Welcome back to another game review with me! This time I’ve finished playing a game that focuses on the Viking age and Norse mythology as well as mental health all wrapped into one to give us Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I always get drawn to games in my discovery queue that have a female protagonist and explore certain topics. This was one of them, and I have to say this journey was a unique, disturbing at certain times, but a beautiful experience.
I know that Ninja Theory put a lot of effort and research into mental illness, psychosis in particular when they made this game. They even worked with doctors who specialize in treating such conditions because the last thing you want is to misrepresent it as that can be an insult to people who actually live with it.
This game is about Senua, a Celtic warrior who recently lost her lover Dillion and embarks on a quest to save his soul from the goddess Hela herself who resides in none other than Helheim. So it sounds like she wants to bring Dillion back right? Yeah, I think so. Along the way she hears many voices and visions and believes it all to be a curse that she is trying to overcome, which is her psychosis. There are different voices in part of that “curse”: the Furies, the Darkness, Druth, and one voice which narrates that seems to talk to us. In order to face Hela and save her lover, she must pass a series of tests to cross the bridge and several more to forge a weapon to kill Hela.
The gameplay consists of two different parts, one is simply following the path and using Senua’s ability to focus to solve puzzles in order to proceed. This ability can also be used to read the lore stones that are optional collectables. These puzzles are not difficult, but require you to really keep your eyes peeled to find the solution. For example, most puzzles involved opening a door with three runes on them and I had to look very closely at my surroundings to find them subtly appearing on walls or formed by shadows and other things like trees and pillars.
There is also an emphasis on combat and I don’t feel like I mastered everything in it, such as which button to press if Senua was down so that she wouldn’t die. But it’s no different than some other games I’ve played, there is a quick attack, a strong one, parry, etc. and I noticed that whenever I did die, the dark rot on Senua’s arm would grow and one of the voices known as the Darkness appeared to manifest on her physically as part of the curse. The Furies, the other voices often served as my guide in combat while also giving me a sense of direction when I was following a path or solving a puzzle.
Other than that, some of the trials in this game offered a distinctive shift in gameplay depending on what I had to do and I enjoyed that aspect.
I did experience some problems with FPS when I first started the game so I had to lower some graphic settings just to get through the game with minimal disruption, so some of my screenshots weren’t of perfect quality. I was desperate to resolve those issues because I really was looking forward to this game and nearly had forgotten about it in my backlog. That being said, the gameplay was better once I made some minor adjustments.
To start with the characters let’s talk about Senua. As I played through this game, I had trouble piecing the backstory together as all of it was given to me in tidbits that weren’t in chronological order through hallucinations. Like, how she and Dillion met, her father’s abusive nature and what happened to her mother when she [Senua] was just a child, which worsened her psychosis significantly. Then she killed all the Norsemen responsible for Dillion’s death and swore to save him.
I like her, she’s a very headstrong warrior even if she has a tortured past and as the game progressed, I began to notice when she had doubts like the time she first met Hela on the bridge and her sword was shattered. Then she stopped herself from contemplating suicide. From there she saw it as an opportunity to move forward. At one point she even believed that it was her fault that Dillion died. It seemed like Dillion was a kind man who took care of her and her mother was the exact opposite of her father, a loving woman who met such an unfortunate end.
When I had to face Valravn and Surtr, the latter was easier to defeat and the puzzles to solve prior were much more straightforward. Valravn’s illusions took me time to solve as his boss fight was also tricky but there was something about Surtr’s fight that was badass.
After that, crossing the bridge for the first time, I didn’t expect to see Hela in the form that she was in, and it was like a test to see if our protagonist was truly ready but if the bridge collapsed and her sword broke, then I’d say the answer is no.
For the trials to obtain the sword of Gramr from the Tree of Woe, the trials are a hit or a miss for me. I hated the Swamp trial the most. The bridge puzzle was easy but the part after that which was running from that fiery shadow while looking for the runes was frustrating. It was just badly designed where I felt like the fire was moving differently at each attempt and it sometimes cornered me even though I had memorized the path I had to follow to find each rune and get back to the door. Maybe it also varied on how quickly I acted.
The Blindness trial I thought I was going to hate too, it had my heart racing the moment it got to the point where I had to move quietly through the dark, without alerting those strange blobby monsters that reminded me of Flood Carriers. Dillion’s voice helped me get through it in one piece as I moved slowly and carefully. I can look back and appreciate how well done it was as it gives players an edge of their seat feeling as they try to move forward past something that can’t see them but they also can’t see it either, so I had to rely on sound to move forward.
The Sea of Corpses afterwards was where the game’s visuals began to shine, it was disturbing as hell to the point of insanity of what could be occurring in Senua’s mind of what she’s trying to overcome, which is in this case, her curse. Not only is it the part that brings back the game’s combat, but it’s also where I started to really love this game. I couldn’t look at any of those moving corpses reaching out for me without thinking of they might actually grab me or break free from the rest.
I think the best moment of all in this game was when I entered the mountain, the voices became more intense, all of them, like they were whispering to Senua that they were close to finding her in the dark. Then they spoke of a great beast called Garm guarding the gate to where Hela would be waiting and that it stalked me in the darkness.
It may seem like a typical move for the game to prompt me with the Furies to tell Senua to stay in the light as much as possible, but for me, it was a well-executed, sweaty palms, heart-racing, goosebumps-inducing experience. I ran quickly under the assumption my torch would burn out and some of the voices made it sound like the beast was so close as if I could smell its breath through the screen. The moment I stepped into the dark, that red glow closed in, as I ran from one lit spot to another when I lost my torch while looking for the third rune.
Then I caught glimpse of it again as I had to run and briefly lost the vessel of Dillion that Senua carried. From there, some more puzzle-solving while staying in the light, but the whole time I was descending into a pit below where it had fallen and just thought that Garm was waiting for me down there and it was. So long story short, the buildup towards fighting the beast itself was fantastic, reminded me so much of the triumphant execution of how DOOM 2016’s buildup towards the fight against the Cyberdemon. The only difference was that in this game, not once is there ever a time for distraction that Garm was stalking me, it was always there until I finally made it to its lair and defeated it.
The fight itself, I just had to evade quickly to attack at the right moment also while keeping my ears open if it disappeared into the shadows. Most of the time I had to use the focus ability to deal damage, especially if it started to vomit dark bile, but it was a helluva great fight.
I was surprised that the dark rot grew more after I defeated it. It made me think that I had lost at first but I knew I didn’t when the achievement unlocked.
Now, onto Hela, once I solved the puzzles to complete the bridge this area towards her really tests my combat skills with this game.
It is fair to say that Hela is the antagonist who Senua believes that defeating her will set Dillion’s soul free or something, but as she presses on, she starts to realize at the last minute in the endless battle against the enemies Hela summons prove that you cannot best every opponent. It’s like Senua finally accepts that she can’t bring Dillion back.
So, was Helheim all just in a hallucination? It seemed like it was, but I’m glad Senua was able to accept her loss and who she was. Either way, I’m glad she does because this stresses the importance of no matter what kind of challenge you face mentally, you can become stronger if you learn to see it as a part of who you are rather than a curse or a burden.
This game was amazing, there were a few graphic flaws that made me have to change some settings, and there was only one part that I didn’t like, but other than that, I loved it and coincidentally, a sequel was announced not so long ago so I can’t wait to hear more about that as well. A beautiful work of art.