Initial Release: August 8th 2017
“Because if you believe that Senua’s reality is twisted, you must accept that yours might be too”
Cambridge based Ninja Theory are a developer who have been at the forefront of using performance capture within games. Their work with Andy Serkis on Heavenly Sword and Enslaved helped evolve the technology that is now so readily used in gaming. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the company’s first self-published title and has positioned itself as a ‘AA’ game, although upon playing the game it should be on the verge of that ‘AAA’ status and definitely will be on the 2018 BAFTA nominees list. Senua is a Celtic warrior on a quest through the Viking Underworld who suffers from severe psychotic mental illness, something the game does not shy away from and actually uses to inform many of its design decisions.
Senua’s mind is fractured and as you play through the game you learn a lot about her history and how she came upon her adventure, saying more would take away from the experience and enter the dreaded spoiler territory. Her psychotic episodes allow you to experience a taste of the issues faced by real people with the condition, something the developer has taken a great deal of care to get right without ever making light of the issue. A great deal of credit for this has to go to Melina Juergen’s portrayal of Senua (who is the dev team’s video editor), giving a performance that easily rivals Ashley Johnson’s Ellie in The Last of Us and Melissa Hutchinson as Clementine in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
One of the most common elements in the gameplay is the constant voices Senua hears (a common symptom of psychotic episodes) which can only truly be experienced using a decent set of headphones. The use of 3D sound recording gives distance to the voices, one second they are quite and far away and the next they are screaming “It’s all your fault” in your ear. Throughout the course of the entire game they rarely stop for breath. It can be a little disturbing at times but that is the whole point since the game is about exploring these symptoms of mental illness. The sound design and music is a credit to the audio team lead by David Garcia.
The bulk of the gameplay revolves around puzzles which require you to unlock doors by finding the shape of Celtic runes in the environment’s various architecture and landmarks. Looking at tree branches or holes in the wall from a certain perspective will unveil the symbols so you can progress through to the next set of challenges. Each area has a specific theme such as fire, illusion and darkness that have significance in Senua’s backstory and influences the puzzles you face. Combat is probably the only let down in Hellblade, it’s beautifully animated and attacks flow quite naturally but it does feel a bit repetitive after a while and there is little variety in the enemies. Senua can only focus on attacking one enemy at a time even though you could be facing three enemies at once, the voices actually help by warning if you are about to be attacked from behind.
Graphically Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a real powerhouse which makes great use of Unreal Engine 4, the elements of light and dark are a showcase for the engine even on a basic PS4, though there’s no doubt that playing on PC or PS4 Pro will be the best way to experience Ninja Theory’s stunning work.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the epitome of how gaming as a medium can allow you to experience and empathise with other people’s struggles that no other media can truly do. To take such a taboo subject and make it so integral to the experience shows a degree of skill and compassion that shows Ninja Theory are a special team and should be commended. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an utterly unique experience in gaming today, its exploration of mental health themes is of merit alone but the journey is one that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
A complimentary copy of this game was provided by Ninja Theory and was reviewed on the PS4.