Moderate gameplay and minor story spoilers follow
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a third-person linear adventure game developed by UK-based Ninja Theory. Known for the 2013’s Devil May Cry reboot and 2010’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is similar in genre, but its portrayal of its main character Senua is unique. While not the only character in video games to have had severe psychosis, Senua’s affliction is quite intense. When you start the game you’re given warning that “This game contains representations of psychosis” and it is not just a gimmick – being in the constant nightmare that is Senua’s existence is intense and can be emotionally taxing.
Senua’s journey is that of utter grief. Her lover has died while she was away, sacrificed to the goddess Hela by invading Vikings. She believes to free his soul she must take his skull to the Viking lands, into the underworld of Helheim and confront Hela – and her own demons – to save him. Told entirely from the perspective of Senua’s psyche, you learn quickly that she is an incredibly unreliable narrator. Senua’s hallucinations manifest as horrific interpretations of Nordic and Celtic mythology, and she truly believes she is trying to free her husband’s soul. The entire tale is one of inexorable sadness – as the audience, you know Senua’s journey is just symbolic, and the horrors she encounters are simply mental manifestations – but just as Senua is, you are forced to deal with these horrors as if they are reality.
Ninja Theory took care in the representation of mental illness in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. They brought in psychiatrists and other mental health experts to consult on the accuracy of Senua’s experiences. In addition to visual hallucinations, Senua is constantly being helped and heckled by a series of voices only she can hear. Some of them have been with her since her childhood, others have developed from the extreme trauma she’s been put through in her life. The world that Senua inhabits isn’t exactly conducive to good mental health – whether some of the grim imagery she sees is real or not is unclear, but the effects are the same. Senua’s quest brings her through a place only for the dead – bodies are strewn about, hanging in trees, and impaled on pikes as a morbid greeting from the very beginning. Things only become darker and more grim from there.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a relentlessly depressing, emotionally draining, bleak game. There is very little light in this darkness. From the moment she is introduced, Senua is clearly a disturbed person – with the character being brilliantly portrayed by Melina Juergens. In a world that understands those with schizophrenia and other mental illness as cursed people with a darkness inside of them, there is little sympathy for people with Senua’s affliction – instead people like her are feared and mistreated. In a lot of ways this is an effective parallel to the plight of those suffering from mental health issues in modern times. Despite Senua’s obviously disturbed nature, she is a fully fleshed person with feelings, and she is made to be a sympathetic character. Because it is a video game, this puts you in Senua’s shoes in a way that wouldn’t be as effective as a non-interactive experience. You experience her psychosis just as she does. Eventually you even learn to live with the voices, and rely on them just like her. Since her hallucinations are real, and the things she sees and fights are real to her- Senua is not just a strong a character, she is an absolute badass.
Trained as a warrior, Senua can handle herself in combat. To complete her quest she will have to fight the gods in the underworld – a task she takes on with frightening ferocity. Despite her fear and tortured suffering, she is unstoppable and relentless in her goal. Each god is a unique boss encounter. These are some of the best gameplay moments in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Though not as mechanically tight as a game like Dark Souls, the combat feels similar – block and roll with heavy and light attacks. There is no stamina bar, so spamming attacks can be a viable strategy some of the time where later, when dealing with larger groups of enemies, timing becomes more important. You don’t come across enemies organically; instead they are always a part of an encounter and often thrown at you in waves. The combat itself is fun enough, but the rest of the gameplay is pedestrian and formulaic.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is extremely linear with very little reason to wander off the set course. When you aren’t walking to the next story point or engaged in combat, there is often a door or other obstacle that is removed by solving a puzzle. These puzzles often deal with how Senua perceives the world. Doors are closed unless she does a ritual to open them – identifying runes and patterns that to a sane person wouldn’t be there. These puzzles feel more tedious than they are clever. You sometimes search for long periods of time, and when you do find where the rune would be, you have to position yourself perfectly to activate it. They feel appropriate for Senua’s affliction, though, as her brain tricks her to jump through these hoops to proceed – but it doesn’t make for fun gameplay.
The tricks played by Senua’s mind aren’t tricks to the player. Her experiences are presented as genuine. She really believes she is entering the underworld and fighting to free her lover’s soul. In games like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, sanity was used as a game mechanic or a way to throw off the player – since this is your character’s baseline, her sanity is instead used as a vehicle for the story. The only real curve that is thrown at you is a warning of permadeath near the beginning of the game. I call this a trick because I can’t find evidence of actual permadeath. The darkness Senua is trying to stave off is represented by a growing rot on her arm – supposedly, once that rot reaches her head you lose all progress and have to start anew. This seems to be a way the developers prime the player to fear Senua’s failure, but with long unskippable cutscenes the prospect of starting from the beginning is cruel. Not only did I want to succeed, but I wanted to see Senua succeed to validate all of her suffering. The internet seems to agree that permadeath in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice doesn’t exist, so if you fear playing the game for losing your progress, the threat is never made real, painting my perception as Senua’s illness paints hers.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s graphics and animations are absolutely stunning with clever effects that are psychomimetic – lights shimmer through tree branches and the ground crawls at times like you are under the influence of hallucinogens. Also present is some of the best “full motion video” use I’ve seen in a video game since the ‘90s. Actors’ images were captured and their performances are projected onto surfaces or mingling in darkness as Senua interacts with them or is tormented by them. Not only is Senua portrayed brilliantly, but most of the acting it top-notch.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is brilliant in its acting, storytelling and it is presented with gorgeous graphics and clever effects that immerse you and have you question your own perceptions. Its gameplay is pedestrian, but the boss encounters make up for the tedious puzzles. Ninja Theory set out to raise awareness of mental health issues while incorporating them into actual gameplay and they absolutely succeeded. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available now for Windows and PlayStation 4.