Posted on 23 Aug 2017 by L Coulsen

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

The Defence

Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Genre: Action, Adventure
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: No
Release date: 08 Aug 2017

The Prosecution

OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i5 3.4 GHz
AMD FX 4.0 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 770
AMD Radeon R9 280X
HDD: 30 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Yes
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Oh boy, this is going to be a good one. Following a young Orkney woman called Senua, Hellblade is about a journey into the Nordic realm of the dead, Helheim, overlaid by a personal journey into psychosis. Note, that’s psychosis, not psychopathy. The latter being a condition typified by a lack of empathy, which often results in a pleasurable response to acts of “evil”, whilst psychosis is a cognitive disorder which can lead to auditory and visual hallucination. So, let’s dive right in shall well?

The Trial

No matter what happens, Hellblade is going down in gaming history as a time when there was a shift in the nature of interactive entertainment. Dealing with mental illness is not something which is new, even in video games. The PlayStation 2 title Primal heavily featured themes of cognitive dysfunction based on the writings of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, a contemporary of the still controversial Sigmund Freud. His focus was heavily around a concept he called the shadow self, that being an unconscious part of the human psyche which reflected the true personality hidden away beneath the surface. A theme which Hellblade also touches on, but in a very different way.

Come an' 'ave a go if you think you're 'ard enough!

Like many people in the world, I have been afflicted by mental ill health for the majority, perhaps even entirety, of my life. Though my case is rather different from the titular Senua, much of her fictional early life mirrors experiences from my own. There’s the persistent social ostracism that many with recognised mental disorders experience, of course. But more personally than that, in my case, is experience of the aforementioned hallucination. Significantly less prevalent, and generally far less disturbing, in my case, it was nonetheless something that struck a chord with me, for obvious reasons.

The way the story unfolds is riddled with suggestion of subjective interpretation. How much of what happens really happened? A question which is posited, and answered, in the included 25 minute documentary cum making of available at the game’s main menu. To fall back on a trite, but apt, pop culture reference, the mind makes it real. So, did it happen? Well, for Senua, yes it did, so, whether the “real” world reflects that or not is irrelevant.

Like many people, I went into the game expecting something…okay, let’s be honest, I went in with a great degree of scepticism, fully prepared for a complete clusterfuck that had no clue what the hell it was trying to do. Though I stayed open to the eventuality that everything was done just right, and that we could have one of those perfect moments to point back to years down the line. This is when video games proved their worth, like that. Thankfully, we came away with the latter, which wasn’t all that unexpected considering how much we already knew. Ninja Theory have been very open about the game’s development, showing much of their interactions with leading professionals in the field of mental health.

Man, the peer review process is brutal.

What came as far more of a surprise though, is how well Hellblade works as a game in its own right. Though it is not perfect, with some of the gameplay elements feeling a little…simple, Ninja Theory managed to do something quite rare indeed. Where many titles will sacrifice plot for gameplay, or vice versa, Senua’s journey favours neither, leaving us with a final product that treats both with the respect they deserve, and tied the two in, together, without conflicting. Creating a cohesive whole that does not compromise for the sake of ease of development.

Let’s get the “weaker” aspects out of the way first. Throughout the game, there are several instances of rune matching puzzles. Typically to open a door. Senua will a rune or runes glowing on a door that is sealed to her, preventing further progress. To unlock them, she must find their counterparts somewhere in the environment around her. Being that a shadow, a physical object like timber ceiling beams, marks on the floor. Whatever. It’s not the most engaging of features, admittedly, and rarely takes more than a couple of minutes to complete, even during the end game. In fact, a lot of the time, you will see the exact thing you need to find before you even see the door you need to unlock.

These sections can be a tad tedious, not going to lie. And from a gameplay perspective, a game design perspective even, they quite apparently fall a little flat of their intended purpose. Ultimately becoming nothing more than a mild annoyance, a temporary impediment to progress, at best. Or just flat out boring and contrived at worse. But that’s not the whole story, not in this case. Whereas, with many games, this can be easily written off as lazy development, or poor execution of a potentially interesting idea, one needs to consider this from the mindset of the subject matter to really get to grips with what it’s all about. That doesn’t negate the fact many players will just find it dull, but it does add some much needed context.

Yep, that's a rune alright.

