In the video game industry, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for developers to be innovative, or to reinvent the wheel as they say. Though, they do try their best, and it shows with many of the games that were shown off at E3 this year. However, with just about five years spent on the current generation of gaming consoles (with the exception of the Nintendo Switch), there isn’t a lot of ground left to tread. You can only do so much with mechanics, platforming and gameplay, which is why being able to tell a good story is now one of the most important aspects of game development. And in Ninja Theory’s new game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you can tell just how much attention and care was given, because the end result will take your breath away.
Before we get into the game and all of the things that make it so enchanting, I want to talk about the game’s major theme: mental health. There are two important questions that need to be asked when using mental health for an entertainment medium. The first question is: Is it being handled respectfully? For those of you who are familiar with the popular teen novel turned Netflix show “Thirteen Reasons Why” you probably stand on one of two sides. You either liked the show and feel like it championed awareness for mental health or you hated it and felt like it handled raising awareness for mental health about as well as a gym that leaves donuts on their treadmills. If you’re curious about my own thoughts on the matter, feel free to check an article I wrote when the show came out called, “I’m Fine I Promise, Some Thoughts on Depression, Anxiety, Suicide, 13 Reasons Why And Chris Cornell.” The second question one should ask is: Does it serve a purpose beyond viewer statistics and ratings? If the recent explosion of young adult novels and television shows exploring suicide and depression has shown us anything, it’s that it’s an extremely polarizing topic to parents and an extremely popular topic to young people. However, where novels and television shows use mental health as a plot device to further an already shallow story (in most cases) Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice uses it to empower and give hope to those experiencing it.
How do they accomplish this? For those of you who are familiar with the developers Ninja Theory, whose catalogue includes games like Disney: Infinity, DmC: Devil May Cry, Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and several others, you know that one of the many things that makes them stand out is their ability to craft an interesting story, while keeping a repetitive style of gameplay feel new with each enemy type. And while Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice lacks the skill building and combo attack mechanics of other Ninja Theory games, its story is one that stands above most games made during this generation. The attention to detail is shown in both it’s handling of Norse mythology and the time period in which Senua lives, as well as the depression and struggle that accompanies mental illness, in this case severe psychosis and schizophrenia. In a making-of documentary that you can watch once you complete the game, you can find out just how far Ninja Theory went to make sure the experience was authentic and handled tastefully. Not only was there a team of mental health experts on staff, they consulted regularly with colleges and outside sources. While seeing life through Senua’s eyes is truly terrifying in some moments, it’s quite beautiful in most others.
WARNING: FULL SPOILERS AHEAD
It’s difficult to fully review this game without spoiling the ending. If you still plan on playing the game, and you don’t already know how it ends, I wouldn’t recommend reading past this point.
In true Ninja Theory fashion, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game whose story takes place in a historical setting, but is intertwined into the rich mythology of a culture that has faded into the pages of history books. When the game begins, Senua is paddling a boat towards an unnamed location, where corpses decorate the shores and barricades create a very linear path toward your destination. It’s in the game’s opening scene that you first experience Senua’s mental illness firsthand as voices try to dissuade her from going forward. Once on shore, you find a rune, which when activated, begins the only side objective the game has to offer, which is to find them all. Each stone recalls part of a story by a man named Druth, whom Senua forged a sort of bond with after either saving him from some North men or sparing him at the tip of her sword. Druth’s part in the tale isn’t ever exactly made clear, but as the game goes on, you find out that he sold his village out in exchange for his life when the North men invaded the Celtic lands of Europe. Druth not only sold his village out, but he also joined the North men in slaughtering his own people in order to be spared. With each rune that’s activated Druth tells a story of Norse mythology that helps Senua on the different parts of her journey.
Once on shore, you learn a little bit about Senua’s backstory, while exploring a marsh-type area. It isn’t until you get to a beach that you find out why Senua is here or even where here is (allegedly). In the distance, just off shore, is a large wooden structure, shaped like a horse and built out of dismantled Viking ships. This is where the journey officially begins. Before proceeding across the beach, she holds up a head wrapped in cloth. It turns out that this head belonged to her lover Dilian, whom the North men sacrificed to the Norse gods as a blood eagle sacrifice. This is why Senua has journeyed to these strange lands . . . to save Dilian’s soul, which she believes is trapped in Hellheim, the Norse underworld. From there, it’s a lot of puzzle solving, fights, and history lessons until the long-awaited confrontation with Hella, the queen of the Underworld and the final boss in the game.
