Hellblade: A Trip Through Madness
As I continue on my quest to not purchase any new video games this year and make my way through my backlog, I decided to pick up Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice again and give it a proper go.
Upon its release in 2017, Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice did not immediately catch my attention. I’d heard about it, but it wasn’t until a Steam sale a year or so after its release that made me finally pick it up. Every time I opened Steam I would see it there just asking to be bought. With a shopping trolly of awards and nominations under its belt, it was certainly hard to miss, and there’s no way that it could be bad with all those awards, right? With an already relatively cheap game discounted to an even lower price, I thought why not? It’s worth a shot.
As with many games in my Steam library, I didn’t start playing it straight away, but I did fire it up one evening when some friends of mine were over, and it certainly looked visually impressive and an interesting concept from the beginning.
In this game, we follow our Celtic heroine, Senua, through a disturbing state of psychosis as she goes on a quest to save her dead husband’s soul, battling with the shadow and other demons that plague her mind throughout the game.
From the start, the developers make it very clear that the game explores mental health issues and psychosis. And I’m glad that they did point that out in the beginning, as it helps you understand what is going on in the game much more easily and explains why everything is as it is. There isn’t anything in-game that shouts ‘this person has a mental disorder!’ from what I could tell, which it shouldn’t need and it would not fit the game’s style, so the disclaimer is important to show what the developers want the player to really experience.
The game does this is in a number of ways that at first, I didn’t realise. First, I want to have a look at how the game uses sound. When I played this game with my friends over, I used my speakers so that my friends could hear the game as well, naturally, despite the other note at the start of the game stating that it is best experienced using headphones. Going back to the game one year later (I don’t know why it took me so long), I bunged on my headphones as I would with any other game, but this was a different experience entirely.
There are many horror elements to this game and having a headset on to really feel the sound effects surrounding you enhances the experience ten-fold. Those voices that I heard before were now coming at me from every direction and were a lot more difficult to ignore. On more than one occasion I did find myself turning my head instinctively when I heard a voice, which I couldn’t help but feel impressed (and admittedly a little silly!) by. As there is no objective marker, on-screen prompts or HUD in this game, you have to rely on the voices to guide you in some way, for example during battle when they’ll tell you an enemy is attacking from behind, which is the only prompt you’ll get and one that causes a jerk reaction, sometimes to your detriment. Without any indicators telling you where to go, it does mean that the game is fairly linear, which may put off some gamers. I, however, did not mind this and felt that it was fitting with the experience. Not every game needs to have a sprawling open world.
Sound also plays another vital role in some of the puzzles where you have only your ears to guide you through a dark maze. Generally speaking, the sound quality is fantastic and creates the dark and intimidating environment that adds to the anxiety that this game can genuinely cause while playing. These audio and visual hallucinations that plague Senua throughout the whole game are meant to be an ‘accurate’ portrayal of what someone with psychosis may experience on a daily basis. While I am in no way qualified to comment on this aspect of the game, I trust enough in the developers who were advised by experts in that field to create something representative of the symptoms of psychoses such as schizophrenia.
It’s not only sounds that they explore in the game, but also visual hallucinations as well. You really get to feel and see how Senua sees the world, and it’s a flashy, confusing, noisy and disturbing experience. Faces and monsters will flash onto the screen during tense scenes that can completely disorientate the player, sometimes resulting in death. I found that the only times I did die in the game were through these types of scenarios, not through combat or other ways. The game tells you that should you die too many times and the ‘rot’ on your arm reaches your head, you have to start the whole game. Well, it turns out this is not actually the case, but it does add a little bit of tension and I suppose it’s just something that developers thought would add an extra level of anxiety and somehow it relates to psychosis? I’m not so sure on that one, but that’s all I can assume.
These visual hallucinations play into the puzzles as well. Portals change the environment around Senua as she passes through them, opening up previously inaccessible areas. Locked doors are opened by searching for shapes in the world that make up a rune symbol that are displayed on the doors. The puzzles themselves are admittedly quite simple and repetitive, but they make sense when you consider that Senua is trying to make sense of the world around her and create links that just aren’t there for other people. There definitely could have been a bit more variety in the puzzles, but considering the length of the game, I’d say that what they offer is enough.
The same goes with the combat system. I’ve seen some people like it while others hated it due to, again, its repetitive nature. The combat system is simple as well, and there is little variation between enemies with an increase in difficulty coming mainly from an increase in the number of enemies you have to take on at one time. I personally liked the fights and did feel the weight of each one increase as the game went on, especially at the end where I felt utterly helpless as Senua got beaten to the ground over and over, each time getting up becoming harder and harder. The boss fights were also quite intense too. I can’t really fault the game on this though, as it isn’t the main focus and I think it does the job as well if not better than many other games out there.
I think the main complaint with the puzzles and fighting is that they feel a bit shoe-horned into the experience so that they can call it a ‘game’. I can see where many people are coming from with that, as it isn’t the standard video game experience, but I don’t see that necessarily as a bad thing. To me it was more about the experience as a whole, from its excellent story-telling to the visual and audio cues that I had not seen in many games before. I viewed it more as some kind of interactive visual novel more than strictly a game, and it was an experience that I really enjoyed.
While one could argue that one should not have to watch a featurette on the game to understand it, for this game in particular I believe the addition of this small making-of documentary helps really well and I would recommend people to watch it who play the game. By doing so, I think the player can appreciate what the game is about from a slightly different angle. The game is enjoyable enough on its own, but the documentary really does add to it. I personally found it very informative and I learnt a lot about this type of condition and it only added to my empathy for Senua and how terrifying and tragic her experience is. Maybe I’m thinking too much into it, but the combination of this and the story really got to me in a positive way.
The game’s ending is a bit of a confusing one, but after finding out that there was going to be a sequel, I did a little bit of reading on the interpretations of the story and its finale and there being a sequel makes a bit more sense to me now. I have a vague idea of what the story of this may be, but I have no idea how they are going to execute it, as I cannot see it being a similar type of game that explores the same issues. It may be more ‘standard’ in many ways. That, however, will be covered in a future blog when the game comes out and I get my paws on it. I won’t hang about with the sequel and certainly won’t leave a large gap between sittings as I did with this, which I feel may have hampered my experience with it. Nevertheless, I liked it a lot myself and would recommend it to anyone and with the game so short (7-8 hours,) I’ll certainly pick it up again in a few years or sometime around the release of its sequel and try and concentrate a bit more on the story second time round. Could it have been better? Yes. Does that make it a bad game? No. Not at all.
Below is a trailer of Hellblade 2 for anyone interested.
See you in the next one! Toodle-pip!