Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a fascinating insight into mental health from a developer that’s not afraid to try new things. But just how well does it look at this issue and does it tackle it in an appropriate way? After all games aren’t shy when it comes to using various conditions as a way to make the player uneasy.
Gaming has historically had a fraught relationship with mental health. Asylums often appear as the backdrop for creepy environments and the patients themselves are stereotypically portrayed as hollow people driven by violence. Villians are caricatures of psychopaths, hell bent on destruction and inspring fear. We have been conditioned to fear those with mental health troubles. But Hellblade is different. A standout example of story telling and in my opinion, a grand attempt at helping people experience a facsimile of what it’s like to deal with something unexplainable.
Senua struggles with psychosis, a mental disorder in which the subject has an impaired relationship with reality. She experiences hallucinations, she hears voices who mock her from every angle, she’s losing her grip on reality. To truly get the full experience of what’s happening in Senua’s head, do yourself a favour and get a good pair of headphones. Lock yourself in a dark room and soak it all in. The use of binaural 3D audio here is incredible as the voices smother you. Whispers, growls, screams and laughter all make for a very unsettling experience.
Senua has set out to retrieve the soul of her beloved from Hela the Norse god of death. Throughout her journey she will face many struggles and fight many foes and it may be a journey that ends her life. It’s conveys a negativity that actively fights against you, hoping you’ll give up. Every voice is telling you, you should give up. Every fight is telling you to give up.
Steeped in Celtic and Norse mythology the world of Hellblade is a linear adventure with sprinklings of action and light puzzling thrown in. You will explore forests, ruins and otherworldly realms here. Long beautiful corridors littered with combat arenas. God rays that burst through tree canopies, roots and branches that cover every surface. Ancient stonework and pagan shrines dotted all around you. Everything has a natural look to it, like the world is reclaiming lost land. But it’s also foreboding and dark. Every shadow creeps into your mind. The whispers making your eyes dart wildly, looking for danger. It’s incredibly well constructed and never lets you feel at ease.
Combat is similar to Ninja Theory’s previous adventure title Enslaved – a mix of light and heavy combos with dodging and the odd QTE. It’s also got a little bit of Ryse about it with its focus on 1-to-1 combat, counter attacking and enemy management. It’s fluid in motion with sparks flying, blood spraying and Senua pirouetting around the arenas. The enemies are lacking in diversity with every encounter featuring the traditional Celtic goat-man thing. Huge dudes with axes or swords who look a bit demonic. And there’s fire, lots of fire.
Between the fighting and walking there are lore stones to help deliver the story or expand upon the mythology. Puzzles are there to gate progression and the player must find symbols to open doors. These environmental perspective puzzles require you to line up the scenery in particular ways to uncover runes. Once you find the set the door opens.
And that’s the bulk of the game – walk around, fight some guys and solve some puzzles. To me though, looking at the basic gameplay does a disservice to what the game is trying to achieve. It wants the player to experience the discomfort of always having voices in your head. It wants them to struggle with the environment and the suffering that Senua has endured. The game here is the story. It’s not the fighting although this is meant symbolise Senua’s battles with her demons. You’re meant to try to understand how Senua feels. To feel compassion for those in need. Some of the mechanics feel at odds with the overarching theme but this is the current limitations of gaming interaction.
As this is a game which focuses so heavily on story its difficult to say much more without spoiling everything. It’s a compelling title with much to offer those of you who are looking for something different. The audio is standout and graphically it’s incredible on the One X.
With it having recently won 5 BAFTAs it’s helping push gaming in a new direction. Gamers around the world want our hobby to become more than just go here and shoot that. In my opinion, Hellblade is something everyone should experience. I won’t get into the whole “is it art…” argument as every person has their own opinion, but it’s an outstanding example of how gaming is maturing. With games like this and Celeste championing empathetic understanding of mental health conditions I definitely feel we are moving forward.