Ninja Theory has always been a development company without a lot of luck. While some of their earlier games received widespread critical acclaim they’ve never truly produced a smash hit of a game with most of their projects failing to make a profit. Yet somehow, despite the financial failure of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, franchise nonstarters like Heavenly Sword, and the PR nightmare that was DMC: Devil May Cry the company has still somehow managed to stay afloat and avoid being owned by a larger publisher. With this autonomy and the rise of the independent developer, Ninja Theory decided to split from the traditional AAA publishing market and make what they dubbed an Indi-AAA game. First announced in 2014, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrificewas released back in August and I can honestly say it’s easily the best game that I’ve played all year and is one that I feel everyone should play. Even if it’s clearly not a game for everyone.
As I’m sure you’ve all heard the game’s big gimmick is that Senua is suffering from psychosis and this mental illness is something that effects every aspect of the game. You see on paper the narrative appears pretty straight forward. Senua must go to the underworld, slay a few monsters to unlock a few gates, solve a few puzzles and discovers something about herself before the end credits roll. But then you add the psychosis angle to it and it throws a massive wrench into what would otherwise be a straightforward story. Right from the start we are told that Senua is mentally ill and has been battling this sickness for the majority of her life and you very quickly grow attached to her and her struggle. She is constantly bombarded by voices that sometimes give her hints and encouragement but more often than not discourage and attempt to dissuade her from her path as what may or may not be vivid hallucinations haunt her throughout the game. Heck, right from the start the game heavily implies that the player’s role in the game is just that of another of the many voices inside Senua’s head. Ultimately it’s an angle that adds a layer of ambiguity to everything that is going on and leaves a lot open for interpretation. It’s very possible that Senua is on a journey to the underworld to rescue her lost love and just happens to mentally ill. On the other hand it’s just as if not more likely that Senua is having some kind of psychotic break triggered by the loss of not only a loved one but one of the few people in her life who actually treated her like a person. We’re never really given a definitive answer as to which it is and it’s ultimately up to the player to decide if it’s one or the other or a mixture of both. That level of ambiguity is something that remains constant throughout the game and gives the whole thing a psychological horror edge.
Relatively early on in the game you have to face off against a creature who appears to be some manifestation of a god of illusion. Throughout his area you have to find ways around his illusions by going through various arches with specific markings in specific ways and really require you to pay attention to the environments around you and are oh so satisfying when you figure them out. Later in the game you have to prove yourself worthy to the gods by going through a series of trials that are all creative, unique and require different skills to get through. One, for example, has you navigating a maze while some kind ghost made of fire stalks you and is instant death if it spots you requiring you to be both fast and smart in order to navigate it. In another you are trapped in an area completely devoid of light and need to use the rumble in your controller to feel for the air that will guide you. In that same area you have to navigate past several creatures that will instantly kill you if you get to close. Both of these areas are tense, terrifying, will have your palms sweating and are some of the scariest things that I’ve ever experienced in a video game. I could easily go on but to say any more would spoil it and its best to experience it for yourself.
This is all tied together by an incredible atmosphere with perfect music to suite it. Now as I’m sure you all know the game takes place in a Norse/Pictish setting during what appears to be the Dark Ages. What makes it truly unique, however, is that it’s an unglorified, nightmarish version of it that you would expect to see in a Roman/Frankish fever dream. The things that you encounter in this game are less axe wielding warriors in funny hats as they are backwoods sorcerers who have terrifying weapon prowess. What we normally expect to see as stone, metal and cloth is instead replaced with wood and animal skins haphazardly tied together or worn with a grey, desaturating filter keeping everything bleak and seemingly devoid of life. Everything about it is just unsettling and further drives home the idea that nothing is quite right about the places that Senua travels. This is all capped off by an incredible sound design that is best experienced with a decent set of headphones. From the hypnotic sounds of the rain to the constant chattering voices in Senua’s head to the perfectly placed musical numbers; it all helps better immerse the player into her mind and the places she is at.
Then we have the combat system which, from what I gather, has been a bit divisive among players. The system itself is relatively simple. You have your light attack, your strong attack, charge attack, kick attack to knock enemies off balance and an ability to slow down the movements of the enemies while your attacks speed up for extra damage with minimal risk. It’s all mostly standard issue and lacks a lot of depth. It does, however, make up for this with the speed of its combat and its enemies. Combat is a very slow and deliberate thing in this game as you have to know precisely when to dodge, attack or block. This is especially crucial given the fact that Senua can only take a small number of hits and sometimes two well placed hits are more than enough to take her down. Encountering multiple enemies at once is a common enough thing and they aren’t stupid. They will try and surround you and take cheap shots at your bind spots, forcing you to constantly stay on your toes and on the move. Because of this every single encounter feels like a life or death struggle and more than makes up for a lack of depth.
What ultimately makes the game work, however, is Senua herself. As mentioned earlier what exactly is going on with the plot is very open to interpretation. It could easily be Senua battling the Norse gods of death. It could be her having a psychotic breakdown. Or it could be some kind of mixture of the two. What it does not change, however, is the fact that Senua herself is the heart and soul of it all. The game does an amazing job of immersing you into her mindset and making you feel all the traumas that she had to endure as a young woman with a mental illness in a time period that literally knew nothing about it or how to treat it. Additionally, she is constantly wracked with the guilt over letting Dillion die and not being at his side when the Viking attacked her village. When you look at all of this it become clear that the story is not so much one about a woman battling nightmarish monsters as it is about her trying to move past those traumas and letting her departed loved ones go. And regardless of what you think of the rest of the game it’s a story arc that it pulls off perfectly and knows how and when to tug on the heart strings.