TL; DR(eview) - Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a Norse-mythology-infused hero’s journey with an added emphasis on mental health, explored through a mix of combat and environmental puzzle-solving. Ninja Theory’s focus on Senua’s mental psychosis elevates the character and story into one of the year’s best experiences.
When 2017 comes to a close, I wouldn’t be shocked if Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice winds up on a lot of people’s “Biggest Surprises of 2017” lists, mine included. After originally being announced at Gamescom in 2014, the game pretty much dropped off of the map until the last couple of weeks. I probably would have skipped it if not for hearing such positive buzz about the game. I never got around to Heavenly Sword or DmC: Devil May Cry so this is my first introduction to a Ninja Theory title.
And what a hauntingly powerful first introduction it is.
You play as the titular character Senua, a young Norse warrior on a personal quest to avenge the death of her beloved. To do so, she has to fight into Helheim itself, battling a small variety of warriors, as well as some powerful creatures of Norse mythology along the way. What sets Senua apart from perhaps your typical protagonist, though, is what’s going on in her mind. Senua hears voices. Unsurprisingly, this made her a bit of an outcast in her tribe with her father insisting that she was being consumed by the darkness.
These voices are ever-present throughout the game. As you wander through the landscapes presented, they often comment on the story or environment. In battle, they are instrumental in helping you keep track of the enemies around you. In combat, Senua focuses her attacks on a single enemy and locks on to that opponent. If an opponent is gearing up to attack you from behind, these voices might chirp in your ear to “watch out.” It adds a unique element to the combat that turns Senua’s perceived weakness into a strength in her fight toward the underworld.
Combat encounters like this make up one of the title’s main mechanics, as you will occasionally come across an increasingly diverse set of enemies that you’ll need to defeat to progress through the story. Senua fights with her sword in hand using a series of fast and heavy strikes. She can also use a melee attack to stun her enemies, block, or evade (the game won’t really explain combat too well though so a quick look at the pause menu’s button prompts will prove invaluable). The last trick Senua acquires for her arsenal is her “focus” ability, which slows your enemies down allowing you to get in a series of quick hits. Enemies themselves start out with their own standard attacks before new varieties are introduced with shields or their own powerful ranged attacks. As the game progresses and you find yourself having to switch up tactics on the fly to deal with multiple types of enemies surrounding you, the initially simple mechanics grow surprisingly satisfying with their added layers of complexity.
The other primary component of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice will have you solving a series of hidden object puzzles throughout the game’s environments. You might come across a door with a series of runes on them that you’ll need to identify in the nearby environment. These are often identified by standing in the right location and looking at the correct perspective and it’s quite easy to tell when you’re near one as Senua will see images of the rune all around and the voices in her head will even discuss it. For example, the rune might look like an “M” and, when you backtrack a little bit, you’ll find yourself surrounded by little “M”s hovering around you. And there, on the wall, you’ll see a makeshift “M” created by the shadow of some branches caught in the sunlight.
There are a few other puzzle mechanics introduced throughout the game’s 6-10 hour runtime, but they virtually all fall into this kind of environmental puzzle-solving style. Lastly, a series of collectible Lorestones can be found throughout the game’s different environments. Each of the environments will contain a few different stones with each stone telling a fragment of a Norse myth, often related to that part of Senua’s journey. I found myself eagerly checking the nooks and crannies of these different areas to flesh out the mythos, but I’m also a sucker for mythology in general. You could also progress through the game completely bypassing this element and still experience Senua’s own powerful story.
If I have one complaint about the game, it would be that the pacing drags at times. There is occasionally a lot of slow, non-essential ground to cover getting from a puzzle to a battle-arena and maybe a little bit too much back-tracking through landscapes at times. The mix of combat and puzzling is occasionally uneven as well, with the game’s second act in particular focusing on a long stretch of puzzles without any combat, before going into a long stretch of combat to make up for lost time. Certainly not a dealbreaker of any sort (I’ve enjoyed playing through the game twice myself) but something worth mentioning.
Performances in this game a wonderful across the board but Melina Juergens deserves special accolades for her role as Senua. She expertly juggles the character’s strengths and vulnerabilities. She is simultaneously a fierce warrior and a woman frightened by her own personal demons. There are multiple moments where she looks straight into the camera during a cutscene and stares the player down as we sometimes serve as a stand-in for these demons or the ghosts of her past. It’s a technique rarely executed in this kind of narrative but it feels incredibly powerful here.
Finally, the game recommends that you play with headphones to take advantage of the stereoscopic audio design. And I highly encourage you do. WIth headphones on, your hear the voices running through Senua’s mind as she does, coming at her from every direction. Sometimes, the voices will contradict one another. Sometimes, they’ll move from one side of you to the other. Sometimes, they yell at you to “watch out” as described in combat above. Sometimes, they’ll whisper that you’re going the wrong way (which you may or may not be, they don’t have all of the answers). These elements simply don’t work as well with the audio coming out of speakers or a sound bar so headphones are the way to go for the most immersive results.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice consulted with neuroscientists and mental health experts to explore the idea of psychosis through Senua’s story and it has led to an incredibly powerful experience that elevates what might have otherwise been a middle-of-the-road hack-and-slash adventure. Senua winds up as one of the most interesting and complex character’s in the medium and if Ninja Theory ever decide to explore her more, I’ll be eager to go on that journey.