Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the most interesting games I’ve played this year. I don’t know if I have played anything recently that has affected me as much as this game. The game starts with Senua in a small canoe paddling through a channel of water, hanging above water are numerous bodies. The first thing I noticed was how rich the details were. Adding to the macabre atmosphere are the voices, whispering to you. There is one voice that is a little louder than the others. She seems to be narrating Senua’s story for the player. The dissonance of the voices complement the scenery perfectly. After a short time, Senua reaches shore and the player takes control. Thus beginning your journey into Helheim, the land of the dead. As you travel, you will encounter stones that tell you a lot about the history and mythology of the Norse. As the game progresses, Senua remembers stories told to her by her friend Druth, a man who had been enslaved by the Norsemen. More and more plot is revealed through the voices and Senua’s memories. Quickly, you find out that Senua is hell bound to rescue her deceased lover, Dillion, from Helheim and death.
The gameplay is rather simplistic, Hellblade is more story driven than hack and slash. This might sound like a complaint, and for any other game it probably would be, but for this game it works. Most of what you will be doing in the game is walking (or jogging) until you encounter a gate or door. To open them, you will either have to solve a puzzle or fight. Senua has an ability called Focus. It is going to be the most important ability that you use in the game. It is what you will use to solve the puzzles to get through doors. The puzzles require you to search your surroundings and think strategically. I suggest that if something isn’t working for you to come at it from a different angle, literally. The puzzles are fun and thought provoking. They match up well with the story’s premise and the game’s atmosphere.
Because of the creepy atmosphere, you expect there to be a lot of jump scares like, Dead Space or Alien Isolation, but there is none of that. Hellblade lets you know when it’s time to fight. Senua draws her blade and you know a battle is about to ensue. The fighting requires you to time the opponent’s swing and decide when to evade, block, or attack. This is especially important when fighting the bosses. It is important to help find their weaknesses. There will be times when you won’t do much damage if you aren’t blocking to deflect their blows or evading in the correct direction to create an opening for a strike. Another important aspect for fighting is Focus. Using Focus will slow down time for a short period and give Senua a bit of a boost. The fighting is just hard enough to give you that little bit of frustration that keeps the game from being boring. It also makes it so that you feel a sense of accomplishment after you’ve beat an onslaught of baddies or one of the bosses.
I really enjoyed this game but I do have two grumbles. My biggest complaint is the camera angles during fights. Sometimes the camera will lock on to one enemy making it difficult for you to watch any other enemies trying to blindside you. The camera can also get locked on to scenery obstructing Senua and the enemy you’re fighting. This cost me a win a number of times and I quickly learned that trying to keep a wall to Senua’s back is not a strategy that is successful in this game. My other complaint is about the saving and cut scenes. Saving doesn’t always happen after you’ve accomplished something. For instance, there is a puzzle that once solved pulls you first into a cut scene and then into battle. There is no saving in between your solving the puzzle and the fight. So if you have to jump off the game for any reason before you win the battle you will have to solve the puzzle and watch the cut scene all over again. This wouldn’t be too annoying if you could skip cut scenes but you can’t. While the cut scenes are interesting and tell you a lot about the story and character, you really don’t want or need to see it again. However, these are very minor gripes.
My favorite thing about the game isn’t the fantastic graphics, Nordic and Celtic storytelling, or the fun battles though. I love the premise most of all. Senua’s character is shown through her psychosis. The game developers worked with both neuroscientists and people with similar psychoses to make their story and character as authentic as possible. Using Senua’s psychosis to show you her mind is a new and interesting way to tell a story.
I highly recommend Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It is truly a cinematic masterpiece. It has intense and difficult combat mixed with an intriguing story. They added some great puzzles in combat and out. Diving into Helheim and fighting your way through the land of the dead is eerie and entrancing. I was unnerved by the whispering voices, making me feel like I had developed my own psychoses. Hellblade is a masterpiece that will stick with me for quite a long time.