Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

I’ve played my share of difficult games. Most are only difficult in a mechanical sense by way of tangible obstacles. I don’t regularly play emotionally difficult games. Creating such a game is itself difficult. The design elements must be fully committed to whatever premise the game is going for to be truly affecting. This is where cutscenes don’t work. This is where interactivity must be used to tether our actions with personal burden. This is where Hellblade is brilliant.

Hellblade is not coy about exploring psychosis. The start-up screen makes that candidly clear. Senua’s journey into the Norse underworld to find her lover is disturbing as it is dubious. The blatant nature of the subject matter makes you inherently doubt everything you’re seeing. For all you know, Senua’s simply traversing old ruins on the way to see her lover’s grave, not challenging the goddess of Hel.

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Hellblade’s intention is to make you empathise with people who suffer from psychosis by exposing you to the same emotions. In the normal spectrum of gaming this would be a problem. While you can have nightmarish apparitions attack the player, they’re no real threat to the person playing – they only exist in the game. A sort of ludo-narrative dissonance if you will.

So Hellblade does something a different. Each death develops a rot up Senua’s arm. Upon reaching her head the game deletes your save.

Fights and dangerous situations now take on a new meaning. You become anxious, paranoid, and the illusions which were no more threatening than the average video game foe, you now take with a deadly seriousness.

Just like someone with psychosis.

The point is not the permadeath itself, the point is how it makes you feel. To languish with the ever-present fear of being enveloped by something you know can’t hurt you, but can’t help but take seriously anyway.

People with this condition must be extraordinary brave to face this all the time. They should be awarded for their courage, which would probably explain why Hellblade is so lavishly generous with trophies. I’d only been playing for fifteen minutes and had already been given a gold trophy, and all I’d done was walk into a courtyard. By game’s end I had 8 gold trophies and 5 silver ones. Why? Because I deserved them, and so does anyone else.

I tried playing for long bouts, because a person with psychosis doesn’t have the option of running away. Even when I wasn’t playing the game I continuously felt nervous at the thought of going back, exposing myself to an oppressive experience which threatened to overrun me could I not stay above it and keep the challenges at bay.

Just like someone with psychosis.

This is one of the many special thing about Hellblade. Despite being tumultuously hard, the game also celebrates the courage needed to face psychosis. Ninja theory are subverting the action genre by taking the tenants we’re familiar with, and using them to create something terrifying, to illustrate just how difficult the real journey is. It shows how heroic people with psychosis are by taking us through an experience we’ve been down so many times, in a language we understand, so that we might understand somebody else.

Take the puzzles for instance. Illusory challenges that task Senua with finding a particular pattern in her environment by changing her point of view until the shape is found. The game forces us to see normal objects in a different light. What’s most interesting about these puzzles is Senua is actually using her ability to see the world differently to solve problems. Instead of dismissing these fantastical patterns as illusory hindrances, Hellblade suggests that even something horrifying can sometimes be of value.

Regardless of what she’s doing, Senua is privy to a whole entourage of voices speaking both her inner doubts and hopes. They also work as a clever method by which to narrate the story, and the action. They’ll drop hints when a foe is behind you, or give you little nudges when you’re stuck. Their helpfulness is wildly inconsistent. At times you’ll be grateful for them. At other times you’ll wish they’d just go away.

All considering, I must admit this game is not for everyone. A prospect which saddens me, but one I must unfortunately accept. I play games for all kinds of reasons, not just for fun, and Hellblade is not fun – it’s emotionally brutal. While the permadeath frames this entire game and the experience it’s trying to share, not everyone will appreciate that experience. There’s even some debate as to how the permadeath works, and whether there’s really any at all. Some seem to confirm there is, while some seem to confirm there isn’t.

But even if there weren’t, it means I was under the spell of a false idea – afraid of something I thought could hurt me, but actually couldn’t. A delusion I believed wholeheartedly.

Just like someone with psychosis.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
"An emotional inferno, worth your suffering."
- Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Follow Own it? Rating: R13   Difficulty: Hard   Learning Curve: 30 Min


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Comments Comments (8)

Posted by Unfathomable-Ruination
On Thursday 24 Aug 2017 11:14 AM
Would it be worth mentioning that the game is best experienced with headphones? The audio is amazing.
Posted by ThatUndeadLegacy
On Thursday 24 Aug 2017 11:42 AM
It just shows AAA is Overrated and AA is where its at :D
Posted by SpawnSeekSlay
On Thursday 24 Aug 2017 12:03 PM
Definitely had my eye on it since its reveal, glad its reviewing so well even with its short play time. Would like to see more gaming experiences like it in the future.
Posted by siamese
On Thursday 24 Aug 2017 12:16 PM
Definitely picking this up somewhere along the line.
Posted by kiwiatlarge
On Thursday 24 Aug 2017 12:30 PM
I very rarely ever use my Playsation Gold headphones, but I took on the advice, and it's actually a fantastic experience playing with headphones. It could just be me, but lining up the position of the puzzles can be a bit frustrating, I'm also a wuss, and turned the difficulty down, because like the review says, dying can't actually hurt you, but you really don't like dying in game when it's happening to you.

I hope I will get to finish it, and it's not one of those games I play a chapter or two then neglect for the more A+ new releases I have, like I did with The Evil With, Alien Isolation and Outlast. I'm trying to find a quiet hour or two a couple of days a week while the animals are still locked up and the mrs is still at work when I get home...
Posted by drunk_monk
On Thursday 24 Aug 2017 12:41 PM
I am in love with this game. I hate horror and its scaring me, especially the voices in the headphones, but the experience is worth it because its just fantastic.
Posted by ricky1981
On Thursday 24 Aug 2017 6:46 PM
The atmosphere is awesome but the level design is pretty wayward at times and the combat whilst solid hasn't progressed beyond that for me (several hours in). It's an interesting game for sure but 9.5 seems a tad generous, I'd give it 8-8.5 so far. Good to see shorter sensibly priced titles rather than full priced bloat so here's hoping other developers follow suit.
Posted by Outlaw213
On Friday 25 Aug 2017 12:17 AM
I didnt know this game was 9.5 good!

Might have to check it out sometime.