From the opening credits, it is clear that Senua’s story is not a happy one. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice delivers on this promise of a bleak and seemingly hopeless journey. An ever present darkness threatens to consume our heroine at every trial on her path.
Her every move and thought is subject to criticism from a crowd of inner voices who let her (and us) know that she can never succeed. Even after repeatedly demonstrating her strength and skill, Senua remains consumed by self-doubt and guilt.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a dark and mournful tale cast through the lens of psychosis. The game features breathtaking graphics and top-notch audio design.
It also happens to be a beautifully nuanced depiction of the struggles of mental illness. Senua’s inability to trust in herself and believe what she sees drives the game’s deep, story-driven narrative.
As the story opens, Senua fearfully makes her way into the lands the Northmen call Helheim. As a Celtic warrior, Senua lived on the Orkney Islands with her beloved, Dillion. Due to her psychosis, and previous psychological abuse, Senua believes she is cursed.
She knows that her curse, which she refers to as the darkness, will one day consume her. Furthermore, as the darkness follows her, she puts those closest to her at risk.
Prior to the game, she had traveled alone into the wilds in an attempt to free herself from this darkness. After she fails, she returns to find the Northmen have decimated her tribe and murdered Dillion.
Furthermore, Senua learns that Dillion’s soul was sacrificed to the Northmen’s Gods. This is what drove her to seek passage to Hel. Only by finding the Goddess Hela can she retrieve her love’s lost soul.
The Stories Behind The Story
Senua’s memory of her friend, Druth, guides her journey. Druth had spent six years enslaved by the Northmen. After he escaped captivity Druth shared all he had learned of the Northmen with Senua before he died. His tales form the basis for Senua’s perception of Hel and the monsters she encounters therein.
As she ventures deeper into Hel, Senua discovers special stones which can unlock her memories of Druth’s stories. Rather than serving as mere set dressing, the stories influence Senua’s journey.
Her first tasks in this new land are to defeat the Gods who guard the doors to Hel, Surt and Valravn. After hearing the story of Sigmund she loses her sword and must complete the trials of Odin to reforge Gramr.
While the narrative elements are well constructed, the developer’s attention to authenticity and detail are where Hellblade truly shines. Ninja Theory put a considerable amount of research into not only Norse mythology, but also how people with psychosis perceive the world.
Using binaural sound design, the team was able to give life to the voices in Senua’s head. Each voice displays a unique personality as they alternate between encouraging Senua and taunting her about the futility of her quest.
This interpretation of psychosis was derived from the team’s interviews with people who deal with hearing voices in their daily lives.
Your Toughest Battle is with Yourself
Another aspect of psychosis which Hellblade explores is the ability to perceive patterns and associations that others cannot. To unlock gates, Senua must find the corresponding rune in her environment.
Her ability to focus in this manner allows her to find passage through seemingly impassable obstacles. In combat, she can utilize her focus to string together devastating combos against opponents physically stronger than herself.
In their effort to bridge the gap between AAA quality and the creative control of an independent project, Ninja Theory has managed to create something spectacular here.
Self-dubbed, Independent AAA, their approach abandons the traditional sales-based decision making process behind developing large titles and instead focuses on a particular experience designed for a specialist audience.
Essentially, Hellblade was made to appeal to gamers, not publishers. It was a risky strategy that, based on the praise they’ve received since Hellblade’s release, has paid off.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available as a $29.99 digital download for both PS4 and PC.
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