I like stories, be they movies, books or games, that leave room for interpretation. When I reviewed Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory’s long-in-the-making third-person action adventure for PS4 last year, its obtrusive narrative was my biggest gripe. Now, with a fresh Xbox One version, I had an excuse to go back into the tormented mind of titular Senua, a Celtic warrior treading towards Hel, a netherworld of Norse legends, and give the game the second look. And then I understood. All these sounds - from Senua’s frail whispering and a choir of women who mock and spur her forward to Druth, a disgraced warrior who guides Senua – tell of Ninja Theory’s ambition to offer an honest take on how mental disorder affects a person’s life.
Told in part as a narrative experience and in part as a fighting game, Hellblade recounts Senua’s journey through her personal hell, a kind of purgatory she thinks is all too real. Bringing comfort to Senua’s upset life was Dillion, a young warrior she one day met. Unlike her father, he didn’t see Senua as god-forsaken but rather as a unique and fantastic human being. There’s nothing wrong in how Senua sees life, he told her. Torn between her cruel father and her new love, Senua withdrew from her village, only to return to find Dillion killed during her absence. She believes that taking Dillion’s skull into Hel brings closure to him, and thus she embarks on her solitary pilgrimage. Only, it would be solitary were it not for all the voices she hears in her mind. More than that, she thinks she’s facing ungodly warriors from Norse mythology.
With the overbearing narrative I criticized in my original review, Ninja Theory’s grand idea has been to make an easily understandable account of mental illness, something you can conceive without much guesswork. As such, Hellblade almost closes in on edutainment. Moreover, the game tries to show what’s it like living with a mental disorder, with all the sensory overload of voices and visions going through Senua’s disjointed perception. As effective as the given illusion can be, it didn’t always work for me emotionally.
I used to know two young women, one of them more intimately, who had a bi-polar disorder. As mental illnesses go, they are never clearly defined, as both girls had schizophrenic symptoms too. I often had long discussions with them about their more troubled phases, so I kind of know what Senua is going through. She’s a classic schizophrenia case, her perception is fragmented and she has withdrawn from conceivable reality into fantasy delusions. An unhealthily keen interest in something, like Norse mythology in Senua’s case, goes a long way in messing up an already fragile mind so much so she imagines these legends to be true. On the subject of Norse mythology, it comes off like a bloody and perverted soap opera where nothing happens without significant death toll and inflated misery, as told through knowledge stones scattered throughout the game.
The original problem with the narrative still persists. Often, Ninja Theory tries too hard and hammers down the overtly narrative coming from all directions, suffocating emotions the player should perhaps experience. It’s almost like Senua is buried under all the aural and visual rubble. Granted, that’s how Senua herself must feel like, but sometimes it makes it hard to reach out and identify with her, leaving the player outside of the intended emotional core. Also, there are insecurities as a game too. When it comes to Senua drawing her sword and facing demons (of her mind), Hellblade is a fantastic fighting game with beautifully executed cinematic action and responsive controls. Yet, Hellblade isn’t an action game. Long, lonely walks through terrains are uncomfortably close to walking simulators, if it weren’t for puzzle elements keeping the attention up, like matching runes from the backgrounds to open passages. Sometimes, Hellblade is unnecessarily forced into game conventions. For example, fiery mazes, especially the barn in the plague sub-story, seem more like nuisance than anything poignant and some battle scenes take far too long without any dramatic punch to support them. Nevertheless, these parts will leave your heart pounding, especially with a hinted promise of perma-death from failing too many times lingering in the air (there’s much dispute over whether it’s true or not).
Where Hellblade excels is the audiovisual presentation. Whether playing on a basic hardware or Xbox One X (with the choice between “performance” of 60fps or “quality” in dynamically scaled 4K), the game’s hell of a looker. The resolution doesn’t actually matter, though, as the Unreal 4 powered graphics have been heavily post-processed, giving the game a strong and soft cinematic look, like it was shot on a film stock. Hellblade is mostly presented in a one continuous shot, moving seamlessly from the cutscenes to the gameplay. The illusion is only broken up by cuts into black, mimicking the loss of consciousness.
New and groundbreaking motion capture techniques were developed to bring Senua into life and it works convincingly. Brilliant amateur Melina Juergens (originally Ninja Theory’s video editor) has claimed award after award (most recently earning a BAFTA) for the harrowing title role, but also great voice actors should be given praise. Nicholas Boulton as Druth and Chipo Chung as the narrator do an extraordinary work in bringing intrigue into the narrative. Full surround audio with layered whispers and reverb create a paranoid feel.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that should be experienced. That is, if you can stomach it, as it’s not for the faint-hearted. It has such a somber and oppressive state of mind. However, the ambitious portrayal of mental disorder has sometimes more good intentions than real emotional resonance. Also, the lack of cohesive focus in the gameplay degrades the overall experience a bit. There are brilliant moments when the exhausting gameplay meets the grim dramaturgy but as often you’re hoping some scenes would just end. Here, Ninja Theory would have needed a professional dramaturge to iron out wrinkles, like they had in the past from Rhianna Pratchett and Andy Serkis to Alex Garland. Having a full self-control can be an asset but just as easily it can result in too much self-confidence. Still, even with a few missteps along the way, Hellblade mostly succeeds in giving mental disorder a conceivable yet tragic form and function.
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.