Taking place in the 8th century Orkney, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice puts players inside the mind of a Pict warrior on a mission to confront the gods after her beloved was sacrificed to them by the infamous Northmen. Senua’s journey is marred by a tragic past that has served to amplify the existence of psychosis that she has inherited from her mother. Raised by a father who considered her mental illness a darkness and a curse, Senua forces herself into exile in an effort to prevent any further harm from descending upon her people.
While exiled, Senua befriends another geilt named Druth who shares his stories of the Northmen, their torturous ways, and their mythology with Senua. It is during this exile into the woods to struggle with her own demons that the Northmen descend upon and ultimately destroys the village Senua called home. When she returns to her village, Senua finds that not only have the Northmen killed her lover, Dillion, but they’ve sacrificed them to their monstrous in a brutal ritual known as the “blood eagle”. Senua believes that this tragedy is further evidence of her own curse affecting others, and takes up the quest to retrieve Dillion’s soul from the dreaded Helheim where it is in the hands of the goddess, Hela.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice plays out the tragedy of Senua’s story as a beautifully cinematic, albeit semi-linear experience. The opening sequence sees Senua paddling down a river with the smooth, matronly voice of the narrator bringing players into the fold of the current events. It becomes evident that the narrator is aware of the player’s existence, and that neither the player, the narrator, or Senua are alone as there are countless other furies – voices in Senua’s mind that provide constant commentary. At times these furies can be helpful, warning Senua and the player of incoming dangers, but other times they serve the purpose of tormenting Senua. Recorded with the use of a binaural microphone the voices of the furies are in a constant state of disarray with both male and female voices whispering, screaming, giggling, being encouraging, or even openly doubting Senua and the player – sometimes all at once. If that sounds a bit overwhelming, you’d be correct, but that’s exactly the point of it as developers Ninja Theory have jumped through hoops to make Senua’s psychosis feel not just real but painstakingly accurate.
Ninja Theory enlisted the help of various professors of neuroscience and even patients who have actual lived-experience with various forms of psychosis so that the player’s experience with Hellblade is not only realistic but also empathetic to the plight of mental illness. Senua actively experiences a variety of delusions during the game’s 8-10 hour run time, from searching for patterns and runes in the world to solve complex puzzles to intense lighting during flashbacks and hallucinations of the ghost of Druth as she relives his stories of the gods. Much like those afflicted with the illness the game seeks to portray, players are often left wondering if what they just witness was reality or a flashback. And yet, at the same time, we are guided to understand that everything in Senua’s world is her reality, regardless of whether it was really ever there or not.
It is this shifting reality that sets up the majority of the gameplay mechanics for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, such as the aforementioned rune hunting puzzles in order to open doors. One notable symptom often found in those with psychosis is the ability to see complex puzzles that must be solved, and this is manifested in the game via Senua’s run ins with locked doors that are warded by mysterious runes. Players must manipulate the world around them to create these runes for Senua to focus on in order to progress.
Much like those with psychosis, Senua focuses on the world around her to visualize changes and break through illusions, adjusting her perception – and the players – to overcome various challenges. Senua’s darkness is constantly lurking, however, and will crop up while players are moving about the world to provide breaks in the puzzle solving with short bursts of combat. The controls for combat sequences are fairly simple and effective, however the inability to adjust controller sensitivity does mean that sometimes evading faster moving enemies can be a struggle and lead to excessive deaths.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an absolute masterpiece of an experience. So carefully detailed and crafted to a point that it is difficult to find even the tiniest complaint with the experience beyond the mere fact that it has to come to an end. Senua’s distorted world is so enthralling and authentic that it manages to leave you feeling both anxious and uncomfortable but wanting for more if only to better your own understanding of such an existence. Every tiny detail is beautifully rendered, with the live action sequences being merged perfectly with Senua’s CGI appearance to further juxtapose the blurring of what is real and what is perceived.
The absence of any type of HUD aids in the player’s immersion to this world, but the lack of any sort of objective markers can prove disorienting when attempting to backtrack and locate the various collectible Lorestones which serve to tie Druth’s stories of the gods to Senua’s current objectives. Getting lost and looping around the world in circles does have its drawbacks, as Senua moves quite slowly, even when running has been toggled on to try to speed things up. The slower movement, though, does serve a purpose to aid in the pacing of the storytelling. Lulls in the narrative are almost nonexistent so long as the player can keep on the correct path, activating lorestones to fill the void between commentary from the narrator and the never silence furies.
Nobody should pass by an opportunity to experience Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Various developers have sought to raise awareness of the struggle of mental illness through video game narratives, but Ninja Theory doesn’t just dare to go one step further here. Not only did they raise awareness to Senua’s psychosis, they’ve allowed us to embrace her reality as our own and not just experience but truly empathize and embrace her difference. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is welcome change in how mental illness is represented in media.