‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’ Review: A Descent Into Madness

Mental health isn’t something that gets a lot of exposure from the mainstream media. While it’s something a lot of people struggle with, it’s hard for those not suffering to understand what they deal with on a daily basis. While I don’t understand it completely myself, I do have family and friends with several of these issues, so I’ve seen some of the struggles firsthand. After playing through Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I can tell you that it nails these struggles. The complete sense of being alone, fighting against something you can’t control, and battling these demons while trying to overcome the adversaries of the world.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows Senua, a celtic warrior who tries to break into the depths of Norse mythology’s hell, in order to find who she is, as well as save the soul of the one she loves. Every bit of this handcrafted story is delicately detailed to help players infiltrate Senua’s mind. The Norse mythology isn’t heavy handed in Ninja Theory’s storytelling. Instead, the Norse mythology is told via Lorestones scattered throughout the game that help bring background into the world Senua is exploring. Retelling the mythology of the world through these relics is a really smart design choice. Having both the Norse mythology and Senua’s struggle both being the focal point of Hellblade would have felt unfocused. Ninja Theory was smart to choose one over the other during such a personal journey for our protagonist.

The motion capture done for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a sight to behold. Senua’s character was actually acted by a member of the Ninja Theory development team. Each piece of environment is incredibly detailed, and the game runs at a smooth 60 fps on the PS4 Pro. There are also some incredible lighting effects on display here. Every area of Hellblade is unique in its own way. Some areas feature sprawling beaches, while others are forests or swamps. Every environment is beautifully animated and even has some incredible details that a lot of people will miss unless they enter the photo mode built into the game. Without any spoilers, one boss fight took place in a forest. Upon entering the photo mode, I discovered that above the arena Senua was fighting in, were hundred of crows swirling above me, something I would have otherwise missed.

Ninja Theory has always been known for strong combat design, and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is no exception. Combat is simple, but smart and well executed. One button controls light attacks, one button controls strong attacks, and then the other two are evade and block. Hellblade offers no sort of tutorial. There’s no HUD, and no enemy indicators. Right from the beginning, players are shown the helplessness that Senua feels. The only help offered are the voices in Senua’s head.

Throughout Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, voices talk to Senua, indicating her mental state. They tell her she’s going to die, they tell her how hopeless her quest is. Other times, however, they encourage and help. Since there’s no HUD, players must sometimes rely on the voices that she hears. If an enemy is behind you, the voices might tell you to evade or block since she isn’t facing an attacking enemy.

These voices illustrate how impeccable the sound design is in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. If a pair of surround sound headphones is available, use them. As these voices communicate with Senua, they will talk at all different angles, and headphones fully reflect this. Crows rustling through the trees, enemies that you can’t see screaming as they attack; every sound effect and voice is meticulously placed in Hellblade. Sometimes noises are just placed in the world to fuel Senua’s descent into madness, as she struggles against a world and mental illness that is working against her.

Even though Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice features a strong combat system, it isn’t the focus. As she goes on her journey, she finds puzzles blocking her path. These are the focus of the game. Most puzzles just involve using the environment the line up a prop in the world to make a specific shape, but some of them are more in depth. One that stands out in my mind was a room with barriers all around Senua. She is being chased by what can only be described as a fire demon. Players must run around the room and avoid being caught while dodging this creature, find a handful of runes to unlock the door, and escape without being caught.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has been in development for about five years. The only thing that felt off were certain points that felt like they should have contained combat. It almost feels like Ninja Theory wanted to add more fighting sections in Hellblade, but just decided that it was time to hit the deadline. Despite this, I don’t think it needed it. Hellblade’s gameplay isn’t built around the combat, no matter how natural it felt.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a masterclass in storytelling. Tight controls, strong combat systems, and the interesting Lorestones only prove to highlight the main focus of the game: Senua’s journey. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is sure to go down as one of the best stories in modern gaming, and the mature story on display here needed a developer willing to take risks and not make combat the focus. Smart design choices helped secure Ninja Theory another Sony console exclusive masterpiece.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC. This review is based off a PS4 copy of the game provided for that purpose.

out of 5

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