all ghost-fuzzy…

Some of the environments can be bland in the way that they were certainly designed to be arenas in a video game, but most of the levels are simply breathtaking. There’s this one in particular that took place in the underworld that seriously sent chills down my spine. For a small game that costs just 30 dollars, it’s really unmatched.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Some guy really went hog wild with the copy/paste function

But visuals without substance is just so much window dressing on an empty room. What really gives Hellblade its meat is Senua herself. She’s haunted by far more than the simple fact that she hears voices. She’s determined, resilient, and courageous despite being terrified. She really doesn’t want to have to be doing this. We rarely get her take on things, instead hearing the bickering voices and are left to imagine what Senua actually thinks. It’s integral to how Hellblade tells its story, as the evolving nature of the Furies reflects where Senua is on her emotional journey. It’s a rather nuanced take on a concept so many narratives so often get wrong.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Althought she DOES shout at the voices at least a few times… but I guess you can’t break every stereotype all at once

There is one other mechanic that I should mention out of sheer infamy, and that is the permadeath system. Early on, Senua is cursed by Hela with a creeping darkness. Starting at her hand, each death will cause the darkness to grow until it reaches her head. It’s a bold move, and would instill a sense of urgency if it actually was real. Yes, it turns out that the darkness actually can’t consume you as the game states. I respect them for having the stones to make death meaningful, but not following through is just weak. I’d rather a few scrubs lose their progress for the overall uniqueness of the game than this neutered half measure.

At 30 bucks, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is definitely worth checking out just for how different it is. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the gameplay isn’t ever outright bad. The bickering Furies might get on your nerves, but that’s the point. This is about a woman killing Gods. She just also happens to be mentally ill. And for that I commend it. It also manages to be truly shocking, spreading enough gore and torment across the screen to make Clive Barker blush. An overall average gameplay experience raised up by its excellent visual design and unique narrative.

  • Game
3.5

Summary

At 30 bucks, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is definitely worth checking out just for how different it is. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the gameplay isn’t ever outright bad. The bickering Furies might get on your nerves, but that’s the point. This is about a woman killing Gods. She just also happens to be mentally ill.

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