Webster’s dictionary defines Psychosis as: a serious mental illness (such as schizophrenia) characterized by defective or lost contact with reality often with hallucinations or delusions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness approximately 1 in every 100 adults suffers from some form of schizophrenia or have psychosis episodes. Thankfully different medical treatments exist for people who have been diagnosed, even though there’s still no cure that has been manufactured.
The reasons I provided these definitions and stats at the beginning of this review is because Hellblade is not simply a game that is meant to be completed and then moved on. While most games put you in control of someone as you travel through the adventure, Hellblade forces you to enter the mind of Senua, and struggle along with her as she suffers from psychosis while trying to complete her quest during a time when there’s no treatment. To challenge you mentally and emotionally as you battle for liberation from the darkness that clouds Senua’s and your minds. And while Hellblade is a fantastic game in its own right, from its creative combat to its design, it’s clear that this game was developed as a labor of love to raise awareness of this mental illness and forcing players to confront these issues head on.
There’re so many things that I want to talk about this game that I don’t know where to start… so let’s just dive right in:
(Warning, this game is Rated M for mature, and contains violence and strong language, as well as disturbing scenes.)
Story (Minor Spoilers)
You play as a young woman named Senua as she tries to deal with the loss of her beloved while having to literally fight her inner demons and struggle against the voices that constantly berate her at all times. It’s encouraged that you play this game with headphones to fully appreciate everything that is in store for you. As you proceed throughout the story you will have to deal with the constant voices of Senua’s auditory hallucinations as they either berate, encourage, or needless chit chat while you’re trying to concentrate on difficult tasks. Also, while this game is technically a Action/adventure game, there’re elements of psychological horror that represents itself through the way that the game depicts the voices and hallucinations in the game.
Senua is practically on a suicide mission as she tries to travel to Helheim in an attempt to plead with Hela to release her lovers’ soul and free her from the darkness. This journey takes place over different areas that push Senua and the player to the limit. As you continue into the beginning stages of the game you find that you actually have to fight physical manifestations of Senua’s darkness, which appear as nightmare fuel inducing creatures. During your first encounter you realize that not only is this game not going to be a walk in the park due too difficult to read enemy attack patterns, but there’s also a permadeath system in play.
Lore is also a large element of this game. As you explore the world of Helheim on your way to confront Hela, you will find stones with runes of the Nordic alphabet. If you zoom in on the stones you get to hear a developing story that involves characters from Norse mythology, and a continued narrative into the history Senua’s past. This is definitely a story driven game and while I wish that I could go over everything, you need to play this game for yourself, the developers have done a truly large amount of research to depict different elements of Norse mythology and Celtic lifestyle.
Gameplay (minor spoilers)
Just to remind you a second time: There’s Permadeath in this game. After Senua is first defeated by the darkness you get a horrifying vision of what happens to her as the darkness inside of her is slowing starting to infect its way up Senua’s arm and towards her brain. As Senua continues her adventure, every time that she falls (dies) the visible darkness will spread further and further up Senua’s arm, and you will have to restart from the beginning if you die. This puts a lot of pressure on you throughout the game, but it’s worth it for the kind of game that you are playing. This implementation is, while frustrating, makes the game so much more memorable. Every choice that you make, every little mistake, slowly adds up to till one time you don’t come back.
The graphics are another beautiful aspect of the game that makes it a gem worth playing. Hellblade is gorgeous! From the scenery to the way that the enjoyment seamlessly shifts when Senua has a Psychotic episode; though terrifying, some of these episodes are truly breathtaking. There’re beautiful moments when you’re watching something and seamlessly it transforms into another image entirely, such as a plain waterfall transform into the image of a beautiful woman.
Another important gameplay element I appreciate is the lack of a heads-up display. As you play throughout the game, whether your engaged in combat or trying to solve basic puzzles, there is no on-screen assistance to help you in any way; your game is never interrupted. It’s a breath of fresh air from the dependency of so many games that try to hold your hand through every step of the way. Even when you start combat, you aren’t provided with the controls for the fluid combat style unless you actually pause the game and look them up.
I wanted to write specifically about the voices and their element of the game because it needs its own specific segment. The voices that Senua hears and sometimes interacts with are what truly set this game apart from the others. At the beginning of the game you are introduced to the voices as a narrator, or one specific voice that is. As you continue throughout the game you have to deal with specific instances where the voices are actually beneficial to you; screaming at you when an enemy is behind you or when you near a collectible. More often than not though, they are primarily there to pester and infuriate both Senua and the player as they constantly belittle you and make you feel inferior even if you have just completed an intense bout of killing enemies.
What’s important about this feature is that it truly helps the player imagine what it would be like going through life in the shoes of someone suffering with that mental illness. The team over at Ninja Theory who developed this game brought in experts from the field of Psychology, such as Paul Fletcher from the University of Cambridge and Charles Fernyhough from University of Durham, to make sure that they were creating the most realistic experience for the player as possible. There were moments towards the beginning of my playthrough that I felt so overwhelmed from the voices that I sometimes had to pause the game and remove my headphones to clear my head. As the game continued I started to get more used to the sound of them talking around me, but they still surprised me when they would scream at me or other similar outbursts.
Hellblade: Senua’s sacrifice is a game that pushes the limits when it comes to immersive entertainment. This game not only has a beautiful environment, but it also opens the player to circumstances that they might never have experienced in real life. The developers over at Ninja Theory showed that they were prepared for everything when they created this game, through not only their research of psychosis, but also their thoroughness with Nordic myth and legend. This game throws the player into an experience that pushes both their mental and emotional limits. I truly believe that this is a game that should be experienced by anyone who wants to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and walk through their struggles.
Story 10/10 – Hellblade story is immersive and challenging. It’s full of twist and turns all throughout that keeps the player engaged through the entire adventure, with and ending that is rivaled by others.
Gameplay 8/10 – While the combat doesn’t truly evolve throughout the game, there’re elements that are truly fleshed out that make this game enjoyable. Everything from the voices to the light puzzle solving makes this game truly an enjoyable experience that you do not want to miss. My only complaint would be the perma-death system which I feel is a two-sided coin; While it adds an extremely frustrating element that could cause some to rage quit, it also adds an exciting element where every decision matters and causes the player to keep coming back for more.
Graphics 9/10 – This is a beautiful game, not only during the moments of peace and calm but from the way the environment melds and alters while Senua experiences her hallucinations. What adds to this beauty is that, with the lack of a player over face to clutter up the screen, you can truly continually enjoy everything without text or numbers taking you out of the experience.
Sound 10/10 – Sound plays a huge role in this game, and is handled well, from the voices in Senua’s head, to the way the environment becomes alive and transforms around her when she continues on her adventure.
Replayability 5/10 – While this game is an unique experience, there isn’t much to playing the game a second time other than to partake of the immersive world that is unique from so many different games.
Investment (does not affect the final score) 3/10 – 11/10 – Hellblade is not a long game, it can be completed in a few hours. That being said, with the aspect of a perma-death system that can change that play time from 4-5 hours, to 10, 20, or more hours, it all depends on how hard you want to keep going. If you find that you are truly struggling, there’s a choice to lower the difficulty, which may allow you to continue with less threat. Regardless, this is definitely a game worth playing.
Final score: 9.25
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Developed by: Ninja Theory
Rated M for Mature
Available for Windows, PS4, Xbox One