Game: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
How to tackle talking about Hellblade? If you look at it as purely a game, a set of mechanics, then it’s very disappointing. A third person adventure where you predominantly explore linear environments, solving light puzzles to progress, finding pockets of lore to develop the story and occasionally beating down on a very limited selection of enemies with a limited selection of moves. Stood next to the action heavy games that Ninja Theory are known for, the likes of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC: Devil May Cry (they do like using colons in their titles) it seems like a step back; a short, basic game with no RPG-like character progression in a limited number of environments.
But Hellblade is more than that. Much more. In fact, calling it a “game” seems wrong. It’s much less of a “game” than it is an interactive story. Not in the sense of something like Dragon’s Lair, as you have direct control over your character, and more so than an exploration game like Dear Esther, as there are deeper mechanics at play here. But Hellblade is a game that wants you to experience it; to be a part of its story. And you get the distinct impression that it wants you to take something away with you when you turn your console off.
Hellblade focusses on Senua, a young Celtic woman during the age of Vikings. From the off, you know this is a savage world as Senua begins her journey to the Norse realm of Helheim travelling on a makeshift boat, surrounded by corpses on spikes, an ashen grey sky overhead and oppressive cliffs and structures all around. These are dark times, but for Senua, they are darker than most. Senua suffers from what we now know as psychosis, but which during her time marked her as cursed and made her somewhat an outcast in her tribe. To her, the world is a strange place, ever shifting in colour and shape. She hears voices; some feeding her paranoia, some scared for her and some, very occasionally, pushing her confidence to overcome the threats of the North men’s hell world and reunite with her lost lover.
It’s the portrayal of Senua that is central to Hellblade’s success and Ninja Theory absolutely hit it out of the park with their handling of audio and visual cues. I will say this now; it is essential that you play this with headphones on. That’s not hyperbole. Hellblade uses binaural sound, where the audio is recorded in a stereo set up that mimics human ears, and the effect is profound. Whispered voices surround you, feeding your paranoia or egging you on, helping or hindering. The stories main narrator seems to be sitting just behind your left shoulder and other, unseen characters pace around you. It’s brilliant and utterly chilling. And when the credits to the game opens by telling you that it was developed with the support of a mental health advisor it gave weight, for me, to the thought that I was experiencing something I could not possibly understand, but something which some people suffer from throughout their lives. It’s tough and affecting.
Also affecting is actress Melina Juergens’ portrayal of Senua. Almost permanently wide eyed and terrified yet still every bit the fierce celtic warrior she should be, the way you are made to experience Senua’s suffering as if you are one of her invisible tormentors, the way she addresses you directly in dialogue brings you into the experience in a truly harrowing way. It’s an incredible physical and emotional performance which, had it not been convincing, could easily have derailed the whole experience. Obviously this is only enhanced by Ninja Theory’s usual excellent motion capture work and photorealistic visuals. For a self funded indie game, Hellblade has some serious AAA production values.
If I had to draw comparisons, I would talk of Hellblade in the same breath as games like Ryse: Son of Rome or The Order: 1886 and not just because they all have a love for the colonned subtitle. It shares a similar, low slung third-person perspective, a similar linearity and focus on story over longevity, but where the other two games have a more pulpy, b-movie quality to their stories, Hellblade feels almost art house in its execution, from its minimal palette to its low key locations. It’s also serious about its lore; as Senua’s story progresses in the main narrative, you can find lore stones hidden in the world which, when activated using Senua’s focus ability, tell snippets of Norse mythology which act to shed light on some of the events in the game. Despite its slim cast and focussed locations, this is a rich world and you’ll come out of the back of the story with a sense of scope that isn’t directly presented, it thoroughly embraces the old film making adage of “show, don’t tell”
But, whatever you do, do not dismiss Hellblade. It may not be what you personally look for in a videogame, but it is nevertheless one of the most important and harrowing narrative experiences I’ve had this year. It also shows what a studio as creative as Ninja Theory can do with a small, self funded budget. Had one of the big publishers put this game out, it could easily have been a £50 experience and would have been received far poorer due to perceived “lack of value”. But a story like this will be worth different things to different people and I hope that more will pick it up at its very affordable £25 price point, lest they miss out on something they’re unlikely to experience anywhere else in this medium.
Hellblade is a stunning achievement from Ninja Theory; a self published indie game with AAA production values and a deep, affecting story which tackles some truly harrowing subject matter. An absolutely essential purchase.