See, many people who suffer from psychosis, and other cognitive dysfunctions, see patterns in the world around them. All the time, everywhere they look. Sometimes they will interpret an event as signifying that they should follow someone, or make a purchase of some item they were unsure about. Sometimes their mind will see a certain shape that tells them they should run into the street and be hit by a car, or phone their Mother so that she won’t leave the house and never come home, or any number of things. The possibilities are pretty much endless.

In fact, this is a trend that affects pretty much every living, thinking Human being on the planet. Just think about those times as a child, when you would lay on your back, looking up at the clouds, and see faces, or dragons, or a pirate ship. It’s the same principle. But whilst the majority think of this only as an entertaining quirk of the mind, something to help pass the time. There are others who apply intense meaning to what they see. And this is the case with Senua. She, quite literally, needs to find these patterns to be able to move her quest forward. They are an essential part of the world for her. So, it’s actually kinda’ intended to be tedious, frustrating and, yes, needlessly time consuming. Remember, Senua, like her real world contemporaries, has no control over this part of her mind, and must jump through the hoops it almost arbitrarily assigns to the world. And thus, so do we. It’s actually one of the best moments of game design I’ve ever come across. Intentionally frustrating the player, whether we consciously realise or otherwise, so that we can better empathise with Senua’s predicament.

There are other examples of things like this as well. The way the camera hugs in tight against Senua during much of the game, the way she looks directly at the camera and often seems to be talking to us, directly to us. Because in a very real sense, we are another of the voices, another of the personalities, in her head directing her life. |Fighting at every turn to take control away from her and dictate what she should be doing. During exploration, she is constantly struggling to mitigate that influence, holding the player tight to her chest, so to speak. But during combat, the camera pulls away and she, consciously or otherwise, accepts our assistance. We, much like the voices who will warn her about an attack from behind, become a guardian directing her to safety.

What you say?

Speaking of the voices. If ever there was a game where you needed to wear headphones, this is it. Sound design here is far more than just a cool way to bring you into the world, it’s a living, breathing part of it. Utilising some amazingly advanced microphone technology, which simulates the way a Human ear interprets sound, Ninja Theory have made the various voices an integral part of the game. They move around, drifting back and forth, suggesting directions we need to focus our attention in an organic, human way. Much like as said above. The voices warning of attacks from behind, will sound like they are coming from behind us.

This makes combat far more engaging than you would expect. It’s a very free flowing system, though not the simplified “press button to look cool” system of the Batman Arkham series. Which is badass by the way, that’s not a dig at it. The way Senua moves is slower, more deliberate, and more focused, making dealing with multiple combatants a challenge that leaves you feeling like you’ve really accomplished something when you finish. Especially because those blasted voices are talking to you the entire time. Yeah, sure, they’re trying to hep, sometimes. But they’re also trying to distract you, taunting and chiding whenever you make a mistake, or with the direct intention of causing.

So you’ll end up trying to block them out, to ignore them and focus on what you’re doing. But then you might miss the helpful hints, the words of encouragement. But…the voices warning you come from where the impending threat is situated, so even though you may not consciously hear the words, recognise what they are saying. In time, you will instinctively begin to distinguish their intention, unconsciously zeroing in on those that are important, whilst filtering out the annoyances without ever needing to think about it.

Darlin' you light up my life and all that.

Because of this, combat feels far more organic, realistic and incredibly satisfying. The lack of any HUD whatsoever forces you to pay attention to all the little details most games will monitor for you. Senua is a small, fragile, human woman. She cannot stand against an immense bastard sword and just block the blade with her face. She suffers grievous wounds and will go down in only a few, well placed hits. But nor is she weak, having passed the Orkney warrior trials. She is a skilled sword fighter, agile and wily. She knows where and how to strike an enemy to bring them down. And though, yes, she can still recover from sword strikes far more quickly than a real person, there’s still that sense that all of this is really going on within her mind. So even here, it remains internally consistent and doesn’t end up being a case of gameplay over narrative.

And dear Gods, this game is gorgeous! Truly as feast for the eyes. The lighting effects are phenomenal, and the characters models, especially around the face, are second to none. Much as with the audial tech. The Ninjas employed some of the most advanced motion capture available, something that will have you squirming in your seat on more than one occasion, when Senua’s big, round eyes are looking directly into your own. Revealing both the vulnerability and iron grit she carries within her in equal measure.

