Hell­blade: Senua’s Sac­ri­fice

A won­der­work of sight and sound, Hell­blade: Senua’s Sac­ri­fice ex­plores men­tal dis­or­ders by dis­sect­ing demons.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Leif John­son

Senua, Celtic war­rior ex­traor­di­naire, her face and arms slathered in cerulean woad match­ing the colour of her eyes, slices her way through the hordes of the im­pos­ing Vik­ing un­dead with the sev­ered head of her dead boyfriend strapped to her belt. In some ways, then, Hell­blade: Senua’s Sac­ri­fice comes off a lit­tle bit like a gritty re­boot of Grasshop­per Man­u­fac­ture’s hack-and-slasher, Lol­lipop Chain­saw. But there are few laughs in this gloomy world and cer­tainly no lol­lipops. Hell­blade is se­ri­ous busi­ness – so se­ri­ous, in fact, that be­hind all of its Vik­ing swag­ger and Celtic rage it aims to let us peep into the mind of some­one af­flicted with psy­chosis, a men­tal dis­or­der with symp­toms rang­ing from hear­ing voices to a near-to­tal dis­con­nect from re­al­ity. Games of­ten mis­han­dle this sort of thing, but Ninja The­ory ea­gerly proves it did its home­work with a doc­u­men­tary on the ti­tle screen de­tail­ing how the stu­dio chat­ted with Cam­bridge pro­fes­sors and ac­tual psy­chosis pa­tients in the hopes of let­ting play­ers un­der­stand psy­chosis through the in­ter­ac­tiv­ity games of­fer.

And won­der of won­ders, it gen­er­ally works. More than that, it works with a ti­tle like ‘ Hell­blade’, which con­jures im­ages of a Kratoslike hero stomp­ing into hell to kick

ass (and there’s cer­tainly some of that). But most of all, it works be­cause of Senua her­self. Ninja The­ory uses haunted eyes to full ef­fect in long, moody close­ups pep­per­ing the nar­ra­tive. She peers not only into the dark­ness, but seem­ingly past the cam­era, past the screen. Look­ing back, I found depths of de­spair and anger there that were some­times hard to meet head on.

All this makes Hell­blade more of a psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait than any­thing else, and as such, the story it­self isn’t all that com­pli­cated. Fol­low­ing a Vik­ing at­tack on her home in the Orkney Is­lands that left her lover Dil­lion dead, Senua de­scends into the Norse un­der­world of Hel­heim to re­claim Dil­lion’s soul from Hela her­self. So far, so 2010’s Dante’s In­ferno. But this is a hard bat­tle for Senua, em­pha­sised bril­liantly with her slow tread, re­luc­tant jog, and hur­ried breath­ing. Here we find a girl who was kept out of sight as a child by her fa­ther, and whom the vil­lagers blamed for bring­ing the Vik­ings upon them. Some peo­ple would crum­ble un­der such pain. But still Senua fights. It’s a lit­tle in­spir­ing.

Fights and Frights

It’s a shame that in­spi­ra­tion doesn’t carry over to the ac­tual fights – not ini­tially, any­way. Senua’s an­i­ma­tions are im­pres­sive, but her bloody busi­ness never grows more com­pli­cated than de­liv­er­ing a bar­rage light and heavy at­tacks while block­ing, evad­ing, and par­ry­ing. I frankly found it kind of dull in the one-on-one du­els at the start, and it didn’t help that the en­e­mies some­times seem to skip a few an­i­ma­tions when re­act­ing to at­tacks. Nor does it help that there’s pre­cious lit­tle vari­a­tion in the foes them­selves, who al­most al­ways show up as tall, shirt­less war­riors with deer skull hel­mets or as beefy berz­erker shamans. By the end of the first hour, you’ve ba­si­cally seen ev­ery non-boss you’re go­ing to see.

Much of the com­bat’s short­com­ings slink away once ever-larger bands of the deer helm gang crowd the scene, forc­ing Senua to take on around seven at once, cul­mi­nat­ing in a fi­nal se­quence where she leaps around the floor hack­ing and slash­ing like a bladed pin­ball knocked about by bumpers. If she par­ries enough, she can ‘fo­cus’ by press­ing ‘E’ or squeez­ing a gamepad’s right trig­ger to slow down time to slice her en­e­mies with com­par­a­tive ease. Then the drums thun­der. A cho­rus of war­riors chants. In Hell­blade’s most tri­umphant mo­ment, the music even bursts into an elec­tronic dance song that some­how doesn’t feel out of place. In these fran­tic mo­ments, com­bat in Hell­blade be­comes a thing of beauty – a dance that re­calls the kinetic artistry Ninja The­ory achieved so skill­fully in 2013’s Devil May Cry re­boot, DmC.

