In May (2017) I read an article about this crazy upcoming game. It was going to explore psychosis and mental illness in general while presenting a story of Nordic folklore and Gaelic perseverance. The game was called Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and I knew immediately that I wanted to play it.
Fast forward three odd months, and I find myself perusing the PSN store, looking for a new game to play, having mostly forgotten about Senua and her sacrifice. There, out of the corner of my eye (well...not really but for the sake of dramatics) I spy in the “New Releases" Hellblade. I had nearly forgotten that its release should be sometime in August. Following a quick search of GameStop’s website to see if they had it in stock (apparently it's a digital only game) I promptly downloaded my next adventure on Aug 11th.
From the start (before even the main menu) Hellblade warns you of its contents.
I've had video games warn me of things before (traditionally epilepsy or seizure related) but a warning of psychosis-based storytelling and having used the testimonials of individuals who suffered from the disease chilled me. I had never experienced more than an anxiety-fueled panic attack, let alone anything even bordering on psychosis before. I couldn't imagine what a game so heavily rooted in it could be like.
Following the psychosis warning was a prompt that the developers highly recommend wearing headphones for their game, to experience it properly.
I immediately donned my new headset (recently treated myself to some Corsair Void Wireless ones) and set off.
The first signs that this game was going to be an experience was the music. Quiet strums of some unnatural instrument, coupled with the whisperings of an unknown language and the Nazgul approaching pierce of a warbling scream (sigh), hooked me. Keep in mind my first session with Hellblade happened on a rainy night near midnight… I wasn't exactly setting myself up well.
The game starts with Senua paddling through a marshland, while a voice sets the stage (think Galadriel, LOTR style). It's not long before other voices chime in, and we realize not only the player can hear them, but Senua deals with these voices on a constant basis.
For a quick explanation, Senua is a Celtic warrior paddling her way to Helheim (the aptly named Norse Hel[l]). Her lover Dillion's severed head on one hip, and a sword on the other. Senua sets forth to find Helheim and reclaim the soul of her deceased lover.
From the moment you land on shore and gain control of Senua, the game puts the player in suspense. Between the music used to guide you, and the images/visions Senua has which help (or hinder) puzzle solving, the game progresses with a sense of dread.
The music and sound track are a stark reminder of your predicament. The absolutely stunning landscape shifts from beautifully colored to tragically melancholy. Aspects of History channels “Vikings” peek thru as you realize that hell isn't all fire and pain, so much as a mental state which fucks with every thought you have, view you see, and action you take.
As you discover the door to Helheim, the game inundates you into combat, and what a tight, well-balanced combat it is. Forget about button mashing thru your enemies, correct and concise controls are rewarded. While not as punishing as a Dark Souls, the game will not forgive mistakes, and you may see yourself die more often than you like if you can not properly match the rhythm of your attackers, nor quickly identify how to defeat each type of enemy.
There is no map in Hellblade, although the game follows a linear path. It can be easy to lose yourself in combat, as you may only track one enemy at a time, and must be prepared for the attempted flank anytime more than one enemy appears. So far the most I've fought is three, and it created a genuine sense of dread the first time one of them started to circle around me and I realized I had lost sight of them.
The game most benefits a player who both enjoys critical thinking, and suspense over much else. The storytelling is superb, and any amateur history buff will find themselves engrossed in the tales of the Norse invasions, as well as their mythos.
While I have only beaten one “boss” so far on my journey thru Helheim. I have fallen deeply in love with this game, and it's protagonist Senua. A tortured soul, she represents one's insecurity, as well as their ability for perseverance. I've yet to spend more than about 40 minutes at a time (the game can be generally creepy, and I usually play at night before bed), yet I am finding myself constantly looking forward to my pre-sleep ritual of visiting Helheim and listening to the voices in my head.
I would highly recommend this game to any friend, and can't wait to talk with someone about their experience. I almost started a conversation with a stranger at the pub two nights past, whom I had overheard talking about Senua's Sacrifice until the voices in my head convinced me otherwise...