Recently I was fortunate enough to get my hands on Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This game immediately caught my interest as being one of the few games to deal with mental health in a serious way. It’s sad that despite mental health being a growing problem in today’s world, there aren’t many games that take it seriously. Often it’s played off as a jump scare in a horror game. However, that is very much not the case in Hellblade.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tells the story of Senua. She is a young Pictish warrior on a noble quest to save her beloveds soul from the Norse goddess Hela. Senua is a troubled young woman, who is fighting a lifelong battle with psychosis. She is haunted by voices and visions that can either hinder or help her complete her quest. However, despite her mental health, despite the dangers she may face, she will fight her way through hell for her lover, Dillian.
As I said previously, Hellblade is one of the few games I’ve seen that takes mental health seriously. They spent countless hours trying to perfect what it’s like to live with a psychosis and it has clearly paid off. From the moment you pop on your headphones and start up the game you’re already feeling the effects. The game uses binaural audio to give you a sense that someone is whispering in your ear. You can feel the voices moving around your head between your headphones. It can be quite startling at first. You start wondering when you should trust the voices in your head and when not to and leads to a lot of uncertainty.
Further, one of the games core mechanics revolves around the idea of seeing the world differently. Whether you’re looking for runes within the environment or trying to align images to change the environment, it fits quite well. Sufferers of psychosis often notice links and correlations others wouldn’t and it makes for interesting gameplay to boot. The only thing I’d fault it on is that sometimes you’ll be running around for ages with no answer. But I could chalk that up to me being an oblivious dolt.
The mechanics combined with the audio really help to immerse the player and slip them into Senua’s shoes. We can see and hear the world as Senua does and fight with the same determination, no matter what the cost.
Fact or Fiction?
A lot of you have probably heard at this stage that if you die one too many times in Hellblade, your save gets erased. I heard about this mechanic and thought it was pretty cool but it wasn’t until I actually played it that the weight of this punishment really sunk in. Do you remember being a kid, where one of the worst punishments your parents could think of (if they thought of it) was erasing your memory card? Yeah! That!
Nerdy as it may sound, this is the closest I’ve come to literally fearing for my life in a game. I immediately felt compelled to look up ways to get around it and suddenly I very much sympathized with Voldemort. Get as many Horcruxes as you can for this save file! However, after a little research, I realized that the permadeath mechanic was a lie. You can die all you want in Hellblade, the game just wants to make you shit your pants before tossing some real crap at you.
With that in mind, thank god they didn’t implement this mechanic because if you’re going to implement a mechanic like this, you may want to iron out all the bugs first. I cannot tell you how many times I got hit before a fight even started. For example, during the Valravn boss fight, I spawned into the fight already being hit. There was no warning, no audio cues, nothing. If I didn’t hit space the split second that fight started, I was already at half HP.
Sadly that seems to be a running theme in Hellblade. As much as I want to like this game it’s entirely let down by its combat system. There are a few too many instances wherein you’re overwhelmed by an enemy spawning two inches away from your face and getting a hit in before you realise he’s there. It’s a shame because the combat system itself isn’t bad. There’s a lot of emphasis on well-timed blocks and dodging to make you feel like you’re really outmaneuvering the opponent. But you can’t outmaneuver something you haven’t even had time to register.
The combat sections, in my opinion, serve little purpose other than to break you out of your immersion. It’s hard to stay focused and start to believe you’re Senua when you’re dying and repeating the same fight over and over. And even if you’re not dying, just getting into this mindset of puzzle solving and seeing the world through Senua’s eyes and then being thrown out of it by a sudden combat section is really mismatched. It feels unnecessary all in all. If they had simplified it to only fighting during boss fights or specific sequences it’d work well, but in puzzle sections, it detracts from the experience.
Stumbling in the Dark
There isn’t a HUD or tutorial to speak of in Hellblade. There’s a lot to be said about this. It’s a design choice to make the game more immersive. But if you’re going to add mechanics such as focus which slows down time in battle, you may wish to explain it to the player. Essentially, focus slows down time and allows the player to wail on the enemy. You can use it in specific fights to remove invulnerability from the enemies. I stumbled upon the mechanic by accident after rebinding some of my keys.
Furthermore, apparently, you can get up after you’re downed. I didn’t know that. Every time the voices were screaming in my ear to “GET UP! GET UP!” all I could say was “FUCKING HOW?!” This time I only discovered after spamming the shit out of the space bar in desperation.
I want to love this game. Really, truly, I do! The visuals are stunning. The story is tragic and compelling. The attention to detail can be found in every itty bitty pixel right down to the bloody corpse road. But oh dear Jesus, I feel like the QA testers were drunk doing this one. Because unless starting fights early, bugging out the graphics during boss fights and getting stuck in corners is a design choice, there’s no way this is correct! It’s like whoever bug tested this was a Dark Souls addict who was into BDSM. It’s so goddamn punishing for no good reason and that just makes it frustrating.
That said, if you’d like to go on a powerful, driven story about perseverance in the name of love and mental illness, by all means, pick up Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Genuinely, this might be one of the most visually stunning games I’ve played in a long time. They have invested so much effort into every little detail from the hairs on Senua’s neck to the slashes on enemies. Combined with the atmosphere created by the binaural audio, you have a winning combo. Just be prepared to go just as insane as Senua when you’ve been jump attacked out of the shadows for the umpteenth time.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available now on PS4 and PC. If you’ve played it, let us know what you think of it in the comments below and on our Facebook. We’d love to hear your thoughts!