Finishing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice presented me with a strange conflict.
On the one hand, the experience of Senua’s journey is undeniably one of the most powerful I’ve ever experienced in a video game. By far, it’s one of the most immersive game narratives out there.
But on the other hand, the combat and some of the puzzle sequences were an absolute drag.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On my never-ending quest to try experiencing every game that Xbox Game Pass offers me without getting distracted by Risk of Rain 2 yet again, I decided to play Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I had heard nothing but good things about it, and the trailer for its sequel looks amazing as heck. Gritty and dark and hauntingly beautiful.
So one evening, when I had slumped off of my computer chair from work and felt marginally up for playing a new game, I booted up Senua’s Sacrifice, put on headphones (because the game specifically recommends you do so), and got a bit of coffee to see me through the evening.
Holy heckin’ heck, I did not need the coffee for long.
The story follows Senua as she travels to Helheim, the Norse version of hell. Her lover was murdered during an attack on their village while she was away, so she carries his wrapped-up head on her belt with her so she can reunite it with his soul in Helheim.
Right off the bat, you start hearing voices, and these are voices that Senua hears too. Constantly, these various voices will whisper derision, praise, advice, and warnings that you have to either ignore or heed. Senua suffers from a mental illness, and these voices are a part of her daily existence.
When you use headphones, the power of these voices are doubly effective. They sound like they come from behind you, next to you, or far away. Sometimes they will shout at you to turn back. Other times they will call you an idiot.
I cannot understate how incredible these voices are utilized to put you in Senua’s shoes.
In addition to that, light from fires and such will distort your vision, and if Senua is in the dark, her fear can potentially cripple her and have you restart from a past checkpoint.
During her journey to Helheim, she battles various creatures, but you are not entirely sure which of these are real foes or which come from her own head.
Senua progresses through some areas by solving puzzles, many of which involve perspective. You have to find shapes and symbols in the environment, standing at the perfect spot in order to line up rock formations or tree branches.
There was this one puzzle where I had to find a symbol made of light, and the entire area was covered with them. I had to walk around for about an hour looking for the place to stand to focus them.
Later on, there is a puzzle where you have to use hearing alone to avoid enemies in the dark, and if you are not wearing headphones, expect to mess up multiple times.
I’m not overly fond of these types of puzzles where there is little to no explanation for how to solve them, but on the bright side, you have ample time to figure them out. And Senua’s Sacrifice’s environments are so gorgeous, it soothes your irritation.
Though, erm, I did have to look up this one raven puzzle online. And I can hand-to-my-heart say I would not have solved it otherwise.
When phantasmal enemies attack Senua, she pulls out her sword and you enter a combat encounter. Despite my initial, wild swings, I learned that combat should not be a frenetic affair in Senua’s Sacrifice. Instead, it should be slow and measured.
You can either strike, parry, or dodge, and you should never spam any of these buttons. You have to read what your opponent is going to do using their body language and then respond accordingly. Senua automatically locks onto targets during combat encounters, so you are always facing an enemy.
There are only a small variety of enemy types, unfortunately. Fighting them over and over again gets stale fast. In addition to that, the locking-on mechanic prevents you from easily being able to address the phantoms that appear behind you.
So even though the voices in your head will shriek, “Behind you!” there is nothing you can do to face that opponent in time.
The latter half of the game throws groups of enemies at you at the same time. This ups the difficulty of combat immensely, and I got frustrated each time tight corners, unwilling lock-ons, or ill-timed dodges made me lose a fight.
Combat was my least favorite aspect of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and I audibly groaned every time.
However, overcoming obstacles is all part of what the game is trying to show you.
Senua’s Sacrifice covers the experience of suffering psychosis. This is based on what I’ve read about it and what the game itself states before you play it.
But that is not all that the game covers thematically. Senua is grieving for her lost love, the one person who made her feel safe in a world troubled by intolerance and shadows. Her whole journey to Helheim also has her confronting this grief and her low self-esteem.
Though you may not suffer from the same mental ills that plague Senua, her story is one that can reverberate with anyone who has felt misunderstood or alone.
It’s this more than anything that makes Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice an unforgettable game. Its ending is so moving, I don’t even want to describe what happened, which I’ll admit is a bit of a cop-out. But I think it’s something that should be experienced for yourself.
The game leans more toward a walking simulator than the action game you might have been expecting, but it accomplishes immersion in a way that only a video game can.
I rate Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a trip-through-the-mind-that-helps-contextualize-the-struggles-some-go-through-in-a-way-that-is-simply-beautiful.