There, honestly, aren’t many flaws to speak of. Though there are some bug issues that persist to time of writing. There have been two patches to date, one to fix the bugs and one specifically for AMD users, who saw extremely poor performance (myself included) during the game’s latter stages. Both, for myself at least, seem to have fixed everything, but some still have issues that are being worked on. Leaving the final product a bit of mixed bag. For the most part, it’s extremely well optimised, running at solid framerates without any major issues. But there are always some who will be outliers. And I don’t want to trivialise their complaints in the least, it fucking sucks donkey arse. What I’m saying is, for newcomers, the majority have found a solidly built, well optimised game for their money.

Hel on the horizon, and Hell on my heels.

One that comes at a price of barely half what most “triple-A” developers would charge, whilst still offering a comparable experience. According to Ninja Theory, they wanted this to be a medium triple-A title, built to the same standards, but offering about half the content. And whilst this may be true of games that have massive online components, which are effectively infinite content. There’s a good 6-8 hours of game here, even when you know exactly where you’re going and what to do. Which is, let’s be honest, a couple hours more than most “triple A” games are offering. Not something to sniff at methinks.

The Verdict

If it isn’t obvious by this point, I love this game, and I am rather biased towards it. But it’s still a really solid game in its own right. There are some issues, some quite significant, for a small percentage of players. But the overall end product is a superb piece of storytelling, an absolutely essential moment in gaming history and just a great game. Those bugs it does have do little to mar what is an otherwise amazing accomplishment. Proving that art, and games in particular, can tackle extremely sensitive subject matters with grace, respect and more than a dab of panache. A title that, years from now, people will look back on as being integral to the development of the industry as a whole. If not the point when everyone started to see the full potential of interactive media, it will certainly be consider one of its heralds.

Case Review

  • A Dash of History: Combining both Celtic and Nordic mythology that is presented far more accurately than you would typically expect.

  • In Living Colour: The world of Hellblade is beautiful, stark and breath-taking.

  • Senua: When those big, soulful eyes of hers turn on you, you can’t help but fall in love. Metaphorically speaking.

  • Sound Design: Dude, you need headphones for this one.

  • The Voice of Madness: Having them whisper in your ear constantly can be, intentionally, distracting, and downright distressing to some.

  • Rune Puzzles: Though I like them for what they represent, I cannot deny they are a tad tedious.

5 Score: 5/5
A masterclass in game design and an essential part of gaming history.


  • Graphics: Not a great deal to talk about, everything essential is here, but not much else besides. Various presets with some minor tweaking available. Though the .ini file can be played around with quite a bit, it's perhaps not something your average user is going to be too familiar with.
  • Audio: The options themselves are pretty standard, but the sound design is amazing. You don't need headphones for this one, need headphones for this one.
  • Controls: Simple and, mostly, fully customisable. Mouse and keyboard is usable, but a controller is far more effective.
4.5 Score: 4.5/5

If you have been a gamer for a long time, you have a few titles in your mind that you think of as “game changers”, be that technology wise or mechanics wise. Most of you will think of Deus Ex, Crysis or Doom. In my opinion, Hellblade will go down as one of those titles for several reasons and will be cemented as one of titles that really shook things up in a landscape of monotony and iteration. One of the most remarkable things about Hellblade is its main character. Ninja Theory have created objectively, the most detailed and realistic character model ever put in a video game, and puts most character models in film to shame. I’ve used Nvidia Ansel to zoom in on the model and continue to be blown away at the astounding details added to the model. Senua’s has visible veins in the cartilage on her ears, subtle scars and even female sideburn hairs. We have seen games with realistic characters models before, but the illusion all falls apart when they move. The human eye is a graphic designer’s greatest critic, we can just tell when something looks real or fake. Hellblade not only avoids the Uncanny Valley, it jumps it like Evil Knievel…well most of the time. Every scene with Senua is a visual treat, the animation is a technical marvel, and even the subtlest brow movements are visible. Other details like the pulsing veins on her arm that protrude due to the rot infecting her. The rest of the game is not as remarkable as Senua, for example mostly unimpressive texture quality, the use of full motion video used for supporting characters with the lighting being an exception.

