Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice could not be more different from Ninja Theory’s previous game. It will make you uncomfortable, and instil fear without the use of any cheap tricks. It is essentially an action/puzzle game, but those take a backseat to its fascinating narrative and approach to storytelling.
Senua is on her way to find Helheim, the land of the dead from Norse mythology. She suffers from Psychosis, which is represented by excellent use of camera angles, facial expressions and more importantly, sound design. Right from the beginning, you will start hearing voices of Senua’s thoughts. Not just one, but multiple, always in conflict with one another. They will comment on what they see and feel, address the main character in third person. They go back and forth, changing their tone, pitch and manner of speaking; leaving you figure out what is a voice inside her head and what is being spoken by the main character. The voices add to the overall creepy atmosphere, so much so that you would much rather explore the frightening caves all alone. Playing with headphones is encouraged by the developer in order to make good use of its binaural audio design.
Everything about Hellblade comes together to give you a sense of uneasiness. From the up close camera angle, the complete lack of HUD, and utilization of voice filters; its aim is to instil dread. It remarkably succeeds in both creating and portraying tension and panic.
Combat in Hellblade is just as intense. You will be facing multiple foes at the same time and must rely on dodging and parrying in order to defeat them. Combine light and heavy attacks, with lunging and dashing to quickly dispatch enemies before moving on to the next target. By fighting enemies, Senua can build her focus which lets her slows down time for her opponent, allowing her to do massive damage.
The voices in your head play a key role in battle. When surrounded, you must rely on sound cues to determine the position of enemies and the voices often alert you to their presence. It’s a clever trick that uses the Senua’s unique character traits to support the gameplay.
The battle system otherwise does not have many layers to it but creatively portrays the main themes of the game to great effect. The feeling of loss and helplessness that permeates every inch of Hellblade is again meaningfully implemented here. Due to the top notch presentation, every combat encounter feels tense. It is not fun, but that doesn’t mean it is not rewarding or engaging.
Puzzles are based on Senua’s perception of the world. You will be lining up glyphs of various shapes of sizes in with real world objects in order to progress further. I found the puzzles to be simplistic but overdone, as you ended up doing the same thing over and over again and they only served to prevent you from reaching the next story beat. They do start to implement more layers but it ended up being an annoyance. Due to the complete lack of HUD, it is easy to get lost. Although Ninja Theory tries its best to incorporate these mechanics with the rest of the game, they mainly exist just to guide players from one point to the next.
There isn’t much to be said about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice without spoiling its clever implementation of the game’s ideas and themes. There are many unforgettable moments over the 8 hours it will take you to finish it. It is a unique experience that must be played in order to properly understand its many design decisions. I wish there was more depth to the combat and the puzzles, but I was left with a satisfying yet harrowing journey, filled with sequences of pure terror unlike anything I have seen in a horror game.