Platform Played On: PlayStation 4
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Release Date: August 8, 2017
Wannabe Writer’s Note: This is the re-posting of the Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice review I wrote on my old website. This article was originally posted on December 10, 2017. Enjoy past me’s unedited ramblings! Oh oh oh! And I thought it was worth mentioning that THE Melina Juergens, Senua’s actress, liked my original review tweet on Twitter!! 😱 It really means a lot when famous people take the time to do stuff like that for fans.
It’s rare when a game changes my perspective on life and makes me seriously consider why the hell I’m on this planet in the first place. Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice is an experience unlike anything else I’ve ever lived in a game world. It left me with an inspiring message at a time when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my own shadows. We all see this crazy world of ours in a different light. At the end of it all, and in the grand scheme of things, do we really matter anyway? It’s a harsh reality that is both depressing and inspiring at the same time, just like this game. “When the illusion of self is shattered, you simply cease to be.”
How Far I Got
This will definitely be my personal Game of the Year 2017. I conquered the darkness, downed the “last boss”, and listened to all of Druth’s Norse mythology tales. The game doesn’t have any way to track time (that I saw anyway), but I’d say it took me around 10 hours to complete it. I’m also very proud to call this my 12th PlayStation Platinum trophy!
Gameplay: It all starts with Senua, a Celtic warrior woman on a mysterious mission, rowing to a creepy land of fog. On the way, and along with the constant voices, credits for mental health professionals and historical experts are shown. It was evident from the chilling get-go that the developers put a lot of thought and research into this game! Senua disembarks and has her first encounter with “the darkness”, something that will haunt her throughout the depressing journey into the heart of Helheim. Going into too much detail here will spoil the experience. I will say the game is heavy on the Norse Mythology themes. You’ll be wondering what the Hel is going on at first, but Senua’s motivations and demons come together masterfully as the story unfolds. Fair warning: this game deals with some pretty heavy topics and shows some very gruesome scenes so prepare yourself accordingly.
The dark adventure plays out in a series of slow paced navigation areas, methodical visual puzzles, unnerving combat sequences, and bone-chilling boss battles. A Focus mechanic plays a crucial role in all of these things. You are also given zero directions as the player, leaving you alone in your darkness while you try to figure things out with Senua’s darkness. In terms of exploration, you aren’t left with many choices on which way to go, though a couple of areas do give you a choice in the order of creepy challenges you want to tackle.
The only optional thing to do in the game is to track down monuments in the environment called Lorestones. Senua’s ghostly buddy Druth, who you meet early in the game, tells you tales from ancient Norse legends (that tie into the horrors Senua is battling through) whenever you Focus on a Lorestone. Most of them are obvious, but some are hidden quite well. If you miss out on one, you’re likely out of luck since backtracking is rarely possible (and the game saves automatically). Not game breaking at all but if you’re a completionist, like me (even though I won’t admit it), you might end up having to do another playthrough to find them all (that’s not a bad thing either). My biggest complaint with the whole game is that I wanted a log system where Druth’s stories are recorded so I can listen to them again.
The combat is fairly simplistic and forgiving – a good thing since I died a lot while learning it. The enemies are slowly introduced and increase in difficulty at a good pace, giving you lots of opportunities to learn. Even in the bigger gauntlets, it all comes down to timing. If you just rush into a pack of enemies, you’re probably gonna lose. You need to watch your foes for the right time to strike, use the Focus ability when you can, and don’t let them sneak up behind you. Try to ignore all the dejected voices telling you you’re going to die, but do listen to the nice one that says watch out (press the dodge button when you hear that one).
If poor Senua does get a beatdown by the terrifying darkness denizens, she is knocked to her knees and you are given a chance to get her back into the action with a quick button press. The boss battles are few, but nothing short of spectacular. They include depressingly grand opening scenes, interesting fight mechanics, and very rewarding (and confusing) plot details when they die. One fight near the end of the game easily makes my list of all-time best boss encounters ever. I’ll leave it at that for now because of spoilery reasons. There is also a mechanic called the rot that you have to deal with. When you die a certain number of times, this disturbing disease visibly grows up the length of Senua’s right arm. The game implies that when it reaches her head, it’s possibly perma-Game Over for you. I’m just so awesome at video games that the rot never spread that far for me. There’s only one way to find out what really happens when it does…
Graphics: Stunning!! Truly freaking fabulous, though mostly freaking frightening, and sometimes freaking fantastical! That’s how I would best describe the environments in this game. There’s the breathtaking water effects shimmering off the depressing coastline, I still have night terrors from the grainy bottom of a well place during the Blindness Trial (I won’t say more), I could feel the heat in Surtr’s gruesome inferno land, and I refuse to talk about a place called the Sea of Corpses… wow. My words are very inadequate here. Just look at my pretty screenshots in this post.
