Any sense of direction in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is intentionally vague, whispered by an often conflicting chorus of voices, known as Furies, that serve as an ever-present reminder of the Celtic warrior Senua’s psychosis. As Senua journeys through Hel, the Norse realm of the dead (or is this place, perhaps, just a manifestation of her anguished soul?), her mood causes the weather to change around her and makes the shadows literally creep closer. Nothing that players behold throughout Hellblade can be taken at face value, as illusions and perspective-based puzzles are major mechanics of Ninja Theory’s game.
Even Hellblade’s single fourth-wall-breaking warning to us—that the game will end, permanently, if Senua dies too often—might just be a fake-out. The game has players contemplate an intriguing dilemma in the way we’re forced to take everything more seriously but at the same time distrust what we’re seeing and experiencing at any given moment. This conundrum provides Hellblade with deeper stakes than the mythologically similar yet all-too-forgiving God of War franchise—and it also evokes a far greater sense of existential anxiety than the cheap tricks of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem could ever provide.
Hellblade’s external story is devoted to a serious exploration of internal conditions. Rather than exploit psychological trauma so as to advance shallow narratives, the game is committed to putting an often-misinterpreted and dismissed subject front and center. An accompanying documentary featurette and the prominent display of the game’s mental health and historical advisors during the opening credits make absolutely clear how hard the developers at Ninja Theory have worked not to trivialize their subject matter.
Senua has been broken apart by the loss of her lover, Dillion, and Hellblade’s story concerns the attempted repair of her spirit, and recounts the tale of the Norse sword Gram, which once underwent a similar reforging. Magical touchstones such as these allow Senua to make sense of her illness and to pass her sense of suffering on to the player. Every element of this game is meant to work on multiple levels. A Viking war camp and a rain-swept beach of ruined longships don’t just show off Hellblade’s impressive visuals or its historical research, but also use the environment as a metaphorical reflection of Senua’s struggles with a mental condition. Binaural 3D audio, for which headphones are highly recommended, takes things even further, bringing both ambient sounds and the maddening voices of the Furies to life.
Given that Hellblade wants to define itself as more than a hack-and-slash game, it’s no surprise that the combat here feels blunted. Enemy designs, like the flaming animal skull atop Surt’s grizzly body and the lanky, twisted limbs of the beastly Fenrir, are meticulous and specific. But the battles themselves are the generic stuff of action games, as if Senua is stuck simply going through the motions of her training: Every encounter boils down to blatantly telegraphed parries and the occasional melee attack to break a shielded foe’s guard. Ninja Theory knows how to make action engaging (see DmC: Devil May Care), but for this game they decided that Senua’s training as a Pict warrior is the least interesting thing about her. With an intentionally too-tight camera and unfair swarms of enemies, the developers emphasize how inadequate Senua’s greatest strength is against her own memory monsters. As a bonus, this also forces players to rely on the voices that keep perpetually whispering conflicting advice and abrupt warnings into Senua’s ears.
As Hellblade puts it, “The hardest battles are fought in the mind,” and so the majority of the game eschews combat entirely in favor of perception-based puzzles and sensory-distorting labyrinths. Doors cannot be hacked or kicked down; instead, the runes that appear on them must be found in the surrounding environment. Sometimes this requires a careful manipulation of the environment, like lighting torches to cast a shadow, and at others, it requires a careful realignment of one’s position: A tortured corpse hung from two planks makes for a cruel-looking Y, but step back so that a tree stands between Senua and the body and the Algiz rune (ᛉ) snaps into focus.
Hellblade’s strongest sequences take things a step further, mirroring specific physical symptoms or psychological fears. Mimir’s Well is particularly unsettling, as it simulates temporary blindness, forcing players to use auditory cues to guide themselves through a series of blurry outlines and shambling monsters that are even more terrifying given the vagueness of their shapes. Later, within the caverns of Helheim, players are relentlessly stalked by an unseen monster; stay out of the light for too long and you die. Should an area feel too familiar, like the ruined fortress that’s been split into light and dark versions, the narrative steps in to present things from Senua’s unique perspective on broken and unbroken things. At other times, Hellblade uses its disturbing imagery to distinguish itself. A lengthy gauntlet of battles within the Sea of Corpses is punctuated by vivid imagery: from walls of outstretched, severed arms to the even more disturbing sight of Senua’s mother embedded alongside the wailing titans that make up the area’s fleshy mountains.
Toward the end of her journey, faced with a literally unwinnable battle, Senua begs her tormentor for release from the darkness within. Whereas a cruder game might have her cathartically face her opponent, Hellblade once again shifts the perspective so that Hela, the Norse god of Death, seems to be standing where the player sits. Here, the impeccable motion-capture work brings every twitch of her bloodied cheeks and quivering, grimacing lips to bear as she levies her painful accusations at those who’ve made her go through all this torment. She’s speaking all at once to a god, to the players who’ve controlled her journey, and to herself—to her own psychosis. And it’s that ability to operate on multiple levels at once, all of them terrifyingly plausible, that’ll leave Hellblade seared into a player’s memory.