Hell­blade: Senua’s Sac­ri­fice

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

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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

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