Whether it’s high budget action, or twee indie melodrama – games can and have done it all. But I still feel there’s too few games that tell stories that need to be told. I want more stories that feel important – stories that you insist your friends make time for; because they say something worth listening to.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one such game.
Playing as Senua, a skilled but troubled warrior, the goal of the game is to venture into Helheim, the Norse mythology’s underworld, to rescue the soul of her deceased lover Dillion. To read such a summary of the plot, you’d think it’s all very God of War. Venture into Evil Land, snarl, mash the square button, execute enemies in over the top fashion, snarl some more, grunt about how tortured a soul you are, fight a boss, end. In execution, Hellblade is a much slower, less bombastic yarn. The intro sets the tone perfectly for the ensuing ten-ish hours. Travelling on her own, Senua slowly sails through a misty, ominous swamp. The credits slowly roll by. Prominent among them, top billing in fact, are the game’s historical and mental health advisors. The folks at Ninja Theory want to make things clear from the jump; we’re doing this, and we’re taking it seriously.
As the credits drift past, Senua is bombarded by a number of voices that are never introduced to the player, but it quickly becomes evident they are representative of some kind of psychosis in the titular heroine. They aren’t overly-acted caricatures, at least not at first. They’re disembodied voices, peppering your ears with short, monosyllabic taunts or ridicule. If you’re using headphones as the game recommends, the audio design is immediately impressive and harsh.
Hellblade is a story about mental illness. Emphasis on about. Senua’s struggles with the “darkness” represent an interesting wrinkle on her more literal adventure to Hel, but this is unreservedly a nuanced, sincere, unrelenting story about a person struggling with psychosis and the social alienation that comes with it. From the previously mentioned internalised voices, which often can get muddied up with the narration of the story, causing a deliberately overwhelming feeling, to the game’s liberal use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope, Hellblade is enigmatic in a way that made me feel very closely tied to its protagonist. It’s gruelling, confusing, upsetting and tiring; but in such a way that I was totally engrossed.
The revelations surrounding Senua’s past are largely reserved for the game’s second half, and I won’t spoil them here, but I was constantly impressed with how Ninja Theory utilised her story to make broader points about mental health, and our reaction to it as a society. It isn’t a quirky character trait, nor is a straightforward objective to be beaten. Hellblade wants players to understand the difficulties people in these situations face, and not simply think of them as problems to solve.
With so much to say about the story and how it’s told, and I really could go on and on, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of adventure or ‘walking simulator’ game. In reality, it has the heart and soul of one, but it’s wrapped in the body of a quasi-character action game. As she ventures towards Hel, Senua will fight enemies, battle bosses, solve puzzles, and tackle some unique set pieces that, again, I won’t spoil here. The combat can best be described as functional. You have a heavy attack, light attack, a block, and a dodge. The movement is weightier and less flashy than, say, Devil May Cry, and feels more grounded and visceral. The enemy designs are repetitive and it quickly begins to feel like most of the fights are used as padding or a scenery change from the exploring and story chatter. I’d describe it as ‘not bad’ but stretching ‘not bad’ out to ten-ish hours simply doesn’t work.
Likewise, the puzzle solving is functional and, at times, satisfying in its mix of cleverness and simplicity – but it has a template that is repeated far too often. The majority of puzzles see you trying to find a spot in the environment that will cause elements of the world to line up, creating an image that matches one that is painted on a locked door. Some twists on the formula, including an early section with portals that experiment with ‘impossible space’ and illusionary walls, are fun. But like the combat, it outstays its welcome.
The second half of the game offers some very imaginative set pieces and boss battles, which finally offer a highlight for the game that isn’t tied to watching a cutscene, but it feels like too little too late. Around the six or seven hour mark, I was getting frustrated. The story had amped up but the combat and puzzle solving felt stagnant, blips of creativity aside. I wouldn’t go as far as to say these mechanics should have been fully discarded, but the balance is certainly more than a little off. When Hellblade finally starts to show its hand, the last thing you want is a laborious square-mashing brawl between you and the next revelation.
These grievances didn’t detract from my desire to keep going though, and when I reached Hellblade’s conclusion, it was more than worth the bumps along the way. The ending of Hellblade is one of the most poignant, powerful and bittersweet things I’ve seen in a video game. It’s stuck with me for over a week, and I’ve watched it back a dozen times. The writing and performance capture, which impress throughout the game, really stick the landing. Likewise, the game’s unlikely but very cool use of FMV (yes, full motion video with real actors) is used to perfection here.
Hellblade’s minor failings can’t tarnish this absolutely staggering achievement for Ninja Theory. The game’s handling of mental health isn’t just good; it manages to not feel tokenistic or self-congratulatory. It has a harsh, uncompromising story, and doesn’t offer simple solutions – yet still feels uplifting when it’s all said and done. It won’t win any awards as a character action game, but Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice will undoubtedly be remembered as a classic for year to come.