In terms of character models, I was very impressed with Senua’s design. Everything from her blue war paint to outfit style was clearly researched thoroughly and true to her Celtic origins. I also cannot praise the facial animations enough (and no, I’m not making fun of a certain Mass Effect game that was also released this year by saying this). The developers used state of the art motion capture technology, and damn, does it ever show during scenes where Senua is melting down or conversing with her darkness.
I felt so much empathy for Senua’s situation. I could almost feel her pain and it was difficult to watch her become increasingly battered as her journey progressed. Physically seeing the gruesome rot grow up her arm added a sense of urgency and terror to the adventure as well. The graphic design in this game is an incredible feat considering that this is smaller developer. Also, major props to motion capture and voice actress Melina Juergens for bringing Senua to life with her incredibly inspiring performance throughout the game.
Sound: Voices… the voices never stop. They whisper bad things… they whisper good things… they sometimes tell you stories. Senua’s “real” voice is rarely heard, unless she’s screaming in agony at horrifying things, but she seems to breakthrough near the end of the game. The game recommends you play it with headphones, which I did not and still enjoyed all the insanity immensely. I found the constant chatter unsettling and it definitely added another looming shadow to overall darkness of the land. The soundtrack is pretty depressing too, adding to the disturbing events unfolding around you. I won’t say much more than this due to spoilers, but the last two songs that play in the game set up the ending in an incredibly powerful way. I can’t even begin to describe the feelz it triggered for me during the credits.
My Overall Biased Opinion
Not only does the game have a strong female protagonist, the protagonist is also suffering from a debilitating mental illness. She doesn’t let that stop her from pushing forward either. Video games have the ability to put us inside someone else’s life in a way no other form of media really can. By taking so much time and effort to show us what it’s like to live with a mental illness, it gives us a little perspective on what people are suffering through in our own world. A little compassion goes a long way in making this world better for everyone. At the end of the day, who’s to say what perception of this reality is the “right” one? The most important thing Hellblade teaches us is that it’s a gift to see our world differently, not a dark curse to shun and push away.
Overall, I highly recommend this game to anyone who can stomach the gruesome scenes and power through the depressing themes. It’s not a big time investment and a budget title at that. Senua’s darkness could easily be way too much for some people to handle, but the journey is more than worth all the pain. As horrific as it was, I wouldn’t trade my time with Senua for anything else in the world. I also highly recommend watching the included documentary after beating the game. All the tireless work the developers put in to make this masterpiece shine is truly astonishing. Not mentioning any names, but the bigger studios could learn a lot from this. Games should be much more than just revenue generating lootboxes or rushed versions of iconic IPs used as cash cows.
SPOILERS AHEAD!!! You have been warned.
This section of my video game reviews is a way for me to remember my journey through a game. Major spoilers will be present here so please avoid this unless you’ve already played the game, or don’t have any plans to. Feel free to share any experiences you’ve had with this game in the comments area thingy below.
Senua is a troubled warrior on a desperate quest to save the love of her life, Dillion, who was brutally murdered by invading Norsemen. Her overall mission is to bring his skull, which she carries on her belt, into the heart Helheim so she can save his soul from the evil goddess Hela. As revealed by various hallucinations throughout the game, Senua has had an indescribably rough past and Dillion was the only light in her otherwise dark existence.
From what I pieced together, Senua was shunned by her people since her psychosis was seen as a dark curse. Her mother, Galena, also suffered from the disease, indicating there’s some family history there. Galena was burned alive, right in front of poor young Senua, by her ass of a zealously religious father, Zynbel. Senua was then isolated and tormented (worsening her condition) until she met Dillion, who inspired her to abandon her abusive father. Unfortunately, a plague swept across her village and Senua blamed her curse for causing it. She ran away to the wilderness for a bit, and when she returned, that’s when she horrifically saw that Dillion had been sacrificed by the invading Norsemen (that hallucination was very disturbing in the game… wow).
First tasks on the Isle o’ Fog. Senua has to destroy Valravn the Raven God and Surtr the Fire God in their respectively themed creepy areas (illusions and then lots of fire). After that, she crosses the bridge into Helheim and has her first encounter with Hela, which doesn’t go well at all. Senua is thrown onto the rocky shoreline below and wakes up with a very nasty gash on her head. She staggers around and sees a vision of Dillion in the distance, following it to a nice tree area. Odin’s legendary sword Gramr is embedded in the big tree and Senua must complete 4 trials before she can grab it. They can be completed in any order.
Labyrinth Trial: Senua wanders around a creepy crypt area. The way forward is tricky as the paths look pretty much the same. You need to listen and follow the painful screams of Dillion (poor guy). At the end, a hallucination where Senua abandons her ass of a father is shown.
