Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a video game about a Pict warrior traveling to Helheim to save her dead lover. Oh, and Senua hears voices. She hears female voices that are probably her own, but also those of her former friend Druth and her father and mother. The resulting game is interesting, to say the least.
Picts and Norsemen
Some background is in order. It doesn’t really matter to the game, but I’ll share it nonetheless. The Picts lived in northern Scotland in the early middle ages. They were – like much of the region in those days — harassed by raiding Vikings. So, the story isn’t a strange one. A Pict from Orkney, her home attacked by Vikings, takes the fight back to the Norsemen.
Norse Mythology plays an important role in the game, mostly told through the voice of Druth, whom Senua met in the wilds on Orkney and who had his own encounters with the Norsemen.
Senua is a very intriguing protagonist. She hears voices and she’s clearly had a hard life. The game begins at a point where she’s apparently lost everything.
We quickly learn more about her, and why she carries a severed head in a cloth by her side.
Good characters are one of the most important parts of a story, and Senua really carries this one. It’s hard to make interesting characters that can do that, especially if you make them hear voices. Mental conditions are hard and dangerous to do. They built Senua’s story around it, and made it work remarkably well.
Hellblade is a game that works hard to create atmosphere. The environments are beautiful yet dark. Helheim comes across as a desolate island in the north, filled with Norse imagery.
The voices talking to Senua, Druth prominent among them, are an eerie addition. Senua is alone, and in many ways constantly under siege. As she travels deeper into Helheim, things become darker and darker, and the voices become more frightening. The voice of the Darkness, which taunts Senua in her moments of defeat is a dreadful monstrous voice.
The enemies in the game are caricatures of Vikings, dark and monstrous, with no discernible faces. This trick also worked well in the movie Pathfinder, for those who’ve seen it.
All in all, the game pulled me in really quickly.
The game mixes puzzles with combat. The puzzles revolve around illusions and misdirection. You might have to view a fragmented bridge from a certain point to see the full bridge, restoring it to solidity. You are often sent out on quests to find certain runes in the environment, which can be hidden in shadows, or configurations of trees.
The combat involves Senua using her sword to slash her way through enemies. It’s simple enough: two buttons to slash, one to kick, one to defend, and one to duck aside. You often end up with enemies circling you, but the voices in Senua’s will shout warning of the enemies behind, or about to attack.
One of the most harrowing moments in the game, for me, was standing knee-deep in blood, between two walls of writhing burned corpses, fighting off wave after wave of enemies.
Hellblade is the most intense game I’ve played this year. I like different games for different reasons and calling a game a ‘favorite’ never feels quite fair; I crave different things at different times. Let’s just say I love this game and I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t hate action-adventures.