Very few games pull me in and engross me in their world so completely, speaking to me in such a way that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice did. From the setting to the topic to the unique way Ninja Theory wanted this game to be experienced, I was dragged in from the very beginning as opening credits slowly passed by, the dawn of my tragic quest.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a Norse tale of Senua, traveling to Hel to reclaim her love’s soul. The main trait with Senua, though, is that the enemies she has to face are not all physical. She suffers from mental illness and Ninja Theory does not shy from this, but rather embraces it fully. The voices in her head never quieting, always bickering, offering advice, insults, encouragement. Her world takes form as much due to her illness as to its setting.
Like any mythological tale, there are trials to be accomplished before you are granted entrance to Hel, Hela’s domain. This is where the game, and your journey, truly begin. Tasked with tracking down and defeating two gods, the game introduces you to puzzles of perception, enemy combat, matching runes, focus, and boss encounters that have you rely heavily on specific counter measures. All of which lay the groundwork for the rest of the game. Hellblade doesn’t force feed you tutorials or play a specific way, but it does an excellent job of ramping up the difficulty gradually as you feel your character out.
From there, you then put your puzzle skills to good use as you take part in four trials. Four lands that test your fears, four obstacles to overcome. If there is a moment in the game that falters, it could be considered to be here, as combat takes a back seat to lore and puzzle solving. It isn’t that the break isn’t welcome as a change of pace, but it did start to become long in the tooth and could have been broken up better. But overall, the trials themselves are done very well. Each explores a weakness of Senua’s, a fear or failure of hers in the past. And each reveals some major truths about our heroine.
The third and final act of the story gets you back to enemies, bosses and combat. Whereas earlier on, you were facing the standard enemies, heavy enemies and armored enemies, this time around you’re also facing more advanced archetypes. A berserker wielding two axes and can lunge and jump. An executioner style axe man that can’t be knocked back. Not to mention the pure amount they throw at you, easily becoming overwhelming if you don’t use your surroundings well and position yourself correctly. Playing, I felt this was a perfect mirror of Senua’s mental illness, a never ending torrent. She is able to fight, but slowly getting overwhelmed no matter how valiantly she fights.
Ninja Theory took some risks with this game. By no means is it a “walking sim,” but they don’t rely purely on action to tell their tale either. It isn’t about the next stand out Bay’esque extravaganza. No, those are simply obstacles that any true folk or tragic hero must overcome again and again and again, relentlessly at times. Easy to overcome at first, but slowly becoming more persistent, oft times suffocating you as you near the end of your journey. Instead, Ninja Theory masterfully utilizes 3D binaural sound to hack your brain and put you into each scene with a visceral fear and unease. They sparingly execute FMV in such a unique way that it tied beautifully into the fabric of Senua, adding to her story and life’s tapestry more and more each new time it was implemented. And Ninja Theory was rewarded for the risks they took as each step to stand out in a unique way was the step I felt defined this game most. And all this makes Hellblade, and Senua, worth going to Hel and back for.