I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted any video game reviews. January is such a long time away and I have played many new games since then. I will try to post more regularly.
Today I want to talk about Ninja Theory’s newest cinematic psychological horror action-adventure video game. Before I begin my actual review of this game, I heard about this game a year before it was released. At the time they called it a “hack and slash” game. I wasn’t sure how I’d actually feel about this when I heard this. Hack and Slash is not my kind of genre. I’ve never played Heavenly Sword because I did not like the gameplay I experienced in the demo, but I did really enjoy Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. When Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was finally released, I took a chance since it wasn’t priced high. I’m quite pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it, so let’s go on with the review!
Like I just mentioned, I took a chance on this game. In saying this, I didn’t know the story for Hellblade. I knew it was about Senua (acted by Melina Juergens, who incidentally also happens to be Ninja Theory’s video editor) and her journey through a hellish world.
It turns out this hellish world is Senua’s psychotic manifestations of her reality and mind due to her mental illness, psychosis. In case you don’t know, psychosis is an abnormal condition of the mind that involves a “loss of contact with reality”. Senua created her own reality as she set on a quest to release her love’s soul, Dillion, from Hel (also known as Helheim) and ruled by Hela, the Queen of Hel and daughter of Loki in Norse mythology.
To give you a little backstory, Senua is a Pictish warrior from the Orkney islands. She was traumatized by her psychosis, the lies from her father and how he convinced her that she was the curse upon her village. She left her village to be a geilt (a geilt is “one who goes mad from terror, a panic-stricken fugitive from battle, a crazy person living in the woods and supposed to be endowed with the power of levitation, a lunatic.”) and lived in the woods to exorcise her curse. Upon her return, she finds Dillion sacrificed in the Blood Eagle fashion (you can google the information but it’s NSFW). She sets off with Dillion’s head in a bag attached to her belt to Hel, to release Dillion from Hela’s grasp.
Senua travels through a world full of demons manifested from her psychosis. Each enemy encounter represents another kind of psychosis she experiences. The player never knows if they are real or if they are a figment of Senua’s imagination.
Her first ‘demon’ is Hela, the Norse goddess of death as she begs for Dillion’s release in the first 20 minutes of the game. Hela refuses and Senua gets afflicted with the rot, and the player is told that the rot will grow each time the player fails. An additional warning appears that if the rot reaches Senua’s head, her quest is over. And so it begins. The player must fight for Senua’s life for the rest of the game.
When it comes to the story, it’s not so easily given away. It is fed to the player in a subtle way and they must search the environment for lore stones to learn the backstory of Norse mythology, as well as Senua’s past. These can sometimes be in plain sight, but more often than not they have to be sought out for they are well hidden. The player upon finding all of them will be rewarded with a bonus extended ending. The great thing about the lore stones is that they’re tracked. There is a ring of white runes around each one. Every time a lore stone has been found, the rune turns red showing as found. Each section in the game has a set number of lore stones and the lore stone runes are separated by a dot, so it gives the player some indication as to where in the game they must look and how many they must find. Depending on where the player is in the game, there is a possibility to backtrack and find unread lore stones.
Along with lore stones, the player must also find runes in each new area. Senua will encounter doors blocking her path which she must unlock, and to do so she will be presented with one, two, three or maybe even four runes. She must then walk around and search for these runes. The player has to be creative because they could be anywhere. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you how to find these runes. This is half the fun.
Another part of Senua’s psychosis is that she hears several voices in her head speaking to her constantly. I love how the designers have designed this game to have binaural 3D audio. The game is intended to be played with headphones on. So when the voices speak the player can hear them coming from all directions. The voices, even the narrator’s constantly chatter in her head, encouraging her, goading her, guiding her, or even laughing at her. This gives the player stress and tension, allowing them to become engulfed in Senua’s psychosis little by little. I never knew who was speaking. I know personally that I felt some unease with their consistency. They never gave me peace. I felt paranoid. The creators of this game wanted the players to experience what it’s like to live with psychosis. It worked.
The gameplay mechanics, on the other hand, are very interesting. The combat is fierce and claustrophobic (like the voices in her head). The camera is always stuck to the most active enemy as must keep her foes in sight, as they will not wait to take a swing at her. Senua can parry and counter-attack and they feel like duels. Remember, these aren’t real enemies but figments of her psychosis. Ninja Theory’s goal was to overwhelm and unsettle its players, presumably as an attempt to recreate the mental fatigue of Senua’s psychosis. It assaults the senses, and might even trigger some. That’s why there’s a psychological warning at the beginning.
Along with tight combat, there is no HUD, no maps, no objective markers. The game is very linear. It’s not difficult to follow, but you won’t know if you’ve missed something like a lore stone unless you see a white rune among red. You’ll have to rely on your memory and retrace your steps. If you miss a lore stone in the game and you’ve reached a point of no return, then you can start a new game with all found lore stones saved and just find the ones you’ve missed. It’s a great little mechanic.
All in all this is a great game! I love what Ninja Theory did with it.
Things I like about this game:
- I liked almost everything. The tension, the fear, the rot, the enemies, the story.
- The binaural audio was a nice touch.
Things I didn’t like :
- Having to wear headphones to play to get the full effect of the voices. I live alone, so playing a game with headphones doesn’t make sense, but I tried without, and you just don’t get the sense of voices whispering in your ears when your speakers are 5 feet in front of you. I guess my headphones were too tight. I had to switch to ear buds for better comfort.
- Senua would get camera locked to an enemy and it proved to be a little difficult to maneuver, especially when she gets surrounded by 4 or more later in the game. Staying alive was a challenge.
- The game wasn’t as long as I wanted it to be, but Ninja Theory priced it accordingly and I respect that.
All in all I would say for a game made by an independent company, it’s a highly recommend! I recommend this cinematic psychological horror action-adventure game for everyone who loved Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a far different game than these two, but it’s worth it. Even if the permadeath isn’t real, Ninja Theory made an excellent game.
My rating? 9/10
Should you play this? I say yes!!!! DO IT!
Bitchin’ Gamer Girl