Doubt and uncertainty are, I think, very difficult things to accurately portray in video games. We’re used to the idea that an encounter, a mission or a shot may not go our way but, in a medium that by design requires us to succeed, the idea that we may not be capable – that we may be innately destined for failure – is a difficult thing to convey. With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, developer Ninja Theory has managed it beautifully.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice follows warrior Senua as she embarks on a quest plucked straight out of legend; she’s on a journey to hell in order to save not just herself, but Dylian, her lover who died at the hands of the brutal Northmen while she was away. Though her quest sees her cross swords with gods and monsters, she’s far from the typical heroine – Senua is touched by ‘the darkness’, a crude yet effective label for psychosis. Senua is beset by persistent visual and auditory hallucinations, twisting her world into an unpredictable, dangerous and very cruel place.
As you journey through Hellblade, you almost always have a handful of voices (known as The Furies) whispering in your ear. These voices are Senua’s constant, critical observers, reflecting on her actions as well as her physical and mental state at any given time. Speaking to Senua, the Furies prompt and cajole; they question and doubt and needle and – just every so often – they encourage her. Sometimes they’re overbearing and unfair and to be perfectly honest they can be quite irritating, but such tension is welcome – the voices are there and you have no say in the matter, just like her psychosis itself. The Furies ensure that you’re constantly thinking about Senua’s emotional state and general wellbeing, making Hellblade a potent exercise in empathy. Backed up by some excellent environmental audio, it’s also a treat for the ears – if you can play Hellblade in surround sound, I urge you to do so.
The representations of Senua’s mental difficulties don’t stop with the whispering Furies, however – she is also touched by the dark rot, her right hand covered in creeping black tendrils. If you die, these tendrils get stronger, moving up along her arm. If the rot reaches her head, the fight against her deteriorating mental health is lost and the game is over. Not just that, in fact, but all your progress is lost – your save file will be deleted and you’ll have to start again.
It’s a harsh penalty and will no doubt prove divisive, but it plays an important role, emphasising how Senua’s mental state is at stake. Having something to lose makes the struggle feel real, creating a meaningful tension. It does help however, that the combat makes it difficult to die.
As you journey towards and into the depths of Helheim, much of your time is spent solving puzzles in order to unlock gates and advance to the next area. These puzzles mainly revolve around finding particular runes hidden in the environment, with each puzzle solution being a simple matter of perception. One rune might be formed by the branches of a tree when viewed from a particular angle, for instance, while another might ask you to light a fire in order to cast a shadow of another on the floor.
It’s a simple but poignant conceit; in a sinister land that frequently bars her way, Senua looks to the patterns hidden in the mundane things around her for signs of the familiar and the powerful – finding strength where she can assign some order and agency to such a hostile environment. These puzzles are a strong insight into Senua’s coping mechanisms, helping her retain some semblance of control where ordinarily her senses aren’t to be trusted. While effectively making use of just the one mechanic, these puzzles nonetheless remain elegant and pleasing, so it’s a shame they’re also the source of the game’s biggest flaw.
While the environment in Hellblade is detailed and very often starkly beautiful, it is frequently difficult to read. There are multiple parts of the scenery that look like they should be traversable, but in fact aren’t. Heading toward an objective only to find the way is barred by an ankle-high rock – or a beam Senua refuses to duck under – is irritating, and it happens far too often. While the solutions to Hellblade’s puzzles are very satisfying, moving about in order to find those solutions is, quite often, an exercise in frustration, lessening the sense of goodwill built by otherwise smart design and good pacing.
These sections are punctuated by sudden combat encounters, in which Senua’s enemies materialise out of thin air. While there isn’t a great deal of enemy variety, the combat is weighty and responsive. Dodging at just the right moment before hacking away at an enemy feels genuinely rewarding, although the targeting system can be a little fiddly when facing off against multiple combatants. While the combat gets progressively more challenging as you progress, it must be said that it’s not overly difficult. It’s also generous with giving you a last chance to save yourself – Senua is meant to be a survivor, after all – so the threat of the dark rot deleting your save file is never too immediate.
The flow of Hellblade’s combat is soundtracked by the incessant whispers of The Furies. They pick away at Senua’s confidence throughout the battle, giving a thoroughly defeatist commentary throughout – ‘He’s stronger than you. She’s hurt, there’s blood!’ and so on. To their credit, they’re also quite good at yelling ‘behind you’, which is an invaluable feature given that Hellblade is entirely without a HUD or contextual icons. It forces you to pay attention to Senua and The Furies, deepening the sense you’re constantly checking on her wellbeing. Your health is reflected in how she holds herself, for instance, while the glowing mirror strapped to her waist takes the place of a focus meter. It’s another potentially divisive design decision, but one that’s well implemented. On an aesthetic note, the lack of a HUD also brings home just how nice a game it is to look at. With well-animated fighting and some excellent character models, Senua’s world is visually stunning.
Hellblade, then, is a great looking game with excellent audio design, smooth combat and some interesting puzzles and, were its positive attributes to stop there, I’d be happy to call it a highly competent action game. It’s the game’s nuanced depiction of psychosis, however, that makes it something truly special.
Senua’s story is one of constant struggle against self doubt, against enemies both untouchable and unbearable, and against harmful attitudes toward the mentally ill. It’s a story that touches on loss and how difficult it can be to persevere, but it also finds room for comfort. Hellblade shows how relationships can provide solace and comfort for those suffering from mental disorders, but also shows that a relationship can be a double-edged sword; Senua’s reflections on love are tinged with an awareness of how different she feels from other people. While basking in the love of a man whose outlook is so overwhelmingly positive, she can’t help but notice the contrast to her own mental state. She feels relief at being loved, but almost a sense of guilt – it’s clear she feels she doesn’t deserve this man, and she fears what harm will be done to him by her ‘darkness’, as she terms it.
More importantly, Hellblade gives a sensitive depiction of psychosis without making any grand pronouncements about the nature of mental health. It shows simply and clearly that Senua’s psychosis makes her struggle greater; that she’s struggled with mental illness and the consequences of others not understanding mental health for years. Senua’s journey is a quest of stygian proportions, and yet she is a profoundly human heroine. Senua survives by surviving – through sheer strength of will, not by any innate mystical powers or gifts. She’s the anti-dragonborn.
Hellblade is a remarkable game. Despite some frustrations in execution and some design decisions that are likely to drive some players away, Hellblade is a superb exploration of mental illness told with poise and poignancy.