Review: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Mental health is the crutch upon which far, far too many games try to limp their way to success upon. From the tiniest Unity horror games to big-budget productions like BioShock, from modern titles all the way back to classics like Silent Hill, the troubles of the mind have often been the fallback for motivation and conflict. In only a few of those games it is treated with the care and nuance that such a pervasive issue demands, but more often than not the stigmas of psychosis and mental wards are what underpin dark adventures. Hellblade is remarkable then, not only because it handles mental illness with a careful hand but also focuses entirely upon it. The result is a compelling and emotional journey built around the struggles of the mind against its demons as you struggle against demons in your grim quest.

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After weeks of travel, Senua has come to the bleak land of Helheim, the Viking version of hell. It is, as you would expect, a land of speared corpses and burnt sacrifices, empty longhouses and wrecked ships. Somewhere in this miserable place is the soul of Senua’s slain lover, and the darkness that keeps it bound. Her quest, then, is to descend into the very seat of that darkness and free him, hopefully without losing herself. But Senua is already touched by the self-same darkness, an unquiet mind that constantly whispers in  her ears, shouts her down, twists the world around her fears, and never, ever relents.

Senua’s darkness is some form of psychosis, there’s no secret to that. Throughout the game she’ll be harangued by the chorus of voices in her head, suffer visions and flashbacks, have her perceptions clouded by fear and doubt, and worse. These are not the fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks you might find in other titles, but rather reflections of how poor Senua actually perceives the world and processes her thoughts. As I mentioned, the story focuses heavily on this struggle against herself, exploring her relationship with her lost love, her parents, and other key figures from her past.

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But it’s also a journey into literal hell, and the blurring between these two struggles is what makes the entire narrative so brilliant. Senua’s quest is mirrored in her battles with herself, and her inner turmoil is reflected in the hellish realms around her. From the very start, the weather whips from overcast to tumultuous as her own emotions surge. The world swirls and pulses as she struggles to cross a precarious gorge. Fire and darkness chase after her as her fears push to the forefront of her mind, and monstrous warriors materialize when her anger reaches a fever pitch. It’s what so many psychological horror games attempt and fail to achieve: You will never, at any point, be sure of what is real and what is imagined, and that uncertainty gives the entire story so much more weight. Is Senua truly battling demons in hell? Is she walking the nightmare labyrinths of her own mind? Is she facing gods in our world, or in her world? And are they truly gods at all?

The Norse mythology that Senua’s tale is built upon is an ideal fit for the brutality and horror she faces. Helheim is perhaps the least inviting place in the world, a blasted, rain-swept land of weathered ruins, charred corpses, and ominous effigies. It’s not all gray mud and dead trees either, there are churning seas and deep forests to cross, halls of stone and towers of wood to divine the secrets of. It truly feels like the edge of the known world, a place that could indeed house the gates of hell because no living soul would ever dare tread there. The gods and creatures you face are well-represented with creative designs, and lorestones dotting the land fill you in with the historical myths detailing the judgments and petty squabbles of the gods.

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In terms of gameplay, most of your time will be spent gaping at these vistas and listening to tales of blood and revenge. Hellblade is a third-person adventure game but the majority of the adventure is following the path forward, into and around Helheim. You’ll find a number of gates in your way as you progress, and usually what challenge there is will be found in opening them. These take the form of puzzles, most commonly runes that you must find in the environment around you such as trees crossing each other or shadows casting the shape on a wall. There are other perception puzzles, such as gates that change your environment in subtle ways or shattered images that must be realigned. There’s not much challenge in the solutions usually, and only a scant few have elements of danger to them, so while the environments and atmosphere are grim and oppressive, the gameplay is often more casual puzzling.

There is combat, though, and it proves to be an intensely mixed bag. As you might expect from a game called Hellblade, Senua is deft with a sword and has a full suite of slashes she can unload on her unsettling foes. In addition to light and heavy attacks she can block, parry by blocking at the last second, dodge, and slow time by focusing her perceptions. All of these moves chain fluidly together and once you get a feel for them, you can weave swiftly between foes and carve them to pieces. Unfortunately the game falls into one of the common pits of combat design where increasing difficulty is simply more foes. By the midway point your melees will be against three to four horrors at a time, often with shields or giants or berserkers thrown into the mix. Battles near the end of the game will have you cleaving through dozens of foes one at a time, a tiresome process and frustrating if you fall in battle and have to start the entire fight over. Though I will say that the final battle turns all of that frustration around in a surprisingly cathartic sequence of bloody fights.

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Honestly with how powerful the narrative and visual design is, it’s the video game parts of this video game that are the weakest. Hellblade works very hard to keep the experience fully immersive, foregoing any sort of HUD or stats or on-screen text. There’s exactly one tutorial message in the game, and it ends up being a tricky bit of foreshadowing rather than the warning it seems. Instead, the cacophony of voices in your head try to help you at times, giving you panicked pointers about enemy weaknesses or puzzle gimmicks. And that’s what the latter are really, gimmicks rather than integral parts of the story. The rune doors are a cute diversion but do nothing for the story, and there’s a section of trials in the middle of the game that, while interesting visually and narratively, feel very much like filler in their challenge designs.

Whatever weaknesses are found in the gameplay are easily made up for by the rest of the package, mind you. Hellblade is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played based on the strength of its characters and environments. It’s not the most technically impressive, but the environments perfectly capture the feeling of dark, distant lands and hidden dangers. Your foes are grotesque and imposing, and the visual effects of Senua’s perceptions are bold and effective. Senua herself is perhaps the most impressive player character of all-time, bridging the uncanny valley in ways I’ve never seen it done. She feels real in both gameplay and cutscenes, and when interspersed with live-action elements she doesn’t feel out of place at all. The sound design matches all of this wonderfully, with no shortage of menacing whispers, unearthly growls, and a powerful soundtrack that punctuates the ending in a big way.

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There’s really no reason why anyone should give Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a pass. I fully admit the gameplay itself is not the most compelling when it expects you to do things, as I was getting sick of the combat by the end and mostly just wanted to find all the lorestones. But the land of Helheim is bold and grim and hides ghastly secrets that I desperately wanted to see. And the story is simply unparalleled in how it presents its heroine. I’m not going to claim that playing Hellblade was some revelatory experience but as someone who’s never had to grapple with my own mental health, this title made that nebulous darkness that haunts so many minds more real and identifiable than any other game. As a game Hellblade is merely solid, but as an experience there are few games that can match the masterful presentation and emotional power of this one.

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