Tower Trial: In hot pursuit of Dillion’s ghostly image, Senua needs to climb a tower (hence the trial name). There is a dual world mechanic at play here. By focusing through these odd giant mask things, the environment seems to change from sunny past to stormy present. The obstacles change with the times and you need traverse both areas to advance forward.
Swamp Trial: Starting off by wading through gross swampy water, Senua eventually finds herself near a freaky cabin. Inside, she has to run for her life from this evil entity chasing her down (my heart was pounding), while doing a very rushed version of the usual “find the symbols to open the door” puzzle. This was meant to talk about the plague she “brought” to her village.
Blindness Trial: To fit the theme, the graphics in this area are distorted black and white images. Dillion’s voice guides the blinded Senua passed the shades of scary monsters and horrific human sacrifices to reach the end.
With Gramr in hand (it kinda glows like a blue lightsaber which was so cool), it’s off to the cheerful Sea of Corpses area. And wow, does it ever live up to its name! After wading through oceans of blood in between walls of wriggling bodies, Senua has to fight through the mother of all gauntlets to learn more about her own poor mother. Seriously! The waves of bad things seemed to go on forever. Odin must have been on my side because I surprisingly didn’t die once. I was quite proud of myself.
After that disturbing ordeal, it was time to conquer the heart of Helheim. It goes without saying that the darkness is not Senua’s friend, and this is especially the case here. Fenrir the Wolf God, however, loves the darkness and will quickly murder Senua if she’s not carrying a lit torch through the area. A few places require the torch to fizzle out… let me tell you, I haven’t felt terror in a game like that in a long while. Shortly into the area, Senua loses Dillion’s skull and faces the Wolf God in what I would consider one of the best boss battles of all-time… ALL-TIME! After wolfy has been put down, Senua finds the skull of her lost love, and then has to solve another illusion bridge puzzle to enter Hela’s lair.
The final stretch of the game was pretty freaking intense. After we watch her mother being burned alive (lucky us… not), Senua is brought to her breaking point and then rises above it, cursing the gods themselves for causing all this misery (further distancing herself from the worst father ever). To the tune of Just Like Sleep by Passarella Death Squad, Senua charges toward the seemingly unreachable Hela in the distance, sword in hand. When she finally gets there, the gauntlet fight is a loss, no matter how skilled you are. I thought it was neat that the last winnable fight incorporated the shades of the other 3 bosses though. In defeat, Senua begs Hela to free Dillion and to take her instead, but the goddess remains silent. Instead, Hela uses Gramr to impale Senua, and the mortally wounded warrior collapses to the floor.
As Senua lies there dying, the ghost of Dillion has an inspiring chat with her. “I learnt the hard way, to not be afraid of death, Senua. Because a life without loss is one without love.” I was a bit confused at what happens next, but here’s my best explanation. Hela takes Dillion’s skull to the edge of the area, and then turns into Senua as the skull drops into the nothingness below. So Senua was Hela the whole time, I think? Anyway, it seemed to symbolize Senua finally letting go of Dillion. The dominant narrator voice tells us to “Go with her” as Senua stands proudly against a beautiful natural scene backdrop. Then Illusion by VNV Nation plays during the credits… I almost cried but didn’t. The end! Just… wow.
Favourite Story Moment
When it was revealed that Hela is actually Senua… kinda, I think? I’m still not sure exactly what went down there, but it was a very chilling moment. Watching her plead relentlessly for Dillion’s soul was very emotional. I really wanted to give her a big hug.
Gramr, Odin’s legendary blade. It kills things real good and looks like a lightsaber. Need I say more?
Favourite “Oh S@#%” Moment
Whenever Senua’s torch went out in Helheim with Fenrir still prowling around… RUN!!
I really loved the depressing shoreline area after Hela pwned Senua off the bridge. It was quite breathtaking and I love the stormy water effects.
Senua! Obviously. I cannot praise her creators enough for taking the time to research and bring together her life masterfully. In my unqualified opinion, Senua is suffering from psychosis, PTSD, and a dash of depression triggered by all the horrific event she has endured in her life. Senua just feels real. She’s not meant as eye candy and you can see all of her beautiful flaws. She pushes herself forward, no matter what happens. I find her incredibly inspiring.
Most Tedious Gameplay Moment
Not gonna lie, at first I wanted moar combat and less puzzles. Because of this, Valravn’s illusion area irked me a tad. I just wanted to see what happened next, not run around trying to find shapes and whatnot. Patience is key, my friends. It’s not the sword swinging type of game, most of the time anyway.
Creepiest Freaking Place
95% of the areas in the game. Too hard to choose what freaked me out the most… Sea of Corpses is pretty freaking creepy though.
Lorestones – 44/44
PlayStation Trophies earned – 15/15
⚡Thanks for reading!⚡