Note: This review will attempt to avoid any major plot spoilers, but read at your own risk.
“WARNING: This game contains representations of psychosis. People with experience of psychosis as well as professionals in psychiatry have assisted in these depictions. Some may find these depictions disturbing, including those who, themselves, may have had similar experiences. If you would like to find out more about psychosis and mental health difficulties visit www.Hellbladehelp.info.
“This game also includes violent scenes that some may find distressing.”
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice both opens and closes with this message—both before the first menu screen appears and after the last credits disappear. This is not without purpose, as the mission statement accomplishes a few goals. It provides a message of caution for those that may wish to avoid such a touchy subject matter, it explains the premise of the game, and it introduces the player into its master-class atmosphere. From the very beginning to the very end of its seven-hour runtime, Hellblade aims to lock the player into its world and never let go.
Senua is a young Celtic warrior who suffers from psychosis, a mental illness that distorts her sense of reality. She journeys into the North, where she seeks to save the soul of her lover, Dillion. There, she battles the figurative demons of her past, and the literal demons of Norse mythology, constantly struggling with the world her mind creates for her. As players progress through the world’s daunting challenges, they’ll be solving puzzles, surviving chases, and engaging enemies in ruthless combat.
As aforementioned, Hellblade shines strongest in the establishment of its atmosphere. Throughout its entirety, the game perpetuates a theme: little of what you see is true. The world morphs and twists into a waking nightmare, where chilling challenges await around every corner. One moment, the player is dueling five enemies at once. The next, they’re moving through pitch-black caverns, using only their senses to avoid creatures that stalk them in the night. The situations Senua finds herself facing range from uncomfortable to horrifying, as there’s rarely a moment of peace in seas of corpses or fields of fire.
Environments are packed with detail, specially designed to complement the short, linear journey. The jaw-dropping visuals of the Nordic legends border on photorealism, character models are brought to life with fluid animation, and some of Senua’s visions even integrate live-action performance. The protagonist herself is brilliantly performed by Melina Juergens, a newcomer who hits all the right acting beats, making the character emotional and complex. Everything is underlined with a moving, epic soundtrack full of heavy drums and war cries.
Most of the atmosphere is upheld by 3D binaural sound (best enjoyed through quality headphones, recommended by both the game itself and yours truly). In an experimental technique, Senua—and by extension, the player—hears a set of voices in her head, constantly commenting on her plight. They range from supportive to mocking to downright cruel, personifying the self-doubt and terror that countless victims of mental illness battle every day. The voices speak to the player constantly, with sound quality so precise and proper that the actors may as well be speaking right over your shoulder. Not only did this technique manage to add a dark tone to the story, but it also sheds an empathetic light upon the struggle that voice-hearers face. The simple simulation was so alarmingly powerful and immersive that it helped me relate to those suffering from that condition. For achieving that act of altruism, I commend the development team at Ninja Theory.
While the story is strong, exploring the game’s bold premise in a moving way, and the atmosphere is top-notch, Hellblade falters in its mechanics. Fights are few and far between, but they still come across as shallow and repetitive at times. They’re layered with pulse-pounding intensity thanks to the fearsome enemy types, but almost all of these opponents can be countered easily with a simple tap of the ‘dodge’ button. The combat system requires smart timing and positioning, but otherwise, strategy and depth are sparse.
The game’s puzzles are a welcome change of pace, and many of them require creativity and intuition to solve. Despite this fact, they can be finicky. Several of these conundrums require lining up a rune in the camera’s sights, and this leads to mixed results. Sometimes, the camera would swing a sizable distance to lock into the rune, spoiling the answer even if I hadn’t found it yet. Other times, I would stare at an obvious rune while jittering the joystick, trying to locate the precise angle that the game wanted me to find. The game has a tendency to over- or undercompensate in this regard. In addition, certain puzzles have steps that are easy to miss, requiring a hefty amount of backtracking. In Ninja Theory’s previous action games–such as Heavenly Sword and DMC: Devil May Cry–this was forgivable, because platforming was fun. Moving around the map in Hellblade, however, is simple and slow. Slogging through the same swamp over and over again to solve a single puzzle is frustrating, sabotaging players’ immersion into the game’s brilliant world.
Still, when the mechanics work correctly, Hellblade can be an absolute thrill. The exploration of psychosis combined with the history of Nordic lore is fascinating, and possibly eye-opening for some. Gameplay is intense, and the stakes are high, always offering justifiable story reasons to push forward and defeat the next challenge. The experience is a linear story that only lasts six to eight hours, and it’s a one-way track with little replay value, but the quality of the world-building is too powerful to ignore. Even if Hellblade is a flawed video game, it’s a hauntingly beautiful piece of storytelling.