A couple of months ago I stumbled upon a game in the new releases section of GOG. Heh, and I realized just now that’s kinda the point, to discover new titles! Anywho, I’d never heard about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice before. Don’t get me wrong, of course I don’t keep track of all games. But I usually know about upcoming releases which interest me before they’re actually released. Hellblade appeared put of nowhere, which without a doubt is a good thing! No spoilers, no idea what to expect, no hype built up for months and months. Just something new and exciting.
There were - and still are - high praise reviews all over the GOG store page. I flicked through a couple of them. User BethesdaWare’s opinion of the game instantly caught my eye, mentioning exactly what I’m looking for these days.
an experience unlike any other
I try to restrain myself from any kind of impulsive shopping, games included. Checking out some gameplay seemed like a good idea, so I surfed the interwebs to good old Youtube. A few minutes of the intro was enough for me to make up my mind. We’re not talking about some thrown together money grab here. This was clearly something else, something new. I bought the game there and then.
What I’m trying to say is that the premise of Senua’s sacrifice won me over in no time when I had my mind set on not spending any money whatsoever. Now, if the game is all news to you - and you find the above intriguing - you really should consider stopping here and go in blind. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, but give it a shot.
There be spoilers below.
The main focus in Hellblade is defintely the story-line itself, and in my experience games with and intriguing plot often lack engaging gameplay (there are exceptions of course, see Cyan’s Obduction). I had no idea what to expect, but having played Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Firewatch and Gone Home - all which I thoroughly enjoyed btw - the bar was set pretty low… You see where I’m coming from, right?
The core gameplay is a puzzling/hack’n’slash mix. Very well executed, especially compared to the above mentioned games. The puzzles are weird, mind-bending and challenging enough to make you stop and think without getting stuck for to long. The combat is pretty cool to. Seemed overly simplistic at first, but once I figured out how things worked I was really impressed. There’s a certain flow to it which is hard do describe. You can tell that Ninja Theory have a ton experience from developing the combat in Devil May Cry. Doesn’t hurt that the graphics are amazing either.
Note that this isn’t a review or anything, just some random thoughts about my experience playing this absolute masterpiece. Before we move on, take some time and watch the intro. A shorter version can be found here if you’re in a hurry. Regardless of your choice I highly recommended headphones.
As you probably figured out already, the main character suffers from the mental illness schizophrenia. A subject rarely touched upon, be it in games, books, movies or other forms of culture. When featured it apparently often conflates psychosis and psychotaphy1. There is a difference2, something I only learned a few months ago.
- A term to describe a mental state: Loss of contact with reality. Can be caused by (among other things) schizophrenia, sleep deprivation and depression.
- A personality disorder. Lack of empathy. Impulsivity, lying, recklessness.
Don’t quote me on this though, if you’re curios you should definitely do some research on your own. Anyway, psychosis and psychopathy - mental disorders in general really - are sensitive topics difficult to approach. The finished game might have turned out a whole nother way had Ninja Theory not developed and published on their own. Hard to imagine any of the mega-publishers daring to involve themselves something in like this. Things would have turned out differently, as in not as good.
The ninjas collaborated with a neuroscientist, a voice hearing expert as well as people recovering from severe mental illness. All eagerly shared their perspective of the subject which in turn influenced graphics, environments, audio, gameplay mechanics, character design etc. The end result is a uniquely twisted adventure which all parties found representing mental illness in a whole new way. An empathic view of what it’s like living in a world that functions with a different set of rules134.
What Senua’s inner voices talk about does for most of the time revolve around what’s happening at that exact moment and/or her inability to accomplish the most simple tasks. Lots of taunting, diminishing, snide remarks and the like. Yet, it’s not all insults. At least one of them warns her about imminent danger, so they seem to care about Senua in their own way. She ignores them for most of the time, but it’s not like they’re going anywhere. They’re not real(?) of course. But they’re real for her. This is her reality.
The voice acting is fantastic, although it was difficult to tell the female voices apart from each other. I think there’s about four of them, all with different personalities, voicing their opinions about anything the player does and doesn’t do. Most of what they say is aimed directly at Senua, but they also have discussions amongst themselves as well. This blew my mind at the time, I had no idea that was a thing.
I know what she’s thinking. I hear her thoughts.
Hearing them talking about Senua like she can’t hear them at all made me very uneasy, until at one point in the game where they were gone for a while. It shocked me in a most unexpected way. I felt alone, I missed them and I was more than a little relived when they returned.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice really is unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It’s pushing the boundaries of gaming to a whole new level. I will be very interesting to see what Ninja Theory comes up with in the future.