Systems: PlayStation 4 and PC
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
A story is like a formula. You have your ingredients, elements, calculations, and then one would do their best to mix the combination together to pull us (the audience) into the world in which, according to the artist, we must see. It is seen in our movies, television shows, and more so than ever, in our video games. The video game culture has grown. It has grown from the simple times of getting a pixel into someone’s side of the screen. It has evolved from the simple (yet ingenious) concept of a plumber saving a princess from an evil dragon/turtle. So simple, and yet so profound. Now, honestly, this is what makes anything truly work: A simple story. Now, don’t jump ahead. I said story. The, “where are we going? What are you telling me?” Not, “this is what I got out of this game.” That is what the components of the story are trying to produce: A reaction. Storytelling has grown and evolved in the video game industry as well. One is no longer jumping from level to level now to stop the bad guy. Sometimes, WE ARE the bad guy. One is no longer a simply protagonist with pure intentions. Now, everything is in the gray area. Now, it is up to the audience to decide for themselves. Provocative, as long as the story is simple. Hellblade delivers this, and so much more.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a very bold video game. It is even weird to call it a video game. It is, but the way it presents itself and treats itself is so much more. We take the role of the lead female, Senua, as she journeys through Norse mythology as she goes to the deepest reaches of the nine realms called Helheim. She is trying to rescue her beloved Dillion from the clutches of the dark goddess Hela, and bring his soul to Heaven. Very poetic in delivery and a very simple plot, and that is what gives Ninja Theory (Yes, the same people that brought the remake nobody asked for, but was still good DmC), the wonderful range they needed to piece this story together. I will say, the moment I sat down and played this game, I knew this tale was going to be dark. The introduction alone spoke volumes, especially when Senua is carrying her beloved’s head in a sack tied onto her belt. There was something also added to the mix. It was hinted at the very beginning before the menu screen came up. The game suggested I played this with headphones, and I always do, considering the location I am in. Walls being paper-thinned, I am glued to my headphones. As she paddles along to the shores of Helheim, I started to hear voices within the headphones, and one of them was addressing me, the player. Honestly, this made me squirm in my seat. I did not know how to feel about this. From so many games, there was always a narrator, and there were times that the characters would speak to the players. Not the way Hellblade delivered it. The narrator was only in one corner, then more voices flooded in on the left. They would stop, as whispers would begin anew on the right – all the while the narrator continued to talk. The game and story were telling me something else. Senua is very ill. She is suffering from psychosis.
That is not to say she cannot handle herself in battle. Quite the contrary, she is very capable. When push comes to shove, she can handle multiple targets well, and it did not take me long to unleash a barrage of combos at the enemies. The difficulty was set to “Auto”. From what I understood, auto usually means the game will play accordingly to the style and difficulty the gamer feels more comfortable with. If I was playing on Hard, I did not honestly know it till I got it. It took three hits in some battles (and it was rare I went down), and I would be in critical. With proper pacing, I was able to get back up and attack full-on, only this time being more aware of my surroundings. It was fun and intense, and there was a counter ability in the game that is actually pretty easy to time, and it made the fights even more anticlimactic. Senua eventually receives a mirror to bring the demons into the light, and this ability actually slows down time – allowing Senua to throw more hits into the enemy before they went down. Plus, if her health is critical, this ability gives her full health – at least, from what I could understand. I was completely lost in the battles, and I could honestly feel the blades connect when Senua went into the duel. That is always something Ninja Theory nailed: Combat. It took some time to figure out where the buttons where for running, but once I got a little practice, I was ready.
The slow down time of the game (which was a lot during the first half) was puzzle solving. The puzzles were based off of the spirit of illusions called Valravn. I thought this was very interesting because Senua has to go through a set of “doorways” to open up the next piece of the puzzle. It was confusing at first because I did not fully understand what I was supposed to be looking for, but, I had to listen to the voices to understand the mechanics. That is the other part of the game that pulled me in was her psychosis, and how it not only affected Senua but it affected me as well. There were times when the voices really did not bother me. They ran from one earpiece to the next (seriously, play this with headphones!) laughing and whispering, but as it got closer to the end, the voices made me feel edgy and uncomfortable. The voices were on both sides; however, one was arguing with another about the next step, the other was cursing at Senua because I had to retrace my steps, another was crying because I was taking too long to solve the puzzle. It got so maddening to the point I was literally looking over my shoulder. This game is designed to be brilliant, but to make one very uncomfortable. That is the point, though. This game was not only built with a mature storyline, but to make us (the audience) be more aware of psychosis, and its horrible effects. Physical illness is easy to spot. We can treat it because we can see it. What about the mind? The mind is like any other muscle in the body. It houses our nervous system. Why wouldn’t that get sick, too? Ninja Theory did an excellent job of not only providing a simple plot, but a precise execution of its message. We, a Senua, have a goal, yes, but to get there, that was the complication. There is a quote the game mentioned, and I loved it every time they brought it up, “The greatest battles are always in the mind.” Without spoiling anything, we learn a lot about Senua and the voices that haunt her.
The combat is very easy to follow with quick and heavy attacks, also with a proper block/counter ability, and her own goddess mode with slowing time and dealing more damage. The puzzles were interesting as they contributed their own style and solution. There were some puzzle mechanics I thought were fascinating, but phased out on me by the time I had to do it again for the twentieth time. It is hunting down symbols, but the way the symbols are summoned are by shapes created by everyday structures and/or lighting. It was brilliant the first of handful times I got to see it. Some even left me stumped as I tried to find them, but after the halfway point they grew tiresome, and I knew exactly where to find them once I figured out the trick. They do add some spice at the end of the game as you are being chased down by some of Hela’s more powerful (and terrifying) followers. This is not a typical action game either. This is also an action horror game, but a horror game done right. It does not go after the player with jumpscares, but the anticipation of what is behind the next door, or what will chase you, or what the voices will do. There are times when one thinks they are relieved of the voices, they slowly creep back. There is also one challenge that leaves Senua in the dark. I will leave the rest to you, as you have to play this game. The game is powered by Unreal 4, and it looks beautiful, and the frame rate is very smooth.
Even the collectibles are not difficult (if you are a trophy/achievement hunter). The collectibles are runes you gather on the side, but it has very interesting tales of Celtic mythology as well as a tale about Ragnarok. A rare collectible that I wanted to collect because it gave me something other than an upgrade. Some are easy to find, and others you will have to go a little out of your way to collect. A video walkthrough will help with the tricky ones. Ninja Theory did everything wonderfully (with the exception of repetition of some puzzles). I think, as of right now, this is a really good insight into the world of mental illness. It is not by the book, but at least from what we can understand thus far.
Hellblade: Senua’s SacrificeA+
- Beautiful, dark, meaningful story
- A brilliant message about psychosis!
- Terrifying horror sections
- Exciting combat sections!
- The voices add an extra layer of terror, and they are also helpful
- The symbol puzzles get tiresome
- Not a very long game, can get done in a couple of hours (about 6+ hours)
- Playing this game in long stretches can be overwhelming