The world around most of us can sometimes seem boring, peaceful, chaotic, hectic and more. The day to day person experiences pain, happiness, sorrow, resentment, fear, uncertainty, joy and much more. The moments of fear and despair in our life are often fleeting however. Perhaps we fear the loss of a loved one, experience a near death experience, almost get into a car accident, obtain a severe injury. We also have nightmares and waking from these nightmares is sweet relief. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice sets out to put us in the mind of someone who experiences psychosis every moment of their life. This person experiences a living nightmare from which she cannot wake, her fear is so momentous it is crippling and constant, and she knows very little if any happiness. Instead, her life is riddled with terror, sorrow, and uncertainty.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice developed by Ninja Theory (recently acquired by Microsoft) is one of the most impactful games I have ever played and demonstrates how video games can be used as a genre to bring understanding to important topics. A support group of individuals who have suffered from psychosis as well as psychiatrists who deal with these patients were heavily utilized along the development process to craft this work of art that allows it’s players to get a feeling for what a person with psychosis undergoes. I played with headphones on as directed by the game and it was the right call. During my gameplay, I could hear many voices in my head telling me what to do. Some were calm, some loud, some panicked, some pleasant and others spiteful. The emotions of these voices would change rapidly from moment in the game giving me a feeling of unease and uncertainty.
Along with voices in her head, Senua would have visions of demons, dead bodies, fire and other apparitions. The game does a wonderful job of making it unclear at times whether something is in her head of real. There are other moments such as seeing a demon that we know it is in her head but we understand that, to her, it is all real. This is her reality and thus becomes real. Even though another person next to the one suffering from the visions cannot see them, it doesn’t make them any less real to the one experiencing them. This is something that I understood before playing but being in the shoes of Senua, I know have a better understanding of what someone in this mental state is going through. There were moments where I found myself wanting out of the nightmares because I was so connected with the character and I wanted her suffering to end. Then, the nightmare would end yet her despair and sorrow remained.
I wouldn’t personally say that the game is horror but it certainly has horror moments. Jump scares are occasional, the voices in your head are creepy, the demons are beautifully rendered and terrifying but it still doesn’t breach horror so much as it sends a message. The folks at Ninja Theory are onto something special and I hope their next game tackles another concept that others misunderstand. It was fascinating to enter into Senua’s mind and go with her on the journey. Never in the game do you see another real person yet she concocts past images and other apparitions throughout the story. The fact that a team of real people who experienced this could testify to it’s validity made me feel for these people. The game has an accompanying 30 minute documentary that is recommenced to be watched after completing the story which shows details of how the focus group was involved as well as some of their personal stories with psychosis that are reflected in the game.
Moving onto gameplay, the combat was simple yet fun. Hellblade throws you into the game without an HUD. You no health points, damage points, inventory, minimap, ect and it masterfully adds to the immersion. There is never a tutorial for combat or any other mechanic really. This could be construed as a bad thing to a casual gamer however I found it endearing and amazing. I am by no means a skilled gamer so the game doesn’t require amazing skill however I would say it is best played by someone familiar with games due to the lack of any hand holding or tutorials. The player can open the menu at any time however and see the controls broken down into which button does what. This was a helpful tool but it was nice that it wasn’t in the gameplay as it helped with keeping me in the world. Even with the controls in the menu, there are unspoken mechanics such as a need to mash a button depending on the scenario in combat. These types of things seemed natural to me as a gamer but would confuse someone casual. For me this isn’t a negative but it is worth noting.
My only real negative was the speed of walking/running and that the default was walking. In order to run, I had to hold down LB and even then it was pretty slow. I understand they turned the speed lower in order to make the players enjoy the experience but it would have been nice to default to running or at least for it to be toggle-able. Even if I could have clicked LB and run until I stopped, that would have been fine. I found my left finger getting tired with holding down LB so often and this was a misstep.
Visually, Hellblade is breathtaking. I played on the Xbox One X in 4K and it was glorious. I opted for resolution over frame rate as that is my preference but I tried each mode the Xbox One X offered and it always looked lovely. The vistas were gorgeous and bright while even the dark moments were stunning. The artwork put into the demons and monsters fought throughout the game are absolutely incredible. The attention to detail visually and with sound design really brought me in and helped me share in Senua’s terror. The level of detail in every location was astounding and something you don’t see in every game.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the single most unique gaming experience I have ever had. It brought my attention to a group of people I hadn’t considered much before and truly helped me realize that what they go through is terrible. The attention to detail in this game is top notch, especially considering they aren’t a massive studio like Bethesda or Dice for instance. Using a smaller team, they crafted one of the most beautiful games ever made both visually and audibly. The sound design of games is extremely important and Ninja Theory nailed it on the head here. The annoyance of the sprinting mechanics was not enough to negatively impact the score of this game as I understand that no game is perfect. With the great gameplay, story, world, graphics, and sound, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a masterpiece of gaming and deserves both a perfect Couch Crunchers score as well as the Grade A Buffoonery tag. Well done to Ninja Theory. I cannot wait to see what they bring to the Xbox platform in the future.
5 out of 5 Couch Cushions!!!