Probably like many others, the first thing I heard about Hellblade was that Ninja Theory had consulted with mental health professionals and sufferers of psychotic episodes to make the story of Senua's Sacrifice as authentic as possible. As a knee-jerky lefty, I immediately screamed that this was the most exploitative marketing tool I'd ever seen employed in the cynical attempt to sell a videogame.
It doesn't help, of course, that the game is called Hellblade. A name that makes you think of superheroes or violent RPGs, or certainly something much more action-oriented than the careful and thought-provoking exploration of mental health that Hellblade would have to be to bring me down from my high horse.
But there it is. I'll be darned. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice follows the journey of Celtic warrior woman Senua as she descends into Hell to free the soul of her beloved. So far, so generic, you may think, and perhaps you'd be right, at first. But the path that Senua follows, and the disjointed hints at her backstory as the game progresses, hint more and more insistently that maybe none of this is really happening and it's all in Senua's mind.
Or is it? Because (minor spoiler warning) there's no waking up scene at the end where Senua rubs her head blearily and it was all a dream. As a stand-alone game of violent sword combat and puzzle-solving, sure, Hellblade kinda holds its own. You could play it with the sound off, and that would be basically what you get. Most of the really interesting stuff in Hellblade comes from the audio.
As the game loads, you're strongly urged to play with a binaural headset and man if that isn't the truth. One of the main ways in which Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice separates itself from other third-person hack-and-slash games is the voices in your head. Senua is undergoing a psychotic episode for the duration of the game, and the voices in her head are near-constant companions. They'll cajole and confuse, chat among themselves (mostly about how doomed you are, and how poorly you're doing), they occasionally point out bad news you might not have considered, and question the established videogame rules that you might have got used to (at one point, where remaining in the light equals survival, the voices muse on what will happen when your torch dies out...) and sometimes, just sometimes, they can encourage you, hint at solutions for puzzles and assist you in combat. The voices take on a couple of important 'tutorial' duties as well, muttering about how certain mechanics might work without ever really breaking the fourth wall. Just as you start to think of them as a game mechanic, however, they'll tell you you're going the wrong way during a timed section... when you're not. The voices can lie, or be mistaken, and there are so many of them, sometimes you'll have "don't give up!" in your left ear, and "run away! It's too dangerous!" in your right ear simultaneously. In terms of scripting and voice acting, they nearly steal the show.
Nearly. But the real star is Senua herself. Perhaps this is maybe partially a testament to advances in mocap technology, but the actor they have for Senua (Melina Juergens, who also happens to be the game's video editor) is powerful and incredibly complex. I don't think it's overstating to say that for me she put in the best acting performance I've seen in a videogame. Any videogame. Ever. Not just through her voice acting, which is very good, but through her expressions, her movements and the way she articulately and believably juggles the roles of brave questing warrior and lost little girl.
The tale is one that combines Senua's own upbringing and experiences in the Orkney Isles around the time that the Norsemen invaded. This story alone is one of loss, grief, and torment but it's intermingled with the stories of Norse mythology, taught to Senua (and the player) during the game through collectable audio logs. Sometimes these logs can jar a little with the main story but often you can find yourself remembering a snippet of something later on in the game. Not that these ever really help you proceed per se, but they add another dimension to the story.
Okay, so story good. Got that. What about the actual game? Well, it's also pretty good but not stunning. The main character is extremely close to the camera, and there's no way to alter this. I found Senua's movements to be sluggish, but I'm willing to admit that this might be a result of an aging graphics card and Hellblade's high system requirements. The action is pretty much entirely on-rails, and there's precious little to really interact with beyond just going along for the ride and fighting a bunch of guys. Combat is beautifully depicted, if beautiful could be the right word, with a handful of pretty terrifying-looking demons comprising the vast majority of enemies, and Senua’s physical condition communicated clearly through the look of mounting anguish on her face. Occasionally, once you power up your focus enough, you can wail on your foes in an outpouring of rage and fury that fills the screen with glowing shapes and frenzied, blurring wobbles that convey a feeling of unbridled anger in a way as good as any other game. Still, some of these fight scenes tend to drag on a little, leaving you to sometimes wonder if they're endless fights and you're supposed to be looking for another way through.
There are some familiar horror tropes leaned on in Hellblade as well – piles of bodies everywhere, rivers of blood, set-pieces where you just have to run, run for your life, and not stop to look back as a formless thing chases you. But there are some newer ideas as well – light and darkness are played with cleverly, as are the ideas of finding your own way, and seeing things that weren’t there a moment ago, and lining things up just so, in order to see something hidden. All puzzle mechanics that sync tidily with the concept of struggling with a psychotic episode.
Games have come a long way since I was a youth. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a clear example of a game as an art form with a strong message and a complex, layered narrative. It’s true that you’re sort of along for the ride and most of your interactions are through your emotional response to what is depicted rather than through the mechanics of the game, but is that such a bad thing?