A couple months ago I was visiting with a good friend of mine. He’s a pretty popular twitch streamer so he always has tons of games that I haven’t played. Looking at his collection I saw a game I had seen a little press for, but I had no idea what it was like. I asked him how the game was and he said it was okay. According to him, it was interesting, but more of an experience than a traditional game. With no reason to believe otherwise I didn’t bother to borrow the game from him at the time.
On Christmas Eve, I was looking for something to fill the hole that Destiny 2 was leaving in my gaming time. At the time I figured I might as well try out that experience game, so I grabbed it and started it up. It turns out, he was right about it being an experience. What followed was one of the most surprising gaming experiences of my life. The game was Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Like I said, this game is months old by now (originally coming out in August 2017), but if you haven’t heard about it: Hellblade is a 3rd person adventure game revolving around a young Celt warrior girl named Senua on a quest into Hell to rescue the soul of her lover after he was killed by vikings from the North. The twist: Senua is suffering with severe psychosis throughout the course of the game.
I could tell I was in for something different with Hellblade when the opening text explained that this was a game that dealt with the subject of psychosis, warning me not to play it if I had psychosis as well, and urging those who did to seek help from professionals.
Way to set the scene!
The next warning was even more helpful. Wear Headphones!
Part of Senua’s psychosis is she hears voices. With the headphones on, it felt like I did too. The whispering voices are relentless, and not shy about what they think of what you’re doing in the game. Go the wrong way, they’ll tell you to turn around. Get lost in a maze, they will mock you. Get in a fight, they’ll scream if you’re about to get hit from behind. In a way, they’re a very useful game mechanic. When you’ve got headphones on, it feels like they’re right beside you. I kept having to take the headphones off because I thought my dog was crying. After a while, I unplugged my headphones to show the game to my wife, and without the surround sound whispering, things felt so stark. It no longer felt like the voices were in my head, and it felt like I was missing things they were saying.
Narratively and mechanic-wise, the game does a phenomenal job of not teaching you too much, but leading you to everything you need to know. The narrative unravels slowly, every time Senua defeats one of the puzzles, you get a peak behind the veil to see how this was all just a personal victory over one of Senua’s inner demons. Discovering what the events were, leading up to her psychotic break that sent her on this quest.
In terms of the mechanics, there is no HUD. There are no button prompts. No quick time events in boss fights. You are just one girl against a physical and mythological world. I got through one of the boss fights without figuring out how to go into berserker-like Focus mode to slow down time to devastate your opponents. In retrospect, the voices kept yelling at me to focus. Not because I kept getting hit, but because I just had to press the Focus button.
But despite Hellblade’s name, it’s not a fighting game. The best mechanic in the game is its puzzles. Predominantly, you’ll come across a door locked with several Norse runes. Once you find the door, you have to look around the area to find the runes’ shapes in the world. Maybe in the shape of a tree or a shadow on the wall. Like the rest of the more mythological aspects of the game, you get the sense that this is more of a mechanic in Senua’s mind than in reality. After a while, the voices in your head start to complain that you spend so much time searching for runes instead of trying to save your boyfriend’s soul. Canonically, it makes sense, since finding the runes doesn’t do anything to unlock the door in your way, but if you try to open the door before finding all the runes, Senua gets too distressed to bring herself to open it.
In order to get the right vantage point to find each rune, there are a number of reality altering mechanics. One of the coolest are a set of magical arches. When looking through the arches, they peal away an illusion, so you can see a solution to your problem. Stone wall in your way? Look again! There’s a hole in it now. Walk through the arch, now you’re in that altered reality with a hole in the wall. It’s so smooth and integrated, it feels like real magic.
But the real strength of the game isn’t the fighting or the puzzles. It’s the experience. If Senua is afraid, you feel afraid. One section of the game has you running through the dark, convinced that there is a monster waiting in there to get you. Without a torch to protect you, it feels like you could die at any second and it just gets more and more distressing.
Speaking of dying, the game tells you something close to the beginning. Growing on Senua’s arm is a black rot. It’s a physical manifestation of the darkness that Senua is fighting inside her. In the only ‘gamey’ moment of the game, the camera floats away from Senua to show you a message that every time you die, the rot on her hand will grow up her arm, once it reaches her head the game is over and you lose all progress. It makes things extremely tense. As you go further in the game, the rot grows up her arm getting closer to your head. After playing the game for close to six hours, you really don’t want to have to start over if you lose.
Spoiler Alert: it never reaches her head.
It’s a bluff.
That last hour of the game is insanely stressful because it feels like you could lose it all with any mistake you make. But you can die as many times as you want, you never lose your progress. But that’s how Senua feels. She’s come this far, she’s made it into the depths of the underworld, but at any time she could fail and lose it all.
In order to be fair and not just endlessly praise this game, the puzzles are not as inspiring as they felt when I was immersed in the game. As I said earlier, even the game gets a little tired with the runes after a while. Were it not for all the other mechanics it takes to get to the proper vantage point to see the runes, the constant seeking would get very tiresome. But in my opinion, the balance is just right to make this a great game. Puzzles are broken up by combat, the combat is followed by a small tidbit of Senua’s story, the story is driving you through the next puzzle.
If you haven’t had the chance to play Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, give it a chance. The story is pretty brief, and really pulls you in while wearing headphones. If for no other reason, Playstation players should give it a play for a pretty easy Platinum trophy.
My rating system is pretty simple. Rather than using a scale of 1-10, something is either Great!, Awful!, or …What?
For example, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Great! Meaning it’s an overall, amazing movie.
Suicide Squad is Awful! For obvious reasons, it was objectively terrible.
Something like San Andreas is …What? As in, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really make any kind of impact (name any character in that movie, I challenge you). It that kind of thing that makes you said “What movie was that?”
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a Great Game.