Ninja The­ory uses haunted eyes to full ef­fect in long, moody close­ups

Hell on feels

The flu­id­ity of this dance of death suf­fers a bit from the awk­ward need to lock onto dif­fer­ent en­e­mies solely by look­ing at them. There’s no man­ual way to do so. Some­times I’d need to pre­pare to parry the berserker charg­ing me, but couldn’t eas­ily switch the tar­get from the shielded war­rior I’d be whit­tling down – leav­ing me no op­tion but to dodge the berserker. It’s the sole real flaw of Hell­blade’s nonex­is­tent user in­ter­face, which other­wise al­lows the force of Senua’s raw emo­tions to fil­ter through the screen un­blem­ished by num­bers or meters. The only el­e­ment that even re­sem­bles UI is the way a magic mir­ror on her belt lights up when it’s time to trig­ger her com­bat fo­cus at­tack. It lends in­ten­sity to boss fights, as you’re never re­ally sure when they’ll end.

The trou­ble is that mis­takes mean some­thing here. Senua doesn’t have many op­por­tu­ni­ties to screw up. Hela in­fected her arm with rot, you see, and the ten­drils of de­cay creep fur­ther up her limb with each death. The game tells you that, when the ten­drils reach her head, all progress will be erased. It’s but an­other el­e­ment that helps make Senua’s plight re­lat­able. When she hes­i­tates, I hes­i­tate. When she’s scared, I’m wary. I also have some­thing at stake, too, how­ever mi­nor it may be.

The ap­proach goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing the rel­a­tively short eight or nine-hour run­ning time. For­tu­nately, it’s not as harsh as it could be. I died maybe six times in my playthrough, and by the end the rot had only snaked up around three quar­ters of her arm. Good thing, too. Some­times I failed for the dumb­est rea­sons, as when I ran past a torch while flee­ing a beast in the dark­ness. I let my fear over­power my logic. Senua wouldn’t have done that.

The druth is out there

Is Hel­heim real? It’s never clear – a con­se­quence of Senua’s psy­chosis. But it cer­tainly feels like it, and it ham­mers home why Vik­ings were so ea­ger to die in bat­tle and hang out with the bros in Val­halla rather than dy­ing of old age. Hav­ing the gall to do that, it turns out, lands you a prime spot as a charred arm among mil­lions, grab­bing at passersby.

Senua learns about all this Vik­ing stuff from an Ir­ish scholar and for­mer Vik­ing slave named Druth, hint­ing that his tales might have helped shape the vi­sion of hell she trav­els through. She re­calls Druth’s lessons as she encounters rune­stones along the way, which trig­ger Druth’s op­tional but won­der­fully acted nar­ra­tions of the ‘great­est hits’ of Vik­ing lore.

Druth stands out be­cause he’s a voice that Senua can choose to hear. She can’t turn off the con­stant voices of the women in her head, who mock her, ar­gue with one an­other, and ad­vise her even to the point of drown­ing out Druth’s lessons. They’re the nags of anx­i­ety, fear, and doubt we all know, but Senua hears them as real voices, a gos­sipy clique chat­ter­ing about her life as though it were a new episode of Game of Thrones. “Can you see that?” they whis­per omi­nously as Senua sails by men im­paled on stakes. “They’re go­ing to do that to you.”

They sound close, a whis­per away. As vis­ually stun­ning as Hell­blade is, its true tri­umph is its sound de­sign. Strap on some good head­phones, and the voices of the women and a gruff dude who sounds like the Mouth of Sau­ron swirl around you in 3D bin­au­ral au­dio, warn­ing Senua to ‘watch out’ when an en­emy at­tacks from be­hind or telling her when to ‘fo­cus’. Fo­cus­ing is Senua’s way of im­pos­ing her will on her world, and it’s used ex­ten­sively, not only in com­bat but in se­quences where she has to lis­ten for the pre­cise di­rec­tion of the chant­ing of an eva­sive boss or feel her way through the pitch black­ness of a lair where fright­ful blob­bing en­e­mies lurk.

On the beaten path

Hell­blade, in fact, is just as much about solv­ing puz­zles with fo­cus as mur­der­ing Nordic hellspawn, with many of them in­volv­ing find­ing the shapes of Vik­ing runes in the chance align­ment of ran­dom ob­jects or stand­ing at the proper spots to dis­pel il­lu­sions. These are my favourite parts of the game, be­ing nei­ther too hard or too easy. Even bet­ter, Hell­blade never lets these el­e­ments grow stale. Some­times, to take an ex­am­ple, it will throw a curve­ball and make you dis­cover the runes while run­ning from an un­beat­able flam­ing mon­stros­ity that stalks Senua, Bal­rog-style, through a ru­ined mead hall. The prob­lem? There’s lit­tle room for ex­plo­ration. Hell­blade isn’t ex­actly a Fi­nal Fan­tasy XIII- style cor­ri­dor, but nei­ther is it far off.

“She needs to re­mem­ber the way back,” the voices say at one point. C’mon, it’s not like it’s that hard.

Per­haps, of course, they weren’t talk­ing about the mini-maze. As Dil­lion him­self tells Senua in hap­pier times, “The hard­est bat­tles are fought in the mind, not with the sword.” Senua, though, fights both types of bat­tles at once. She fights them to re­turn to the only sense of hap­pi­ness that she once knew. Other games have fo­cused on such themes as this, for sure, but few, if any, have de­liv­ered the truth of that mes­sage with such con­vic­tion.

Senua doesn’t have many op­por­tu­ni­ties to screw up

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