The first time I set foot in this crypt, I was terrified. Pursued by an unseen monster, I was restricted to the few areas of light in this underground dungeon. If I stayed in the shadows for too long, the creature would end me. Initially it was frightening, instilling every movement with a sense of tension, forcing me to move purposefully. But after 30 minutes it just became a chore. You can only spend so long looking for a mystical rune in the dark before you get used to the chilling horrors around you.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is the latest release from English game studio Ninja Theory, the team behind games like Heavenly Sword and Enslaved. And in many ways it’s an experience I admire. It tackles an important, and often under-discussed topic — in this case, mental illness — but it does so with both care and intelligence. That theme is then married with some incredible production values, including gorgeous, lifelike visuals and unsettling sound design. In a lot of ways, Hellblade is my ideal game: it’s daring and smart, and confidently sticks to a very specific vision. That’s why it’s such a shame that it’s a drag to play.
Hellblade is a game about a literal descent into madness. You take on the role of Senua, a Celtic warrior with a dark past and an even more grim future ahead of her. When she returns home from exile, she finds her husband murdered by vikings, an apparent sacrifice to the gods. Lost and broken, she decides to head straight back to those gods and demand his life back. What follows is a journey to the underworld, in which Senua battles all kinds of horrors in her quest to be reunited with her love. “It isn’t bravery that drives her,” a narrator explains early on. “It’s fear.”
It turns out, though, it isn’t a narrator at all: it’s a voice inside of Senua’s head. Having gone through significant psychological trauma, Senua starts losing her grip on reality. It’s something you hear early on. Her head is full of voices, sometimes urging you on, sometimes chastising you for a mistake, sometimes offering conflicting views of just what’s happening. They tell the story in bits and pieces, and offer guidance on what to do. Playing Hellblade is rarely a silent experience. “We are always here,” the voices say. In the rare moments the voices are quiet, the silence is deafening.
Early on in Hellblade, Senua’s hand becomes infected with a darkness, some sort of “rot.” As the game explains, each time you die, the rot will grow, infecting her further. If it reaches her head, the game will restart, and you’ll lose all of your progress. It’s an interesting take on perma-death, one that’s well-integrated into the narrative. It adds some welcome tension, but it also might not be true. I died at least a dozen times in my playthrough and didn’t experience a restart, while others went to much greater lengths with similar results. You should still be careful, but Hellblade’s permanent death might not be so permanent after all.
The voices are your one companion on a lonely quest that plays out as a third-person adventure game. In order to pull off her seemingly impossible task, Senua must venture continuously deeper into a harsh world full of terrors. It’s a place that’s stunningly realized. From the cold, harsh beaches lined with the remnants of great ships, to the bloody depths of the underworld itself, the world of Hellblade is gorgeous to behold, with some of the most detailed visuals I’ve ever seen on a console. It’s even more impressive considering it was created by a team of just 20, a minuscule number compared to the hundreds that are typically required to make blockbuster games.
One of the most striking things about the game is Senua herself. You’re able to piece together her story through flashbacks and scraps of information from the collection of voices in her head, but much of her character is also revealed simply by observing her. You understand her determination by the way she struggles with an injury, yet continues to push forward. You can see the anguish in her face, thanks to Hellblade’s incredibly realistic facial animations. By the end of the game she’s a mess of blood, dirt, and war paint, her awful journey baked right onto her skin. At times it can be hard to watch as she struggles to survive. What makes the quest all the more disturbing and captivating is that you’re never quite sure what’s real. Sometimes the screen will be engulfed in flames, or harsh, jagged lines will fill up your vision, but it’s never fully clear whether this is the work of the gods you're fighting against, or if it’s all relegated to Senua’s mind.
What’s frustrating about Hellblade, though, is how it almost feels like two disparate experiences. On one side is the utterly engrossing story and world, which pull you in with gorgeous visuals and haunting sounds. But what you’re actually doing in the game is nowhere near as interesting. Hellblade features both puzzles and combat, but both feel like an afterthought. For starters, the combat is a button-mashing mess, which feels more like a test of patience than skill. Throughout the entire game, I simply dodged at the right time and then spammed the attack button, and came through most battles unscathed. Hellblade’s combat is especially frustrating when you’re up against multiple foes, thanks to a camera and targeting system that make it impossible to focus on more than one enemy.
The puzzles, meanwhile, are largely environmental, tasking you with finding runes and symbols hidden in the shadows around you. Outside of one particular scene — in which you use portals to search parallel versions of the same area — the puzzles are almost all the same. You find a locked door with a rune engraved on it, and then venture out to find that rune in the wild. Sometimes it’s simply painted on a wall, and other times it’s hidden in the shape of a tree or building. In any case, it’s never fun or challenging, just a lot of tedious busywork.
One of the great ironies of Hellblade is that it’s an experience that tries very hard to hide its inherent video game-ness. There is no on-screen HUD, no health bars or experience points. You won’t have a map to guide you or new skills and gear to unlock. These features, or the lack thereof, add a level of immersion to Hellblade that really keeps you in its unsettling world. There’s nowhere to hide, but those moments are almost immediately shattered once you come up against the combat and puzzles, aspects that are steeped in video game logic.
Obviously a game like Hellblade shouldn’t be fun. It’s a dark and tortured experience, one that explores sensitive subject matter through interactivity. And for the most part, it succeeds. Venturing through the viking underworld resulted in some of the most powerfully memorable gaming experiences I’ve had in some time, particularly toward the end, when things take a gruesome turn. But getting to those moments requires patience. Just as Senua needs to push forward through nightmares to find her truth, you will need to put up with some dreary gameplay to see all Hellblade has to offer.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is available now on PS4 and PC.