In one scene in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, our tormented heroine has fought a seemingly endless wave of enemies. Tired of all the fighting inside her sick mind, she ascends a pile of distorted, burned bodies with trembling feet. She sees her deceased mother’s face engraved on a rock and cries out for her in despair. It’s a shame Ninja Theory almost buries these moments of true plight under a needless commentary.
Senua, a young Celtic warrior, has always been suffering from what the later generations would learn to call schizophrenia. When she loses her husband Dillion, Senua is pushed into psychosis. She feels guilty for Dillion’s death and gets into her head to take his remains to Hel, the Norse mythology's equivalent of the netherworld, to save his soul. But what about her own soul? She never had one, her father said. She abandoned Gods and lured the darkness in, he said. Those words and a whole lot of other voices ring in her head, constantly mocking while she sets out on a journey.
How does Senua get to hell? By plodding or jogging, either way quite slowly, through nightmarish landscapes. The fact we see Senua from her waist up only adds up to the cumbersome feel of the traveling. There’s not much straying from a linear path, even though the environments could fool otherwise. In this sense, Hellblade feels almost like a walking simulator. Once in a while, the route is blocked by gates engraved in runes and Senua needs to detect matching runes from the surroundings to open the passage. Some of the solutions are actually quite clever and need a keen visual eye.
Fortunately, there’s more Hellblade than just a footslog. The journey to hell, proverbial or not, is real enough for Senua and populated by monsters. When she draws out her sword, the game is at its most confident. The action looks amazing, feels great and plays perfectly. There are no health bars, stamina meters, tutorials or any on-screen prompts. You have to comprehend the flow of the battle and read the enemies. The bloody cuts are visible and wounded foes start to slouch. The whispers aren’t anymore messing up Senua's mind but helping, yelling warnings and advice. As the fight goes on, the copper mirror on Senua’s lap gains runes, allowing her to focus. It not only heals but also slows the time around Senua, giving a jump on tougher enemies.
At this point, the permanent death mechanics of Hellblade need to be discussed. Senua can die only so many times. When the rot growing on her right arm reaches her head, it’s a game over for good as the save game is supposedly deleted. I didn’t test it so perma-death might be just a mind play. Anyway, this is a double-edged sword. Even a thought of a perma-death adds an uncanny psychological edge to the fights. Senua looks so frail in her figure next to her imposing enemies. As much as Senua - quivering in her collapsing mind - needs to collect her courage to challenge the devils, so does the player. You have to dare to close the distance and go for the attacks, even if the odds aren’t in your favor. After especially tough fights against numerous waves of enemies, I felt genuine adrenaline rushes. That felt awesome!
When the death looms in other gameplay elements though, it only manages to add to the stress. There are some timed hazards, like fire mazes, you have to rush through. Unlike in fights, it’s not down to your actual playing skills to overcome them. Not only are some directions hard to read but Senua can get stuck on the invisible walls framing the playing areas. It’s all too easy to escape to the main menu through a pause screen to prevent an assumed death and continue from the latest checkpoint. This ruptured otherwise seamless experience where the numerous cut scenes were woven into the gameplay through a lens of a single camera. After completing Hellblade, I realized I had been exaggerating. The game is not that hard and I would have been quite safe even with a few deaths.
As incredibly gorgeous as Hellblade is, it can look surprisingly plain too, especially when Senua is just walking through her surroundings. New motion and facial capture techniques were developed during the long process of making the game, including the real-time motion capture where the graphics are rendered on the fly with character models, costumes and props already in place. Ninja Theory’s video editor Melina Juergens immersed herself in Senua’s role in body and soul. The result is mostly convincing, as is the acting for an amateur, but some facial animations, like Senua’s constant grinning, look awkward.
The way Hellblade deals with its touchy subject matter of mental health is admirable. Usually those sick in the mind are doomed to play villains in games. Here’s, it’s the protagonist who has the issues. Senua’s suffering feels credible and isn’t simplified into easy entertainment. The way the Norse mythology is entwined to the context of Senua's mind is also intriguing. That’s why it’s especially annoying how the obtrusive narrative almost buries all these good intentions. Hellblade would have craved for a professional dramatist to sharpen the tools Senua’s tale is told with.
Let’s take a look at Ninja Theory’s previous games. I’m actually a big fan of all of them. Authoress Rhianna Pratchett penned an epic martial arts opera Heavenly Sword and actor Andy Serkis played the villain and served as a drama director. For Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a wise sci-fi action adventure, Serkis again helmed the drama direction while taking the role of the hero. Enslaved was written by author, screenwriter and movie director Alex Garland, who also was a story consultant for a wild and wicked DmC: Devil May Cry. This time though, Ninja Theory’s boss Tameem Antoniades fancied himself to be an equivalent of these professionals, and wrote and directed Hellblade himself.
Maybe Antoniades has been too eager or more likely, too inexperienced with this mammoth task. Either way, he has felt an urge to educate the players as much as he was taught by the professional psychologists and people who have experienced psychosis. Everything happening in Senua’s mind is explained throughout by the narrators or the whispering to the point it’s irritating. The player isn’t left with any room to come up with own interpretations. When Senua gropes her way through the darkness, we perfectly understand it’s a projection of her own mind without someone telling that!
It’s frustrating how close to a masterpiece Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is. It has the looks, the atmosphere, the swordplay and the heart. If only it had more focus on the storytelling and gameplay. First, it’s the burdensome narrative that almost drowns all the sensibility stored in Senua’s tale. It takes far too long to actually care for her. When the narrative finally starts to ease off towards the end of the game, it’s the repetitive gameplay that gets in the way. The game drags on for its own good, making it too often boring and laborious. All the same, Senua’s trembling journey is a one that needs to be seen to the close to get its true meaning. I realize I might have sounded quite harsh in my critique but my heart told me to rate the game better. After all, Senua's cry for help made me shed tears.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.