Senua’s lover was brutally killed by the Northmen and she sets off on a quest to Helheim, the Norse land of the dead, to retrieve his soul and set him to rest. Developed by Ninja Theory with help from world-leading neuroscientists and the Wellcome Trust, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a story driven, psychological horror game following Senua’s descent into madness. Ninja Theory combines fluid combat with a deep, human story and beautiful visuals to provide an “independent AAA” title that will bring you to Hel and the depths of Psychosis.
In Hellblade players take a 3rd-Person over-the-shoulder view of a woman named Senua, a Pict warrior, as she battles her way through Hel. On her journey, she’ll discover stones that provide fragments from various Norse tales, solve various types of puzzles, and fight in brutally intense combat with the various entities of the realm, all the while dealing with the various symptoms of her Psychosis. The game is best played with headphones and a correctly calibrated brightness.
As far as controls go, Senua can walk and run, climb ladders and short ledges, and focus, a mechanism for interacting with certain parts of her environment. While in combat she can roll in any direction, block, quick attack, heavy attack, and charge forward, throwing a shoulder into enemies. In battle Senua’s Focus can also be used to slow the action down, but only a limited amount of time before it needs to recharge. In both combat and non-combat the right stick (or mouse if playing on the PC) can be used to look around in typical 3rd-person fashion.
Puzzles in Hellblade come in a few different flavors, are mostly visual, and have to do with perspective. The first you’ll encounter is unlocking Rune locked doors where you’ll have to backtrack a bit to find objects in the world that line up with fit the shape of the runes required to open the door. There are also puzzles where Senua will have to look through stone portals to make objects appear or disappear to be able to progress through certain areas. There are specific perspective puzzles where parts of Senua’s world appear shattered until focused upon from the right angle, materializing whatever aspect of the world was missing.
Combat sequences place Senua in immediate danger, often times triggering without warning and allowing enemies to get a first, often powerful, hit in before Senua can respond. Successful combat revolves around quick dodges, blocking, and parries that open an enemy up to be struck. Larger foes are often unblockable, and sometimes can’t even be hit without performing a successful parry or using Focus to slow down the battle and strike. If Senua takes a strong enough blow she’ll be knocked to the ground, forcing you to mash buttons until she gets back up. Take too many of these and you’ll be granted witness to a blankly staring, dead, Senua.
That’s when the rot advances.
At the beginning of the game, you’ll be given a taste of what the rot can do, and the game will provide a warning. Every time Senua dies the rot will crawl up her right arm. If the rot reaches her head, her adventure ends. It’s a very cool mechanic that I won’t go into much since I don’t want to spoil the game.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is dark, moody, and varied based on Senua’s Psychosis. Sometimes lights are too bright. Sometimes inanimate objects seem to shift, or outright move. There are times when you’ll see things that aren’t really there, or times we there’s something there that can’t be seen. The game contains scenes of beauty, and one of disturbing, grotesque horror. Everything Ninja Theory has placed in the game feel like it has been with the utmost care, and Senua, herself, looks and feels more human than any character from any other game I’ve seen.
Then there’s the audio.
Hellblade features an amazing, perfectly paired soundtrack that always seems to keep the perfect pace with what’s going on with the game. The real gem here, though, are the voices.
The ones in Senua’s head.
Ninja Theory advises that the game is best played with headphones, and I would go as far as to say you shouldn’t play the game any other way. All the audio effects in the game are recorded uses binaural audio, a method that uses 2 microphones to record sounds as if the player were hearing them with their own ears. Not only do you get left and right, but you get the distance of the sounds. It’s a fully 3D immersive experience in Senua’s world when you’ve got headphones on, which also means the voices in her head can dance around you, allowing you to experience them as someone with Voice Hearing does.
Hellblade is the single best narrative experience I’ve ever had the pleasure of partaking. It’s not just one of the best games of the year, but may be one of my favorite games of all time. Such care has been taken with every aspect of the game, and it’s obvious from the moment you pick it up until the breathtaking final moments of the game as it takes you through Senua’s journey every step, and every emotion, along the way. Senua’s Psychosis isn’t just a gimmick tied into the game, but one of many facets of a complicated character with more depth than I’ve ever seen in a game.
I’ve spent a bit of time since finishing the game thinking of how to do it justice in a review without providing any spoilers. All I can really say is you need to experience it yourself in its entirety without any guides or reading any spoilers on the net. It’s a game best played with all its surprises, design choices, and intricacies discovered by a player as they play.
While the play time is short, around 8-10 hours, it’s time spent on the edge of your seat, heart pounding in your chest as your anxiety levels shoot through the roof. It’s time where you’ll cherish all of Senua’s victories, and fall into bouts of despair with her defeats. The game puts you through a rollercoaster of emotion using every one of your senses it can to fully immerse you in the traumatic and horrifying world its heroine has to endure.
You can snag Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for $30 on the PC or PS4, and it’s easily worth twice that.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was purchased for the PS4 this review and gladly played to completion