For the narrative enthusiast, complex storytelling far outweighs the clunky combat in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
“Let me tell you about Senua. Her story has already come to an end, but now it begins anew”, a soft female voice tells you gently, as the camera moves slowly across water and zooms into a figure rowing a small canoe. Here, you’re invited to step into the shoes of Senua, a young female warrior in the world of Norse mythology. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a psychological horror adventure and narrative exploration game with environmental puzzles as well as hack and slash battle mechanics. As a Nordic literature major, I was pleased to discover faithful retellings of old Icelandic literature, for example about the apocalypse and demise of Norse Gods, which can be discovered through a series of objects. That these stories are tied to Senua’s quest to the netherworld means their function is not reduced to mere sugar coating of gameplay. Neither is the highly nuanced depiction of mental illness that the player experiences through Senua.
In a foreboding atmosphere, inner voices may warn Senua of impeding danger in battles or mock her when she fails a dodge. The voices can make you relate to Senua to the degree of feeling paranoid about everything when they both haunt and guide you on Senua’s journey to Helheim as she faces enemies in combat. The voices also ask you questions you would not know how to ask about the present, past and future. This can make you fundamentally question the identity of Senua, whose world you are constantly being pulled into. The supreme voice acting and ambient soundtrack truly shines with the game’s full 3D binaural sound. Visually, Hellblade is as gorgeus as it sounds. The player is invited to spectate vast bodies of water surrounded by mountains and sun soaked cliffs as well as flowery meadows in the middle of summer that feel very tangible.
The environmental puzzles consist of entering portals, aligning geometrical patterns to fix a seemingly broken field of vision and aligning runes with geometrical patterns in the environment, such as shadows on the ground. These are employed to create meaning. When solving the portal puzzles, it is crucial to choose the right angle to enter through the portal to another reality. As you’re frenetically looking for the angle, Senua’s point of view is inevitably enforced upon you. In this, and many other ways, you’re put into the mental landscape of Senua. How the story is embedded into the mechanics is impressive.
The player mainly interacts in the game through perception and combat. While mechanics of perception create meaning and interesting gameplay, combat feels somewhat lacking. Senua has a range of melee attacks to make, but the types of enemies stay the same throughout. With added clunkyness of controls, combats feel long and frustrating at times. However, the game’s supreme visuals, sound, and most of all its complex storytelling embedded into the game mechanics is what makes Hellblade a major milestone in the world of narrative exploration games.
Platforms: PC, PS4
Developer & Publisher: Ninja Theory
Release date: Aug 8th, 2017