Helheim hath no fury like a woman who mourns
Want to know what it feels like to go utterly, terrifyingly insane? Ninja Theory’s got you covered!
What might you expect the first two titles to be in a game’s opening credits? Producer and Director, perhaps? In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, it’s Mental Health Advisor and Historical Consultant. The reason becomes quickly apparent, as does the fact that Hellblade is like little we’ve ever seen before. For a start, it does an excellent job of avoiding conventional labels: there’s DNA of Ninja Theory’s earlier, action-oriented works here, but also spatial puzzling, harrowing audiovisual storytelling, and a blend of unusual new ideas. Combined, those elements create an unconventionally brilliant narrative showcase.
Hellblade charts both Celtic warrior Senua’s quest to rescue a loved one’s soul from the depths of the Norse underworld, Helheim, and her battle with severe, trauma-induced psychosis, and the lines between the two are never made clear. Whether the former is an internal manifestation of the latter is left ambiguous, and that’s the point – despite the third-person perspective, you experience the world as Senua processes it, distorted and twisted by her illness.
Mental health has often been poorly portrayed within games, from Batman pummelling ‘lunatic’ inmates in the Arkham games, to Outlast using violent patients as the building blocks for its jump-scares, so it’s refreshing to see a sympathetic interpretation. Here, the entire approach is turned on its head: you experience Senua’s anguish and her pain, fearing that, rather than her. She is the one recognisable shred of humanity in a bleak hellscape. So often we tell stories of the mentally ill from the perspective of the outside looking in. Here everything Senua faces, you face also.
While it’s handled with thoughtfulness, there’s no attempt to shy away from the uglier aspects of a psychotic disease, with horrific imagery plucked from Senua’s psyche permeating throughout. The way these take shape changes constantly, they’re never allowed the time to become normalised, but there are several thematic through-lines which hint at her deepest fears.
Visual distortions and trickery – which heighten in moments of stress or conflict – give the world a disorienting feel, but it’s the outstanding audio work that really envelops you in Senua’s consciousness. Headphones are a necessity thanks to the clever use of binaural sound, which simulates the effect of sounds reverberating around inside your head. From the beginning, there are voices whispering in your ears, chiding and questioning your every move, but conflictingly also offering advice. One might nudge you forwards, while another – in the opposite ear – urges caution. The narrator sits alongside these voices too, though she is static, remaining in one ear, and the sensation that’s she’s actually beside you, muttering into your ear,
“You experience senua’s anguish and her pain, fearing that, rather than her”
never subsides. It’s yet another element designed to make you feel consistently on-edge, and it works.
This cocktail of oppressive themes and techniques could easily make for an overwhelmingly dispiriting experience, but the one element of catharsis comes from the combat, for which Ninja Theory is famed. At moments where Senua is most distressed, ephemeral enemies appear in clouds of smoke, some taking the form of Viking warriors while others take more demonic shape. It’s a slow-paced system with heavy crunching blows being dealt and delivered by both sides. Controlling space is vital to avoid becoming surrounded by enemies, but in general these sections aren’t particularly challenging and are a chance to blow off some steam.
Boss fights are more gruelling, grand showpieces of terror that play with the simple rules of combat in clever ways we’d be remiss to spoil here. It might seem incongruous for a game about mental health to switch into action-RPG combat and boss battles periodically, but it creates the sense of Senua fighting back, of being more than just a victim. That her time-slowing superpower is dubbed ‘focus’ is no coincidence: her opponents, creatures of mythology, are not physical, but her own inner demons.
In general, Senua is decidedly human, beautifully acted and motion-captured, with a character arc and plot that gives her depth, rather than just being a vessel to explore mental health. Similarly, her lover Druth, who appears in visions, is convincingly portrayed through the use of live-action footage spliced into the game. This use of real footage hints at the idea that the entire game world exists in Senua’s mind, but either way, both performers look and sound fantastic.
If the characters look impressive, the environments are positively awe-inducing. The lack of HUD helps (see ‘Looking Under The HUD’), and the wonderful level of variety extracted from the Norse/Celtic theme gives each area a distinct feel. Verdant greenery gives way to arid, fire-scorched lands, then dank, rainy temples cast in dour blues. Darkness is a consistent motif, but it’s the moments of light and beauty that contextualise the more murky sections.
The puzzles follow this theme of looking for clarity in the darkness, often depending on spatial awareness for their solutions. The realm of Valravn, God Of Illusions, for example, has you using environment-altering gateways to align symbols and progress, while Sutr, God Of Fire, forces you to retrace your steps at speed through environments after they’ve been set ablaze.
What’s most impressive about the puzzling, and all the other elements of Hellblade, is that they contribute towards creating a cohesive whole. In recent years, we’ve come to accept that traditional gaming components like puzzles and combat are incompatible with the deep environmental storytelling that so-called walking simulators provide. Hellblade is a confident rebuttal of that assertion, showing that when carefully crafted, a deeply meaningful narrative can work alongside conventional gaming principles. To combine both types of game with the additional pressures of tackling a sensitive and highly emotive subject is a challenge that many developers would have understandably shied away from, and plaudits to Ninja Theory for even daring attempt it. To deliver it all with such aplomb, though, is a frankly remarkable feat, and has resulted in one of this generation’s most unforgettable and evolutionary games.
Runic iconography runs throughout Hellblade. Find the symbols in the environment to unlock this gate.
These runes act like audio logs delivering tales of gods and mythology from your lost lover, Druth.
A lone opponent is no trouble, but against a group crowd control tactics are vital.