Although it looks like a generic Nordic title at a first glance, this piece of art created by a team of just 20 developers is pure thrill inducing, dark adventure exploring mental illness in a hellish landscape. A must recommend!
- Art and Visual Design
- Depiction of Psychosis
- Voice Acting
- Music and Sound Effects
What' not so
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Do not forget my stories, Senua, because your darkness comes from Hel and your fate lies there. They say the burning of a corpse will take you straight to Hela's gate. But Gods and the living will follow this path.
The story follows Senua, a celtic warrior, suffering from psychotic mental illness called "darkness", on her journey to save the soul of her lover, Dillion, from the Norse underworld of Hel.
Featuring a mix of exploration, visual puzzle solving and combat gameplay, players are thrown into the dark world of Helheim where they must face Norse gods and creatures like Valravan, Surtr, Fenrir and the goddess of Hel, Hela herself. The quest is supported by voices in Senua's head called the Furies — excellent sound design on those by the way, worth checking out just for that — her "darkness" which she believes to be a curse, and memories from her past.
To properly represent psychosis, the developers worked with neuro-scientists, mental health specialists, and people suffering from the condition. And Ninja Theory has done an excellent job on it, so much so that Microsoft Studios acquired the indie studio to be a part of Xbox Game Studios, with a green-lit sequel.
Hellblade has an automatic single-file save system, with no slots or saves to choose from during the story — If you miss a collectible (the lorestones, which tell you more about Senua's quest and her friend, Druth's tale), you'll have to start a new game. Senua is infected with a dark rot in her hand early in the story, which grows larger every time the player dies. The game warns you that if the rot reaches Senua's head, the quest is over — while it's not a complete permadeath situation, it serves the purpose of the story, physically representing Senua's psychosis, consuming her from the inside till she learns to accept her condition.
There's no tutorials or heads-up-display (It isn't great on accessibility terms unfortunately). However the voices in the player's head provide auditory help on game mechanics, defense, health, and traversal. The voices are very well done, and in a headphones or surround setup come alive and put you in the action.
The combat is quite challenging and takes a while getting used to, with the difficulty being adaptive, punishing you harder the better you get (you can change the settings to suit your liking however). Your sword is drawn only when you're entering a combat state, with a bunch of enemies — representations of Nordic warriors called the Northmen — of different types attacking you. Light and heavy attacks with combos are available, with parrying and dodging as defense. A special ability to see things differently, focus can be used in the combat to slow down time and materialize some foes.
Handling is a bit getting used to as well, with a camera lock during combat, unable to view multiple foes at once — And the only downside I could find in the experience. (Other than the sequel not releasing for the playstation, and the game not being updated for PS5).
The story — without spoiling too much — is really good and fulfilling, guaranteed to give you that feeling on finishing it.
My personal favorite sections of the game, The trials of Odin, do not involve combat at all and some of them are so well done I wish there was a way of playing specific sections. It's something you need to experience first-hand without any idea what's in them.
I can't do this review enough justice, so I'll link the wired article that led me to pick this game up finally, but I'll tell you this — it is one of the games everyone (them being 18+ of course) should experience.