For all the business sense that Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice made, you could’ve made a freshman in business school laugh his head off. For all the numerical and opinionated defenders of single-player games, no company in the triple-A space dared to bet their entire company on a single entry. That’s because plenty have (hello 38 Studios) and come away as skeleton piles.
The house always wins. No one betting on single-player gets out alive as developer, let alone developer and publisher. The odds that Hellblade beat out are Hollywood, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tip my many hats to the miracle Ninja Theory pulled off in a business sense. Before, you know, giving all that up.
That business savvy wouldn’t look so shiny and pristine, of course, if the game had been a trash heap. Riding shotgun in this one-in-a-billion ride is indeed Senua herself, showcasing graphics, story, and gameplay in a trifecta worthy of every drop of attention.
In a year where I’ve basically become an expert in Norse mythology, this dark, murky, and lonely take on the gods may be my favorite. Senua, in a nutshell, must travel to hell in order to reclaim her loved one’s soul while dealing with demons along the way. This takes her through a smaller pantheon of malicious gods that are made to look deranged and pitiless, their offspring taking similar visual roles. All of the world feels ended or near-so, giving these enemies the role of the last ink stains on the page that haven’t quite set yet.
Even with the famously lower budget, Hellblade is an absolute beauty to behold. Senua’s facial expressions are real – just real. You can almost sense when she’s about to twitch around her shifting eyes or when a gasp will give her the courage to finally speak. It’s not just pain portrayed on her face, but a strange row of expressive meals that each have pain as an ingredient. Whether it’s too much sensation, a fleeting giggle, a happy memory, or just overwhelming hopelessness, you can feel the constant pull of a reality built around her beliefs and doubts.
While I can’t personally speak to the efficacy of the portrayal of psychosis, I can speak to the believability of the obstacle placed in front of Senua. The main obstacle is, very clearly, herself. From a certain point of view, you can even make the leap that this entire game is just her back in the woods of Orkney fighting through this disorder in the only way society could grasp in the 8th century. I’d buy that and feel completely at peace with the decision because of how well it’s portrayed as a haunting, undeterrable internal conflict.
Voices constantly bombard her from either side of pride and pity while memories seduce her into believing the impossible possible and vice versa. If this were a story between two separate people, we’d likely label one as a manipulative, remorseless psychopath. This is, to a degree, relatable to anyone that’s ever had a creative process stomped down by a voice in their head. It’s a sickening display of self-denial that only you’re a party to, and to have it fully on blast for the world to experience would likely fill you with unparalleled dread at the reaction.
In spite of that proposed initial reaction, I can’t help but feel as though Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the most straight-forward depictions of bravery I’ve ever experienced in an interactive medium. Senua isn’t standing up against tanks, or for civil rights, or for even anything corporeal I’d argue, and yet she stands and fights harder despite the legion telling her to turn around. Not just turn around but give up on everything. Not just give up but to kill herself. The result of her decisions are hers alone to bear without any social, political, nor material gains. That’s bravery without the spotlight.
Gameplay is a notch weaker than the story and environment but not to an overtly painful degree. Your path is almost entirely linear with some stops for extra story bits scattered at a pretty healthy pace. The main aspect of more open arenas is aligning Nordic symbols with identical environment configurations – that is, the ones the team WANT you to align them with. Some symbols can be found multiple times, but progression only happens when you find just the right one. In the few areas that have any sort of danger attached to finding the symbols, this is smartly not an issue.
There is a fairly serviceable combat system inside that seems to have given God of War some ideas. Enemy types are varied between light, heavy, and shielded, each having their own lovingly grotesque design, while Senua’s own arsenal is simple in approach. Your goal here is to parry often and slice fast, breaking out your slow motion mirror when you come against a shield-bearer or a boss.
I appreciate the details in the combat more than any other area because of how each of the other aspects seem to meet in the arenas. Senua’s voices will warn you of incoming attacks from unseen threats, gashes will appear on your enemies where you’ve sliced, and they’ll even limp when they’re close to death. Her ability to dodge and to a sprint attack combine to create some thrilling rounds of enemy waves. The drawback here is that no real depth is ever added beyond that, but given how strong the core is, the blemishes only run skin deep.
The wonder of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice thriving in our world is equatable to Senua surviving in hers. Ninja Theory walked a lonesome path that no one else ever attempted with positive voices on par with the negative the entire way. It took learning to sort through those ghosts for knowledge and facing them down as equals to come to a zenith of design and revelation.
Neither Hellblade nor Ninja Theory could defeat the doubts or let themselves be consumed by fear. Their only option was to accomplish the impossible and change their worlds in the process.
Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice Score: