Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
A wonderwork of sight and sound, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice disorders by dissecting demons. explores mental
Senua, Celtic warrior extraordinaire, her face and arms slathered in cerulean woad matching the color 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 Kratos- like 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, emphasized 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