Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice achieves something very few games ever meaningfully accomplish: melding realistic strife with a fantasy world. Developer Ninja Theory’s efforts result in a horrifying and grotesque adventure into the depths of the hell that is mental psychosis which will likely be remembered as a touchstone title for the generation and the medium of interactive arts.
Senua’s Norse tale begins in media res, with the only exposition coming from the voices in her head, or through the player’s headphones as Hellblade artfully implements 3D binaural sound in a fashion rarely, if ever, seen in games. You quickly come to understand that Senua, who is brilliantly acted by Ninja Theory’s own Melina Juergens in a breakout performance, aims to reach the depths of Helheim to rescue her lover’s soul. Beyond that straightforward objective, Senua’s past and other motivations become known throughout the odyssey. Piecing Senua’s history together, with the small, but varied cast of support characters, can be ambiguous at times, but every story beat delivers strong emotional blows regardless of how well you understand the character dynamics. This is thanks in large part to the pure spectacle of the terrors Senua faces and the masterful pacing that never lets go until the immensely soothing and satisfying conclusion. And every step of the way is designed not only as a potent moment of character development but as an allegory for living with psychosis. From the isolation to how it impacts familial and romantic relationships and beyond, every scene serves a dual purpose. Ninja Theory took great care to create an authentic experience, going so far as to bring mental health advisors on to the development team and it shows in the accessibility of their narrative’s dichotomy.
The moment-to-moment gameplay carries the story through well-crafted segments featuring perspective-bending puzzles and Dark Souls-like combat, even if it is on the lighter side. The puzzle mechanics have little variety to them, but the different techniques have a distinct flair that sets them apart from other titles of the genre and keeps each enigma fresh. Every area has its own palette of colors and textures that distinguish them from each other nicely, from a burning forest to a desolate swamp, every level stands on its own, which aids in keeping the puzzles fresh as well.
Combat though fails to clear the high bar set by the other mechanics and the artistry of Hellblade, especially in the later portions. Fighting has a certain heft to it as both Senua and her enemies move around the arena stiffly. That, added with learning to work with slower input speed and a fixed, locked-on camera can make combat difficult early on, but once you understand all of Senua’s moves, combat begins to feel like a graceful game of chess where each successful combo feels oh so satisfying. It’s a shame then that Hellblade doesn’t increase the difficulty by extending that flow, but by exasperating its limitations. Late-game encounters usually involve cramming a number of different enemies into a crowded arena and because of the fixed camera, it can be irksome to keep track of everyone at once, or even to pick which enemy you want to be focused on. A lot of my deaths towards the end happened because I felt I couldn’t maneuver as swiftly as I would hope or that I had evaded right into an oncoming attack that I couldn’t have seen coming. All of that frustration is only added to by the fact that you could lose all progress if you die too many times, as the game warns you early on, although I never lost my place in spite of dying a plethora of times.
From a gameplay standpoint, Hellblade does just enough to keep its eight-hour epic fresh. Instead of running up the play clock at the expense of the story’s brevity and mechanics’ novelty or retiring any ideas too early, Ninja Theory strikes a balance that keeps the gameplay intimately rewarding. But what raises Hellblade into a higher echelon of gaming is the ability to provide a fundamentally solid experience all while addressing and empathizing with a prominent social issue in a way that video games have never done before. While it isn’t always clear what is Senua’s reality, illusionary magic, or allegorical, Hellblade’s masterful juxtaposition deserves a place in every gamer’s library and in the history of gaming writ large.