Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice review
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a third person action adventure game released on PS4 and PC in 2017 and Xbox One in 2018. The game centres on Senua, a Celtic warrior whose aim is to travel to the Norse real of Helheim, known as realm of the dead, to confront its goddess Hela and resurrect her dead lover. The games borrows a lot of its names and ideas from Norse mythology and Celtic culture, with Senua’s name deriving from the recently discovered Celtic goddess Senuna and her appearance resembling warriors found in the Pict tribe, who would mat their hair with lime and mark their bodies with war-paint.
The combat in Hellblade is visceral, but simplistic. Senua has light and heavy attacks and can block and parry oncoming attacks. Enemies are usually fought one at a time and the game camera will automatically focus on a single enemy at any given time. The game also utilises puzzles to work through certain areas. Senua will find ancient runes on locked doors and must find a similar pattern in her environment to unlock the door. What’s particularly unique about Ninja Theory’s latest release is its permanent death mechanic. Whenever the player fails during combat, instead of dying, Senua will appear to have a black mark on her body, known within the game as ‘dark rot’. The dark rot will continue to grow after every failure and if the dark rot spreads to her head, the game is over and all progress is lost. The game deletes the save file and the player must start all over again.
The overall level design is semi-linear, with open areas being separated through locked doors. The areas are fully explorable, but add little to gameplay, despite helping to build the game’s world. The game has three main sections. The world of illusion, commanded by the spirit Valravn, who alters the world through special gates that the player must find. The second world is the world of Fire, commanded by the giant known as Surn. At random points in the world, the entire environment sets ablaze, requiring the player to find a safe area in time before Senua dies and the dark rot grows. Once these two areas are completed, Senua must then face four challenges, each of which face a major event in Senua’s past. These challenges are a great from of exposition into Senua’s history.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the game’s main talking point: mental health. Senua’s character is portrayed a suffering from psychosis, a mental disorder that manifests with auditory and visual hallucinations, which are prevalent throughout the game. Senua will hear whispering voices throughout the game’s entirety and she will see a myriad of different apparitions. A representation of mental illness in this manner has been considered taboo in all media, let alone a newer one like video games. Senua’s hallucinations have been heavily praised as being accurate to the condition. Simon Ings published an article in New Scientist magazine which commends the games realistic portrayal of psychotic hallucinations. Senua’s hallucinations also weave into the gameplay. The whispers will become more panicked whenever Senua is close to death and they can lead Senua in the right direction by commenting when she is heading the wrong way.
Ninja Theory, the studio behind Hellblade, attempted to bridge the gap between AAA and indie publishing during the games production. Utilising a budget of less than $10 million and a teams of around 20 people, they had to go to great lengths to achieve a game of this scope. Motion capture for the game was even performed in the studio boardroom.
Despite restriction with finances and staff numbers, the games boasts a high level of realism and polish, rivalling games with ten times its budget and staffing. Ninja Theory also managed to include live video within the game to counteract some of these restrictions, with the character named Druth being portrayed only through video. This creates a strong disparity between him and the game world, emphasising his disconnection from the environment and showing he is appearing in Senua’s mind.
Sound and Music
The game relies a lot on its sound design to put its mental health representation across. Binaural microphones were used to achieve a three-dimensional sound with the whispers that follow Senua through the game. The games soundtrack also does a great job in building the atmosphere and adding to the world by drawing influence from its setting. David Garcia and Adny LaPlegua’s soundtrack contains uses of string instruments, strong, tribal percussion and guttural, Celtic vocals to set the scene in an immersive way.
To conclude, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice added to the medium and innovated by filling a gap in the market between AAA and Indie to spawn one of the first self-published ‘AA’ video games and by providing an obsessively accurate representation of mental illness that has never been seen before. The reception for the game continues to show its prowess, with an average Metascore of 84 across its three platforms, one million copies being sold as of June, 2018 and five BAFTA awards being won in 2018, including the Artistic Achievement award and the Game Beyond Entertainment award.