Review by corran450
Corran450's Review Series Vol. 23: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Albus Dumbledore famously uttered those words at the denouement of the Harry Potter series. But, like so many things in literature, he could've been talking about something else. So many of us go through our lives asking ourselves this question... How do we know what is real? How do we know what is an illusion? And just because something is an illusion, does that really mean it cannot harm us?
That's the main conflict at the heart of "Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice", the mindbending game from acclaimed developer Ninja Theory. This indie title, first released in 2017 on the PlayStation Network, and now available on disc for those Luddites out there like me who still prefer physical media, places us squarely in the grey area between what is real and what is an illusion, forcing us to walk the balance in our quest to save a loved one's soul. So, how does it fare in a marketplace full of competition? More than favorably, in this reviewer's humble opinion.
Much more than favorably...
"Hellblade" is a third person adventure title. You play as Senua, a young Celtic girl, as she traverses the treacherous domain of Hel, the Norse afterlife. Senua travels between various realms with one goal in mind: to reach the deepest depths of Hel to rescue the soul of her beloved, Dillion.
The gameplay is divided in two types: exploration and combat. In the first type, Senua explores the environment, solving puzzles and opening the way forward. This may involve finding secret passageways, uncovering magic portals which change the scenery to show the way forward, or finding hidden "runes" in the landscape in order to unlock gates. Using her ability to "focus" allows her to see hidden clues or messages in the scenery, or to listen to "Lorestones" which will flesh out the world she finds herself in, as well as the legends of Norse Mythology on which the game is based.
Occasionally, she will encounter ghastly enemies in her travels, which she must defeat in battle. The combat sections are fairly straightforward, with a deceptively complex battle system. At her disposal are quick hits, heavy hits, melee attacks, and dodges. Various and sundry horrors require different strategies to defeat. Along the way are several challenging boss fights which require perfect timing and skill.
All in all, I quite enjoyed the gameplay. Combat was challenging without seeming unfair. Failures felt more like learning opportunities rather than punishments. And the exploration/puzzle-solving elements were inventive and satisfying.
Two warnings about the gameplay: firstly, there is no tutorial, no on-screen guidance, not even the typical heads up display. So the first sections of the game are largely trial and error, as you figure out how the game wants you to play it. This serves two purposes, in my mind: no heads-up display means no health bars or arrows clogging up your view of the incredible scenery, and secondly, it serves to heighten your sense of dread at the beginning, and your increased feeling of confidence as the quest unfolds.
Secondly, while this game is a third-person action adventure game, the camera sits uncomfortably close to Senua, obscuring large parts of the screen. This is intentional, as the developers hoped to heighten the sense of claustrophobia and discomfort to enhance the overall atmosphere of the game. Well done, them, because it definitely worked.
The game begins as Senua, the young Celtic warrior makes her way across the River of Dead on her way to Helheim, the City of the Dead of Norse mythology. She is driven by one goal, a promise she made to her beloved Dillion to rescue his soul from the depths of Helheim. There's just one problem: Senua is insane.
Senua's tragic life has left her in a state of advanced psychosis (not to be confused with psychopathy), what she refers to as "the darkness". Her affliction manifests as hallucinations, both auditory and visual, and delusions, all of which complicate (and weirdly, sometimes, assist) her in her quest. All of which we, as the player, are party to. She hears constant voices, some which encourage her, most which distract and taunt her as she makes her way down to the depths of Hel.
I must admit, this game was perhaps the most terrifying game I've ever played, merely in the sense of how it messes with your mind, taunting you, challenging you to interpret what is real or not. The imagery is no joke either, with terrifying visions and haunting scenery. As the quest unfolds and you learn more of Senua's tragic backstory, you develop a kinship with her, sharing in her fight against her mind as well as the fight against the demons of the underworld. Ultimately this is as much a quest to save her beloved as it is a quest to define what's real, and it's up to the player to decide which.
A word of warning, this is the first game I've ever played with a disclaimer on it. "Hellblade" was developed with assistance from both mental health professionals as well as actual sufferers of mental illness. The result is a magnificent and hauntingly accurate portrayal of psychosis, which may be disturbing to many players, myself included.
The portrayal of psychosis in this game is as respectful as it is accurate. Senua is not portrayed as a stark raving lunatic but a deeply troubled girl with complex motives and deep scars. You feel sympathetic to her plight, as well as a desire to rescue her from her "darkness". In this way, this is one of the most satisfying and relatable video games I have ever played, and my review score reflects that.