Then there’s “the rot” to consider. This is where the review embargo really helped Ninja Theory. News of this feature didn’t get out until the day the game was released, and while it worried some gamers, it made the game that much better for others. The rot is a clever (or frustrating) feature that will make you very cautious while playing this game. Right before Senua faces one of the game’s first two bosses, she reaches out to touch the door to Hellheim. Upon making contact, her body rots away. But don’t worry, she’s just seeing things. The rot is real, but it’s not quite over her entire body . . . yet. It starts out in the arm, and each time you die, it crawls further up. When this feature is activated, you get a stern warning from the developers saying that when the rot reaches Senua’s head, your save data will be erased completely (not exactly in so many words). While many reviewers tried to test this, few successfully made it happen. As it turns out, you have to die many times in many different places.
It’s the ending of the game that truly reveals the passion and genius behind it. As a player, you spend about six to seven hours fighting enemies and solving puzzles, trying to reach your final destination before the rot climbs it’s way up your arm and erases all of your save data. Is the ending worth the intensity of the game and having to worry about taking that chance? It depends on what you’re expecting, because I guarantee you that it won’t be. While I’ve already spoiled a great deal of the game, I’m afraid I can’t give the ending away, because it would honestly make the game rather pointless, and before even getting to the end of this review, I’m telling you that you NEED to play it.
Ninja Theory gets props on perfecting the style of gameplay that we’ve come to know and love from them. After all, nobody was expecting it to be a game that takes a beloved character from a typical platformer/role playing game and throws him into a strategy game. Yes, I’m talking about you Nintendo/Ubisoft. The gameplay in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice feels seamless, even when you’re being overrun by North Men and you see the red outline on your screen, indicating you’re about the die. The puzzles, while challenging, aren’t unsolvable. In fact, the casual gamer can probably press through most of the game without having to use an Internet guide. And the combat is simple enough to allow you to slice through your enemies without having to worry about combos. After all, you just press the same few buttons over and over again. Now, let’s talk about the soundtrack. If you’re a fan of sword and sandal flicks like Troy, Gladiator, Braveheart, etc then you should have no problem getting into the music of this game. The title track, composed by Andy LaPlegua, immerses you into this dark world before the game even starts, and from there it follows the changing moods of Senua and even helps you feel her fear when amplified by the voices. However, as mentioned above, the place where the game excels at is the story and point behind it. Senua is a very special character in the fact that she embodies all of us as gamers in one way or another. We might not all be suffering from psychosis or schizophrenia, but we all have a problem with fear and the more we dwell on it, the more the fear engulfs us. And as Senua learns to conquer her fear, I felt emboldened, like I could deal with my own, which is something I’ve never experienced while playing a game.
Just because the above section is filled praise, that doesn’t mean that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice doesn’t have its problems. For example, while I enjoyed the simplicity of the combat, it also became repetitive. It was fine when there were only two or three North men charging you at once, but on the bridge in Hellheim and especially during the Sea of Corpses part of the game, when you’re on the verge of being overwhelmed, you can hardly mash the buttons fast enough to keep up. Then there’s the dodging mechanics. Ninja Theory, it seemed, had fleshed these out with DmC: Devil May Cry, but in this game they weren’t very reactive, and pressing square if you were still attacking or moving often resulted in you not dodging at all but instead getting hit by one, sometimes two, enemies in succession. And while those are all very small things in the grander scheme of the game, there is one aspect of the game that is incredibly frustrating, and that’s the way you progress. During some of the shard challenges and as you make your way through Hellheim, there are areas where dying is pretty much inevitable. These aren’t areas where you have to solve puzzles or look for symbols. These are areas that you simply have to walk through. However, there are no clear directions on what exactly you have to do. For example, during the blindness shard challenge, they’re not very specific about where you’re supposed to go, and if you get to close to one of the creatures you can’t see, they rip you to pieces. Same thing in Hellheim. You’re not supposed to walk through the shadows or else you get attacked by the shadow dog, creature thing. Usually that wouldn’t be such a big deal, but if you consider the rot, it becomes one.
Despite the game’s flaws, it’s still a magnificent achievement by Ninja Theory that’s full of terror, mystery and beauty. There wasn’t one moment during this six to seven hour playthrough that I felt the need to go play something else or take a break. It was like sitting down to watch a Christopher Nolan movie. You knew there was a twist, but the journey to that point in the film is enthralling. As for the mental health aspect of the game, this is why video games are such a great story-telling medium. Where Netflix “kamikazed” mental illness into an audience of depressed teenagers, Ninja Theory very carefully and gracefully crafted a story not just about somebody suffering from mental illness, but also somebody who learns to overcome it, though in a very violent way. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is worth every penny of the $29.99 price tag and the time it takes to play it. It has an excellent story with plenty of combat that only results in a couple of moments of frustration. Assuming Marvel’s Thor films haven’t left a bad taste in your mouth when it comes to Norse mythology, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice not only welcomes you into a far darker version of that world, but the story keeps up with you as you play, meaning you don’t have to backtrack or look online if you forget something. If you have time before gaming season starts in September, this is a game you shouldn’t miss. Or heck, even if you already have stuff to play, give it a try. You won’t regret it.