Video games can—and indeed should—deal with sensitive subjects like mental illness. Celeste and Night in the Woods tackled depression, however including sensitive such topics carries an inherent risk and isn’t something to be taken lightly. If the developer doesn’t do its research or messes up the implementation then the illness can come off as a gimmick and unintentionally offensive. This is extra risky when the illness forms part of the gameplay and not just the story.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice jumps in at the deep end by tackling psychosis. Every part of Hellblade, from the story to the combat to the puzzle solving to the sound design, is all about psychosis. Ninja Theory took a huge risk developing a game centering around an extreme mental health condition, but it paid off. Hellblade can’t make you fully appreciate what it’s like to live with psychosis, but after completing the game I felt like I understood it a little bit more.
You play as Senua, an eighth-century Pict warrior from Orkney, who wants to save the soul of her lover Dillion after he was murdered by the invading Northmen (basically Vikings). A mysterious man named Druth tells Senua all about Helheim, the Northmen’s version of the Underworld, ruled by the Goddess Hela. Senua travels to Helheim to bargain with Hela for Dillion’s soul.
This is where Hellblade starts, although exactly what happens next is up for debate. Most of Senua’s journey is likely in her head. It doesn’t matter. Hellblade isn’t about a literal journey into hell, it’s about Senua’s personal journey to move on from the loss of a loved one and deal with the voices in her head.
As you might expect, Senua’s journey is a dark one. For a start, she carries Dillion’s head with her, casually hanging it from her waist as if it’s just a casual accessory. Senua’s backstory comes out through cutscenes and lorestones that are dotted throughout the levels. Her tale is one of abuse and misery that I won’t spoil here. The events of Hellblade might not be real, but Senua’s past is and it’s brutal.
Most of Hellblade consists of solving puzzles and fighting off waves of Northmen. Puzzle solving requires you to look around the environment for shapes that match runes on locked doors. This can be anything from a shadow on the ground to a combination of trees that resemble the correct shape when viewed from just the right angle. This never gets particularly challenging because hints appear on screen when you’re close to standing in the right spot. This removes much of the frustration players might feel if they get stuck, but it also removes the satisfaction of figuring things out yourself. The option to remove the hints would have been appreciated.
Other puzzles have you using illusion portals to change the world around you or finding the right place to stand so that rocks floating in the air resemble a staircase or open door. At it’s most complex, you will go back and forth between portals to solve puzzles. For example, you’ll create a gap in a wall so that you can enter a room and open a locked door, and then change the environment back so that you can walk along the top of the wall that you previously removed. This system could have been vaguely challenging if the levels weren’t so linear. There’s barely any thought required because you never have any decisions to make.
Combat is also a touch simple and looks better than it feels. Senua has a light attack, heavy attack, and a melee attack. A perfect block results in a parry which builds up Senua’s focus meter. Using focus slows down time to help Senua get out of tight spots. At its best, the combat looks fluid, colorful, and responsive. You can get in a perfect block to create a parry, kill the enemy with a heavy strike, run to another enemy and slam the blade into his stomach, and then use focus to finish off the rest while they are barely able to move. These moves are easy to pull off which means you’ll be doing them from the beginning to the end. It eventually gets repetitive, though.
The repetition isn’t helped by a distinct lack of enemy variety. Only one enemy really requires you to change up your tactics a bit and while the bosses bring something new to the table, there aren’t many of them.
Combat ends up feeling more like a slog or a chore, and perhaps that’s the entire point. Senua is on a mission to overcome her inner demons. It’s not supposed to be an exciting or stimulating action-adventure. It’s more like a walking simulator where combat serves as a way to keep the player engaged with the experience. It works. I might not have been that excited while playing Hellblade, but I did feel like I was dealing with issues deeper than just puzzles and combat.
Ninja Theory puts players inside Senua’s head, so regardless of whether the world around you is real, you’ll feel like it is. You’ll fight exaggerated versions of the Northmen, progress through levels by searching for runes in the environment, and confront the beasts that guard the entrance to Helheim. However, none of this would be especially impactful without Hellblade’s phenomenal sound design.
The voices in Senua’s head are replicated using binaural recording—or “3D sound” if you prefer—that allows for chillingly effective moments where the player gets to hear what Senua hears. Most of these voices are a group known as the Furies. The Furies taunt Senua (“she’s going the wrong way”), support her (“I can’t believe she got the door open”), and even help out in combat (“behind you!”). If you play with headphones, and you really should, these voices will feel like they are speaking directly to you. One level has Senua walking through the darkness while trying to avoid monsters. The quiet whispering voice in my ear was so hauntingly real that I imagined I could feel the breath on the back of my neck.
Hellblade looks phenomenal. There’s a mixture of photo-realistic Scandinavian environments and fantasy areas such as the Sea of Corpses where hands reach out to grab Senua as she walks past. It’s steeped in atmosphere, from the shipwreck on a rocky shore to Helheim itself, where Senua must keep lighting torches before she succumbs to the darkness.
Immersion is aided by the complete lack of any HUD. Damage is revealed through slashes on enemy bodies or filters that darken the screen as Senua is hit. The focus gage is shown directly on the mirror that Senua carries at her waist and incoming attacks are signaled by the Furies shouting at Senua.
It’s a shame that despite offering players a unique opportunity to appreciate the horrors of psychosis, Hellblade is too often weighed down by puzzle and combat elements that don’t add enough to the experience. Some people will no doubt feel that combat should be a slog and that it’s part of Senua’s battle against her illness. I’m not sure I buy that. The combat could have been more satisfying without it detracting from Senua’s struggles.
Hellblade doesn’t have huge flaws, but it fails to excel in too many areas to be an essential purchase. I’d still highly recommend Hellblade for the simple fact that it made me think and feel things that no other game has. There are plenty of games out there with more scintillating combat or intellectually taxing puzzles, but not many that can put you in the head of a Pict warrior suffering from psychosis. That alone makes it worth a purchase.