Written by Derrick Smith
Known for their impressive list of titles such as Heavenly Sword, Enslaved Odyssey to the West and DMC Devil May Cry, developer Ninja Theory’s latest interactive tale takes us to the doorsteps of Helheim or Hel as it is popularly known according to Norse mythology.
Steeped in a transcendent universe, layered with mystical Norse overtones, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice takes players on an epic journey of salvation as Senua, a celtic warrior who suffers from an extreme case of psychosis. On a quest to save Dillion, her lost loves soul from the clutches of Hel, Senua’s state of psychosis is unwavering with paralyzing resolve. Believing that the source of the Darkness, Senua’s ever present antagonist and its source are in Helheim, Senua with her bizarre reality, fearlessly traverses through barren and gruesome environments.
Along for the ride, and within Senua’s very active mind, a variety of individual thoughts, with their own personalities occupy an entertaining space as Senua’s sidekicks. While these voices keep Senua company throughout her tumultuous journey, their intentions are never manifested through Senua’s action, however due to their real sense of self-preservation, Senua is never without their boastful and encouraging insight during intense combat sequences, and even upon entering questionable new locales. However, every once in a while these compelling thoughts are able to get a subtle rise out of our capable warrior maiden. While Senua’s thoughts are not real, due to her mental illness, her thoughts are as much real to her as the thoughts, sights and sounds of a considerable normal person. Because we believe what we see, touch and hear around us, our reality can also threaten our very existence and such is the case for Senua in a literal sense.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an ambitious and bold tale which fully captures the severity of mental illness through a compelling narrative that embraces admirable gameplay elements for an unforgettable journey I will not soon forget.
The world of Hellblade is cold and desolate, absent of life filled with corpses. As the saying goes, only the dead live in Helheim, however Senua is the sole survivor in this world, yet Ninja Theory has managed to deliver a memorable experience through her psychosis, fantastic puzzles and level designs and wonderful combat.
As a seamless way of educating the player on this primitive universe, stone monuments are strategically placed throughout the world, some in plain sight, with others requiring some investigative effort to be found. Once Senua focuses on these monuments she is given narrative insight into Norse mythology or the beliefs the Vikings who are made reference to throughout as the Northsmen. These monuments play a major role in understanding the world in which Senua finds herself.
Imagery weighs heavily on the experience as seen through Senua’s vivid thoughts. What Senua often sees as an impassable object or barrier, her subconscious relates to only being passable by way of discovering the necessary symbols within her nearby surroundings as the key to progress. Accepting how Senua sees the world around her and in relation to her minds superstitious beliefs gives the player an understanding of how to decipher many of the games challenging puzzles. There could be an occasion where you find yourself looking all around for an opening, while the opening is actually hiding in plain sight. Often these mystifying environmental riddles lead Senua into the heart of formidable boss confrontations. Considered demi-gods of Norse mythology, in order to gain access or overcome the mighty foes of the Darkness, Senua is tasked with utilizing her combative prowess to defeat these sizable adversaries.
As illustrated through Senua’s psychosis, players are progressively offered pieces of the Senua’s past, building upon her origin story, made relative to her current mental state. The more I learn about Senua’s past, her upbringing, the Darkness, her lost love Dillion, whose very skull she takes on her journey and what he meant to her, the more transparent Senua becomes, cementing my empathy to her plight.
The combat in Hellblade is supported by a simple yet impressive and effective combination of sword strikes, sustained with a blocking maneuver that if timed just right offers a opening attack with great results. During combat scenarios Senua is able to utilize evasive maneuvers, again block and attack. Attacks can be varied from light to heavy with the inclusion of combining attacks with stylish aerial strikes. Senua can even run directly into her enemies with a charge offense, knocking most enemies back for an opening sword strike.
Once Senua discovers the true purpose of her iron mirror device, our heroine becomes even more empowered by the aid of her focus ability, which operates in relation to the iron mirror. During battles Senua is temporarily able to slow down time, allowing her to manipulate her foes attacks with a barrage of attacks of her own. In addition, the focus tactic also becomes extremely useful when facing enemies who can attack from the shadows. Sometimes enemies will choose to attack from their shadow form, leaving Senua unable to land a strike, as though she is swinging at a mist of smoke. By activating her focus ability Senua exposes their true form enabling her to effectively engage.
While the combat feels empowering, the ever present Darkness and its powerful influence of psychosis on Senua’s reality has an undeniable way of keeping Senua’s bravado in check. This dynamic tug of war relationship between Senua and her mental anguish drives the overarching narrative and gameplay experience to brave heights.
As a new character of an ambitious new IP, Senua is performed brilliantly by the talent of Melina Juergens. Senua truly comes life on the screen as a real person who exudes absolute strength, courage and sincere vulnerability. Bringing it all together, the sound elements associated with the entirety of the experience is nothing short of stunning, as it vividly exerts a profound resonance of life and terrible fear. Going on the journey with Senua, you are compelled to root for her as you are touched by the heavy burden she must endure, and with every combative victory you have hope that there is somehow light, which will eventually pierce through the constant Darkness.
Visually Hellblade is pleasing to the eyes, especially on a 4K monitor while playing the game on the PS4 Pro. Hellblade is supported by the hardware’s increased resolution and framerate options. The game offers both a 60 frames option and an increased resolution option, which reaches about 1440p. In the higher resolution mode the game is crystal clear and quite vibrant, despite the games insipid display of level design, while maintaining a solid 30 frames. The 60 frames mode which can conveniently be turned on and off does offer a noticeable advantage in how the gameplay feels as the motion and responsiveness of the controls compliment the player very well. However, the drawback of playing in the 60 frames mode decreases the resolution and it is quite noticeable. I would not call it bad by any means, yet the environment and even Senua become more blurred as a result. Having spent just over 8 hours completing the game in both modes, I found myself spending more time playing the game at the rock solid 30 frames with the vibrantly enhanced resolution, over the blurry yet smooth movements 60 frames, but to each their own.
Ninja Theory has gone on record calling Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice an independent AAA game, one that has been developed with AAA quality and intent, but with a more focused game design, lower price point and open development process that defines indie games. Without a doubt Hellblade plays like a AAA title. What the game may lack in its full production since Senua is the only player in the world and so on, Ninja Theory greatly makes up for it with intense attention of the senses, resulting in a vigorous and fascinating experience.
For $29.99 Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an absolute bargain and a must buy title. While I did experience a subtle glitch early in the game when I began climbing the first ladder of sorts, from there on out Hellblade performed without a hitch. I simply could not stop playing the game until I discovered its powerful conclusion, or needed food or sleep, of course.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is Ninja Theory’s best work yet, and we truly hope to once again journey with Senua on her next thrilling adventure.