I had immense trouble writing a proper introduction for this review. I deliberated between being overly philosophical, in my attempt to explain the aspect of quality of the title under examination, to just “theatrical” so I could relate the sentiment(s) I have been left with after I finished Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. In the end, I chose to present you my internal conflict, indicative perhaps of the themes that the title addresses among others. Dear reader, rest assured; Hellblade is a very special title.
I caught glimpse of Hellblade from the first teasers three years ago. The impression I was left with was that the game would be quite action-oriented with a hint of horror and heavily influenced by Norse themes (runes on swords etc). I must admit I put it under the radar as there have been quite a few releases which draw inspiration from Norse mythology and end up being lacklustre. How wrong my first impressions were! How lucky I was that I was not hyped! I got into the game unsuspecting of what I would witness. Still, in the process of having everything I saw in the 8.5 hours (from start to finish) sink in, I will attempt to transcribe what is Hellblade.
YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE BLOODY DEAD, IN BLOODY ORKNEY
There are many descriptions and tags which try to define Hellblade: “horror-orientated, action game”, “hack’n’slash”, “narrative”. They are quite wrong while being right; Hellblade is a study of its creators on a human psychosis using video games as a medium of visualisation and expression, and it’s a thorough experience for whoever chooses to play it. It transcends the petty genre tags and provides its audience with an unparalleled immersive experience.
Our heroine is Senua, a Celtic female warrior, her design influenced by the medieval Pict tribes in Scotland during the Roman occupation of Great Britain. She arrives in Helheim, the Norse land of the dead, to claim redemption for her lost lover. One might suggest that her tale is the Celtic take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with the roles reversed. Right from the start, we understand that this is far from the case. Senua is special, in the sense that you arrive as a silent observer in her head. You are welcomed by a voice, the one of many – who would resemble the ancient Greek Erinyes – as she urges you to follow Senua in her quest. Senua’s aim is simple: she will reach and confront Hela, the goddess of Death, and claim Dillion – her lover – back to the world of the living.
I honestly do not want to spoil the story of Senua. It relies on a very simple premise, but ultimately it is how it unfolds into an intricate webby pattern that’s important. Small hints in the narrative comprise a very detailed character backstory and development, one you rarely see in the medium. The daemons Senua has to face balance between reality and fantasy. The game uses Senua as a vessel to provide just a glimpse of the hallucinations and delusions which a psychotic person may experience. Yes, Senua is psychotic as her grasp of reality is quite thin, that much is clear from the start. After all, how would it be possible to look us into the eyes, as if we were actually there? We are peering through the looking-glass, we’re just non-existent observers.
THE SEER SINGS
The players will find themselves deeply immersed in the game’s story. There are two major factors responsible for this: a) the approach in direction and b) Ninja Theory’s handling of state-of-the-art technologies to tell their story and get their message across. As far as direction goes, there are quite a few things one can say. From the frame compositions, the sequences in unveiling new locations or enemies, to the actual behaviour of Senua herself everything is there for a reason. The first 5-6 hours of Hellblade provide a constant escalation of strong emotions as we learn new ways with which Senua observes her environs. Surroundings full of Norse paganist horror and imposing landscapes. Or is it just our twisted perception?
Otherworldly ambient sounds can be heard as we walk past derelict houses, the sounds of still life – or widespread death. We can listen to Viking horns in the mist, as we walk past longships, hanging chains and bones rattling against the wind. We may have the sudden urge to listen to the mystifying music of Wardruna and Forndom, but it will just as suddenly dissolve as we will listen to the ambient sounds which can only mean that new horrors need to be faced. One of the eeriest and horrifying video game experiences I’ve ever had was the start of Act 2 in the original Max Payne (the dream level). It was not because of what was there or not, but of what the visual – and more importantly – the sound effects (and… younger age) forced my mind make all those unconscious connections. While Senua is not disturbing for my taste – trust me there may be people who may find it as such – it managed to match that experience.
All these artistic details are hard to miss from the start (there a few more which are much more subtle). Although the direction takes a strong stance on how to best demonstrate the major conflict happening in Senua’s world, it leaves much to the player for assembly and, thus, interpretation, besides the main theme. How did Senua end up in her state is unveiled gradually, intricately, artistically, exceptionally. An average person (please note; not “normal”) may find Melina Juergens’ (Senua’s alter real-life ego) reactions and acting grossly exaggerated. Arguably, after finishing the game I understood and sympathised in a profound way why Senua reacts the way she does. From start to finish the attention to detail is outstanding.
THE EYES ARE THE MIRRORS OF THE SOUL
Another field in which Hellblade shines is in how it uses the medium’s technologies. This visual novel/study pushes you on edge right from the start. You have to play this game with your headphones on no matter what. The audio is unmatched to my recent memory, and how could it not be? Ninja Theory used a binaural recording room, resulting in everything you listen to be relative in 3D space. “Oh, I heard a maniacal laugh from my right… wait, it moved towards the back of my head…now, back to the right… another voice on the left at the same time… what is happening to me?” You have suddenly become Senua herself. Special reference should be made to the voice actors who gave an outstanding performance. There were a few very unsuspecting moments where no action took place and the voices effects (eg. hisses) made my neck skin crawl out of nowhere.
In order to enforce the impact of the story, engage the players into immersion as much as possible the game has no HUD, only clues. The voices are one with another being Senua’s rotten hand, an indication of a health bar; her mental health. The game follows the golden rule “less is more” exceptionally. The engine contributes quite a lot to that aspect. It’s possibly one of the first games using Unreal Engine 4 I’ve played with the exception of UT2014. I’ve realised we have come a long way since the rendition of Xan’s and Malcolm’s faces in the original Unreal Tournament. Words cannot do justice to describe the motion capture technology that was utilised to bring Senua into digital life. I could see Senua’s eyes shining or the fear drawn on her face, a whole range of emotions which I was fortunate to witness. The environments are so still, devoid of life, yet so lush and rich in themes. Hellblade’s visuals are truly engrossing. Thankfully, Ninja Theory incorporated a Photo Mode (accessed by pressing the Home key) which can be used to take pictures of the game however we see fit. It’s a mode which possibly entitles a second playthrough just for the sake of it.
THE END IS MERELY THE BEGINNING
Honestly, I could drag on and on. I could emphasise how delicately Ninja Theory have dealt with a very sensitive matter such as psychosis, taking notes from established scientists in the field and actual people living in this perpetual state. How they have consulted historians to depict an accurate world. How the combat mechanics are quite fluent without being overbearing. I will not do that.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is not a game. It’s an example of what people with vision, scope and means-for-the-purpose can achieve without being burdened about demographics of marketing to a target audience. It’s a true testament of what the combination of Art and Science can result in, using video games as a medium of expression. It’s a mature, raw, truthful visualisation of a sensitive subject, devoid of any political correctness which would possibly distort the reality for the sake of being accommodating. Whoever would talk about narrative novels in videogames, of profound experiences, Hellblade is going to be the benchmark, the target-to-beat; technologically, directionally, narratively. Its sequences are – literally and figuratively – Poetry. Forget for a moment all the trendy competitive online games. Buy Hellblade. Switch off the lights. Put on your headphones. Turn it on. And live the best experience for 2017.
This review was made possible due to the affiliation programme between Ragequit.gr and GOG.com. To support GOG.com and Ragequit.gr, you can buy Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice by following this link.
- Stunning visuals. The Unreal Engine 4 truly shines.
- Flawless sound design.
- Directorial approach which keeps you at the edge of your seat.
- Some game sequences are truly ingenious.
- That pair of eyes…
- A few minor bugs which are being patched do not smear this game. Period.