Having been an avid fan of Ninja Theory since the moment in 2010 when Enslaved: Odyssey to the West rocked my entire worldview, naturally, I almost peed myself with excitement when I learned that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was in production. Ninja Theory’s Legacy Before I get into the nuts and bolts of why this game disappointed me (somewhat), let me […]
Having been an avid fan of Ninja Theory since the moment in 2010 when Enslaved: Odyssey to the West rocked my entire worldview, naturally, I almost peed myself with excitement when I learned that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was in production.
Ninja Theory’s Legacy
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of why this game disappointed me (somewhat), let me backtrack a little and talk a bit more about Ninja Theory, and the expectations they have set up for fans. My first taste was Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. I thought it a typical hack-n-slash to pass the time, but instead, I found a deep and rivetting story, with relatable characters at the heart of it. I then bought myself a PS3 just so that I could play 2007’s Heavenly Sword (no relation to Hellblade). Again, the story was interesting, the combat was fun, and the characters caught my heart in a vice grip. Ditto for 2013’s DmC: Devil May Cry (though the story was iffy for that one). Then, in March 2016, Ninja Theory announced Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice: an in-depth and sympathetic depiction of psychosis framed by Norse and Celtic mythology. Um, yes please!
A pre-release still from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which led to endless debates regarding the tightly guarded narrative
Once the game was released, I downloaded it with all of the excitement of a small child the night before their birthday. Upon starting a new game, I was advised to connect headphones, in order to fully experience the ambient sound of the voices that plague Senua. Thrown into the game with very little context, I (as Senua), rowed across a river towards the shores of Helheim. The only clues as to why came from the many voices running through my own mind as well as Senua’s (known to her as the “Furies”, as well as a narrator of sorts – the only voice aware of the player’s presence). Some are kind, and sympathetic, some are harsh and hateful. One, however, is clearly malevolent, and is known as “the Darkness”. No matter the voice, however, all are filled with doubt: none believe that Senua will complete her mission to save her beloved: Dillion.
Upon arriving at the shore, I finally assumed control over Senua and ran towards a large rock covered in a circle of runes, which I soon learned are called “Lorestones”, and are spread across Senua’s path. Each lorestone reveals more about the mythology of the game, as well as Senua’s personal journey (more on that in a moment).
Sadly, it didn’t take very long for me to realize that Senua’s Sacrifice is not an action game – at least not the kind I’d expect from Ninja Theory. I was, in fact, playing a beautifully crafted, stunningly realistic, interactive puzzle game – with occasional combat peppered throughout.
The majority of the game consists of looking for runic symbols hidden in the environment by using “focus” to match the pattern to the symbol. Druth, an old friend who was captured by Norsemen, is the one who helps me through the path, in the form of memories of stories he used to tell Senua. He is also a key character when it comes to revealing Senua’s backstory, as well as what happened to Dillion, and the purpose of this quest. Druth’s interactions are at times story-related, but the meticulously researched mythology he recounts can only be accessed by activating the aforementioned lorestones.
Here’s a little hint I learned mid-game that prompted me to start over in order to experience everything the game had to offer: the lorestones each has a circle of Celtic runes. For each lorestone you activate, a rune lights up. If you missed a lorestone, you will notice that one of the runes is not highlighted in red, which means you need to backtrack, or, in my sad case, start again in order to access previous areas.
I highly recommend this guide by Dan Hero on gamplay.tips if you want to be truly inspired by the amount of research Ninja Theory added to the game – or even if you are just aiming for 100% completion.
One last note on gameplay: if you are a gamer that loves to explore the unbeaten path, and get back to the main story when you’ve seen every corner of the game world, you will be sorely disappointed by the extremely linear map.
This aspect Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was probably the least impressive for me, though that is largely due to my own aforementioned bias regarding what I’ve come to expect from Ninja Theory. As a Pict warrior, Senua definitely knows her way around a sword, and I just wish the combat system was more… fun.
The combat is more akin to an RPG than that of an action or hack-n-slash game. You have your typical quick attack, which deals moderate but rapid damage, as well as a heavy attack, which is a lot slower – leaving Senua open to attack – but it deals massive damage. You are also able to kick enemies, which staggers them, leaving them open to a quick attack.
Of course, a warrior is no warrior if they cannot parry or dodge an attack. Naturally, Senua can do both, with the added bonus that if you should parry or dodge at just the right time, Senua will be able to use her focus ability in battle to slow time itself, allowing you to rain down hell on an enemy for a short period before time starts again.
I quite literally cannot say much about the story without spoiling some truly poignant and heartbreaking moments for players. What I can tell you is that this is more than just a journey through Helheim to save Senua’s beloved. This game is a stark look into the discrimination, superstition, and ostracization that those suffering from psychosis have been subjected to for centuries. On that count, I cannot fault Ninja Theory, because the effort they put into educating themselves in order to make the experience of psychosis as real to the player as possible is revolutionary. I myself have never experienced voices or the inability to separate delusions from reality, but while I was playing, I felt Senua’s pain, and her self-hatred for feeling “cursed” by the Darkness.
Watch the Development Diary video below (courtesy of the official Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice website) to see how Ninja Theory made Senua’s psychosis as authentic as possible.
I must admit, Druth’s interactions with Senua were highlights of the game for me. Not only did they reveal more about the narrative, but the actual motion capture (for Senua) vs. live-action filming (for Druth) was also an interesting touch. Speaking of motion capture, I was floored that Melina Juergens (initially the game’s video editor), who was not trained in motion capture or voice acting, was so exceptionally emotive in both aspects.
Interactive games like Detroit: Become Human or Until Dawn rely on cinematic interaction and story to drive the plot, whereas staples of Ninja Theory, like DmC: Devil May Cry focus more on mastering combat and furthering the story through cutscenes. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice sits somewhere in-between. As the player, you are more of a guide to Senua’s self-discovery than a warrior in Helheim, which is disappointing in the sense that the enemies look incredible, and I’d have loved a more intuitive battle system to match the intriguing, achingly beautiful narrative.
That being said, this game is extremely important. It was a AAA mainstream release, that educated millions of people about the terrors and tribulations of people living with a mental disorder. Whether or not the player enjoyed the game, if they reached the end, they were forced to empathize with a schizophrenic woman who must live alienated in a world filled with hate borne of superstition.
Games truly can change the world, if the world would let them. If we could get more like this, then perhaps we, as a human race, will turn a corner and a piece of discrimination will be stomped out.
Speaking of more games like this, Ninja Theory is currently in production with Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. Below is the epic trailer for the sequel – complete with very uncomfortable facial expression from Melina Juergens, who reprises her role as Senua. Once again, the announcement trailer is filled with more agonizing symbolism and clues.
Comment below if you want an in-depth analysis of the Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II reveal trailer, and what it could all lead up to.