The graphics of "Hellblade" are both stunning and deeply disturbing, as one might guess from the subject matter. The possibility that all this is happening in Senua's head makes no difference, since we see what she sees, and what she sees are devastated landscapes burning eternally, bleak forests filled with haunted illusions, claustrophobic caves with monsters lurking around every corner, and literal Inferno-esque portrayals of Hell. Everywhere you look are the scattered decaying corpses of poor unfortunate souls, some hanging from hooks or in cages, others just strewn about on the ground. Fire dances in dark caves, shadows leap out at you everywhere, and all the while, you're certain that you are descending into the abyss, from which there is no return.
There is beauty, too. Senua's story is told in flashbacks, and we get glimpses of the serene and idyllic life she led before "the darkness" engulfed her, before she lost Dillion. These glimpses are necessarily and unfortunately brief, but serve as a counterpoint to the horror that Senua faces on her mission to Hel.
Senua's character model is realistic and exquisitely detailed. She is not a beautiful girl. In fact, the camera often pans across her face during cutscenes, and she often looks you (the player) directly in the eyes with the disturbing intensity of someone who has lost her mind. However, she seems a real person. She could exist, in real life. She would frighten you, but you would also sympathize with her. She has a real face, with real emotions. Other characters depicted in flashbacks (or as memories playing in the demented recesses of her shattered mind) or portrayed with live action FMVs, and they too feel like real people, no overacting or hamfisted drama here. Enemies are otherworldly and ethereal, with brutal attack animations. There are only maybe five or six different varieties (plus a handful of unique bosses), so they all tend to look very similar. However, the very nature of the imagery in this game during combat scenes mitigates this somewhat, as Senua's tenuous grasp on reality makes everything kinda shimmery and distorted during battles. Not so much that it detracts from your ability to fight, but just enough to make each battle seem unique.
The sound design is perhaps the most impressive aspect of "Hellblade". Starting with the voice acting, which is spectacular. Senua and her memories are all acted superbly, no overwrought breast-beating BS, like I mentioned before. Senua herself is realistic and heart-wrenching. Dillion is understated and soothing. Her mentor, Druth, is bombastic and expansive, but never too far over the top. Other characters are excellent as well.
But the real stars of the show are what Senua calls "the Furies". These are the auditory hallucinations that Senua hears nearly constantly, represented by a chorus of voices, mostly female, that constantly whisper and mutter to Senua. You, as the player, are subjected to these voices, which taunt, tease, and caution Senua, but also help her. Most of the time, they are a distraction, but sometimes they give clues to solving puzzles. In combat, they offer warnings to Senua when she is about to be attacked from behind, mitigating the claustrophobic camera angle somewhat.
Also of note, the sound effects and ambient noise design are incredibly realistic and frightening, but can be useful as well. The game itself recommends that you play it wearing stereo headphones. In this way, your immersion is increased tenfold. The sound also plays a part in solving puzzles, as a particular sound or whisper can guide you in the right direction to the solution. This is even utilized in a later boss fight, when your foe disappears into surrounding darkness, as you can listen for the direction of his howls in order to track him down.
The music is very good as well, based on historical Norse and Celtic music, but featuring some pulse-pounding and terrifying tones as well. The soundtrack is exactly appropriate and contributes to the overall tone of the game. Just a further example of the world-class sound design on display here.
"Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice" is pretty short. Perhaps ten hours? I dunno. It didn't overstay it's welcome. I feel like dragging the story out could've endangered the entire package, as the bleakness of Senua's world would eventually overwhelm you. I feel like it was the perfect length for this story.
As far as replayability, well, there's not much here beyond the main storyline. There's not really any side quests, for example, save for the collection of the many Lorestones hidden in Hel. My understanding is that there is a different ending for those who do not find them all, so I suppose if you don't do that, then you will have a reason to try again.
There is a variable difficulty for the combat. The default is "auto", in which the game tracks if you are having particular difficulty with a given battle. If so, the game may adjust the difficulty accordingly. This function can be turned off, allowing you to choose the difficulty for yourself, should you care to do so, to "easy", "normal", or "hard". Let me just say that, even on "easy", some of these boss fights are darn tricky, so beware, I guess.
This game was difficult for me to play due to the subject matter. I was particularly affected by the psychosis effects. Therefore, I would rate the replayability at low, although, I confess I was so moved by Senua's story that I imagine I will someday play it again. So I guess, high replayability then? At least it's short, so it's not a huge time investment.
I cannot recommend this game enough. I was so moved by the story, so affected by the environment and the effects, so impressed by the visuals, and so staggered by the sound design that I want everyone I know to play this game. The message of the game is pure and good, too, namely that people afflicted by mental illness are not necessarily to be feared, but to be sympathized with. Senua's Sacrifice is a purely unique experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone.
Maybe just play it with the lights on, okay?
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (US, 12/04/18)
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