In your heaad, in your head
It was mid-February this year that I found myself watching the Nintendo Direct, predictably hyped for all the amazing titles coming out this year. It’s hard not to succumb to the hype of a direct and generally I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every single one. This one was no different. Well, for the most part anyway.
The exception was near the end of the direct; it was a trailer for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. That was the first time I had ever even heard of Hellblade and I was immediately sucked in. The facial expressions, the voice over work, the eye movement were meticulously crafted to be a tapestry of storytelling and adventure.
I literally got goosebumps every time I watched the trailer, which had to be at least ten or so times between the announcement and release. There was just something about this game that drew me in and would not let go. It was around this point where I felt like the hype train I was on was speeding out of control.
Pict-ing Your Battles
Hellblade crosses quite a few genres; it’s part horror, part adventure, part action, part psychological simulation, and does an incredible job at each one. You play the part of Senua, a beautiful yet incredibly traumatized Pictish warrior with a “curse” that seems to send all she knows and loves to the eternal damnation known as Helheim.
The studio responsible for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory, masterfully crafted this game to be much more than just a game. The idea when Hellblade was first in development was to provide insight, and to some extent therapy, to peoples who are suffering or know someone who has suffered from the many different facets of psychosis.
Losing Your Head (and Your Mind)
“Cursed” with internal voices and visual hallucinations, Senua must bring the head of her true love Dillian to the very bottom pits of hell in order to have any chance of saving his soul from the Gods of the Underworld and eternal damnation.
Senua will stop at nothing to bring Dillion back to her, not even the depths of a Norse hellfire. Throughout the game, you will help Senua face her demons which come in a wide and horrifying array of nightmare after nightmare. Worry not however, you are never really alone in this game; the voices in your head are almost non-stop.
The voices are constantly bickering with each other and Senua, they will put her down continuously but they also are encouraging from time to time. It’s an incredibly interesting dynamic and the immersion it provides is top tier.
Generally, with games that feature something like a voice in your head, it’s almost always true neutral or lower on the Dungeons and Dragons alignment scale. It was a really creative and interesting change of pace to have a range of voices, each with their own personality and quirks. Some push you to get through horrifying trials, some tell you that you should just give up and go home, that you’ll never be able to save Dillian.
Death to the Northmen (Scraw!)
In order to get to Helheim and rescue Dillian’s soul from the Goddess Hela, you must fight your inner demons and solve puzzles that also will give insight to your past which seems to look just as grim as the present.
The combat is fluid and well-choreographed, combat does at a few moments feel a little forced in a “the player has been solving puzzles for a while, might as well throw in these random bad guys” kind of way. Regardless, it is fun to be engaged in fights with both the bosses and the regular mobs.
During your adventure to save Dillian, you will explore burnt out towns, devastated villages, and otherworldly realms as Senua struggles to not give into the constant pressure that is her draining sanity. As you explore, there are stones that unlock engaging and interesting stories of Gods and men in the Norse Mythology ethos which are given to you by a wonderfully narrated story teller. Finding all 44 stones not only tells you stories about Norse Mythology, but also unlocks an alternate ending, should you find the desire to force your way through Hel again.
Another mode that is very much worth checking out, and a mode that I love very dearly overall, is the photo mode. One of the most compelling features of this game is the profound impact of facial expressions directly relating to what Senua is going through in her odyssey. That mixed with the unique and incredibly immersive alternative dimensions gives the photo mode very robust tools that can extract emotion just as well as playing through the game yourself.
Whispering Sweet Norsethings
Graphically, this experience is incredible. When I first saw Hellblade on the Nintendo Direct, it did worry me a little that the graphics would need to be severely downgraded to run the way the developers wanted it to run. I’m sure that the PS4 version still has the edge, but the Switch version is far from disappointing. The port itself is practically a work of art, Ninja Theory should be beaming with pride with how high quality every single part of this game has been for me.
The beautiful sound sampling sucks players in with ambiance that one scarcely notices during play because it sounds so natural. Every step on wood, every wade through water, every fire burning hearth has been expertly sampled and woven into the incredible tapestry that is Hellblade.
One of the most compelling and immersive features is the impeccable voice acting. Melina Juergens (voice for Senua) has one single IMDb credit to her name but more than a couple of well-deserved awards, and a ton of nominations for the voice over work. Melina masterfully commanded her voice to reflect feeling that is almost unrivaled in passions and depth.
A nominee for the 2018 Behind the Voice Actor award for Best Female Lead Vocal Performance in a Video Game and winner of the BAFTA Best Performer award, NAVGTR Outstanding Performance in a Drama Lead, and The Games Awards Best Performance award; Senau’s personality, perspective, and demeanor grabs players by the collar and demands praise and acknowledgement.
Doesn’t Bug Me Much
Like almost every single other facet of this game, the polish that it has attained shines in every possible area. The overall quality and mechanics and bug-less-ness of this game were one of the many, many things that make this port shine on the Switch.
The only bug I had run into was nothing more than a very minor inconvenience that a quick restart was able to take care of. It was a small movement bug that made Senua move slowly like she was wading through water (because I was at the time), but when she reached the beach again she never started sprinting. Not a huge loss and restarting fixed it and I have not been able to replicate it since.
The only other complaint I have is the lack of a quick turn button or button combo. It can be difficult to keep an eye on opponents trying to flank you because of the slower camera swivel. Simple adjustments to positioning can more or less diminish this issue without worrying about settings that might need to be changed.
Overall, I would not be exaggerating very much at all if I said that this felt like less of a game and more of an experience; an incredibly deep experience and a wonderful look into various levels of psychosis, during a time where we have never needed more attention to mental health issues.
Tactful, insightful, and respectful is how they wrote the story, how they meticulously crafted the environment, sounds, and voices to create a dark symphony of pain and suffering that can deeply touch anyone whether you know or experience psychosis or not. It was the by far the best single player game I’ve played on the Switch, and it is certainly a contender for my personal best game of all time.
An absolute must buy. Whether you find it on sale or buying it a full price, it was worth every penny spent.
- Beautiful and unique environments
- Engaging mix of puzzles, combat, and exploration
- Masterfully crafted models and textures
- Some of the best voice acting and motion capturing around with an incredible story and side stories
- A look into the minds of people suffering from mental disorders based on information obtained from patients and psychologist consultations to give an incredible deep and real look into what they must deal with regularly.
- Too short, it more than contains the story plot and then some but even after 100%-ing it I wanted more. I need more.
- The camera can be a little difficult to deal with in certain fights.
- Would have liked to have seen a mode for developer commentary due to the unique way this game was researched and written.