However, the gameplay isn’t as remarkable as Senua herself. The combat reminds me of Ryse: Son of Rome, being very snappy and responsive but due to the forced lock on targeting, you are only facing one enemy at a time. This makes it hard to tell what’s around you since you don’t get the chance to rotate the camera around. The combat animations are very satisfying but the lack of them causes combat to feel repetitive. The rest of the game is mostly solving puzzles by looking for a set of shapes in the environment to open a door leading to the next area. You can also wander around looking for some stones that will let you hear the supporting character Druth telling some confusing mythological tale. Many times through the game I nearly said aloud, “Shut the fuck up Druth.” One of the other remarkable things about the game, one that really plays into the story of the game that makes it unique, is the voices in Senua’s head. Through the entire game you are given information and hints courtesy of the schizophrenic voices that will argue whether Senua is going the right way, commenting on the effect a puzzle has on the environment and even aiding in combat. The voices will tell you to not forget to evade and to watch behind you, the excellent positional audio in the game making this mechanic work. The voices also give insight into the protagonist’s mental situation as they rarely are supportive and regularly berate and question Senua’s decisions.

The story of the game is a confusing one but mainly a tale of overcoming tragedy and coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. Set in the character’s mind during a bout of psychosis, we relive and learn of the many traumatic events of Senua’s life on her quest to rescue the soul of her recently deceased lover. I don’t want to go into the story much more than I have since it is really worth experiencing yourself. The story entirely held together by the performance of the main character, by actress Melina Jeurgens. Jeurgens, whose likeness was used for the character, give perhaps the best performance for a game…ever, and for me even in any film as well. It’s especially remarkable that she had never acted up to that point and was developer Ninja Theory’s video editor. Hellblade may not be remembered for its combat. It may not be remembered for its gameplay. It will however be remembered for its diction of mental illness, use of 3D audio and resonating tale of redemption and overcoming loss. It will certainly be remembered for Senua.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5

Hellblade might be the most atmospheric game I’ve played in years. Ninja Theory combines Norse mythology with the beautifully developed character Senua, who is plagued by psychosis. She hears whispering voices. Lots of them. All the time. Those voices tell her what to do, or what not to do. Sometimes they reveal things from Senua’s past, tell little stories, other times they try to encourage her, or even predict her certain demise. Only one thing is certain – they won’t stop talking. Not ever. They are also the main reason why you absolutely should play the game with a headset.

This is in my eyes Hellblade‘s strongest element. There is constant feel of insanity and not only because of the voices in your head. The environment often changes, based on your mental state. When Senua just can’t bear it anymore, starts screaming in agony and despair, the voices in her head get louder and the world around you transforms into an even darker, dirty looking place. These are the most intense, atmospheric moments I have seen in a video game in a long time. And you often wonder if what you see is actually happening – you are in a very dark, mythical place after all – or if it all just takes place in your mind. Here reality becomes a very questionable concept.

While having incredible atmosphere, Hellblade’s combat system is pretty standard for the most part. You have light and heavy attacks, which you can use to perform combos, you can block, evade and parry (timing is important here), as well as a kick attack. The game does not tell you how to do any of these things, yet you will learn everything on your own in no time – which I find fascinating in a way. It is almost refreshing to have a game that does not flood the screen with button prompts and tutorial messages. You also have sort of a time-slowing power that charges over time. That one can be of great help in situations with multiple enemies. While the combat system might not be particularly innovative, it is very well implemented and definitely a lot of fun. In between the fights you mostly solve rune puzzles and those are probably the only thing I can truly criticise about the game. You usually have a closed gate with a rune on it, then you have to search for the image of this rune in the surrounding area. The image often consists of several objects in the environment, for instance, you have to look at a pole and part of a hut at the right angle. While I certainly enjoyed these puzzles, they were the weakest part of the game and they are the only reason Hellblade doesn’t get the highest possible score from me.

Judges Panel

4.5 Score: 4.5/5

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an amazing game. While it has some gameplay and combat limitations, its gorgeous visuals, fantastic “show-don’t-tell” storytelling, and captivating story about mental health are all things I wish more developers would aspire to in the future.

4 Score: 4/5

Great visuals, fantastic sound-design and top-notch presentation is what makes Hellblade one of the better games this year. However her slow walking speed, puzzles that feel like padding to inflate the playtime and the never evolving combat stop it from being truly outstanding.

Comments (0)