At the announcement of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the perpetually beleaguered Ninja Theory promised to deliver an independent game with triple-A production values. Following roughly six-to-eight hours of light exploration, tactical combat and a truly singular story, that promise was in good faith; but a little misguided.
Despite the polished look of triple-A game, players will find Hellblade is fresher and more unexpected than the comparison suggests. Although it delivers on the pillars that have defined Ninja Theory’s oeuvre, both the title’s challenging subject matter and the way it breaks the modern traditions of action games are likely to upset a lot of core gamers looking for a standard big-budget adventure—even as those same core gamers are the ones who should be championing it.
This divide is nothing new. Each of Ninja Theory’s games have suffered from this split, offering a deep and story-driven experience but also suffering from one or other aggravating circumstances. Without fan backlash, brand confusion, or another external problem, Ninja Theory could have been as big as Rare or Naughty Dog by now.
The first game under the Ninja Theory name, the PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavenly Sword, missed the boat in the under-performing early life of its system. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West released on both of the current consoles at the time, but was dropped on the same day as the more expensive and brand-dominating Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Not to mention that the title’s structure had basically been beaten to the punch by Uncharted 2 the previous year. Even when it came to DMC: Devil May Cry, the game had the brand-recognition that Enslaved lacked, but was dogged by retrograde technology decisions and a fanbase that turned toxic from the moment the new Dante was revealed.
Hellblade marks the developer’s attempt to break the pattern of bad marketing decisions and entrenched fan culture by turning to self-publishing its own IP. Combining the in-your-face performance capture of Heavenly Sword, the tight pacing and idiosyncratic storytelling of Enslaved, and the strange worlds of DMC, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice finds Ninja Theory at the height of its Ninja-Theory-ness.
The game tells the story of Senua, a woman from Orkney in the north of Scotland, who lives with psychosis in a time long ago when mental health was a zero-sum game. She is branded a ‘geilt’, a madwoman, ostracized and blamed for anything remotely unexpected that happens around her. The game starts with Senua’s descent into her mind’s version of the Norse underworld, and discovering Senua’s history is part of the enjoyment of the story, so any further description would include spoilers. Rest assured, though, the presentation of this story is one of Hellblade‘s most outstanding features.
Ninja Theory has made something truly special by conceiving of an action-adventure that takes place inside the mind of its protagonist, and then actually researching mental health in the real world in order to treat its subject with respect. More so than any other depiction of these issues on screen, Hellblade elicits understanding, while at the same time showing the terror, confusion, or beauty that hearing and seeing things can result in. Even if players have not gone through—or been close to someone who has gone through—what Senua experiences in Hellblade, the game will still evoke empathy for her humanity, rather than just pity for her condition.
So yes, it is beyond cathartic that a story, let alone a game, has come along that might actually teach people to think differently about psychosis and mental health in general. As for the rest of it, Hellblade is an oft-frightening action-adventure with thrilling combat, and sound and visuals that rival many larger games in imagination and execution.
As stated at the start, it will not be to everyone’s taste. Much like the earlySilent Hill games, Hellblade makes use of its distorted reality to take sharp turns into psychological horror, but also like older horror games there are long stretches of inaction between sudden and terrifying combat encounters. Navigating the gorgeously rendered and bleak world of the game is quite simple, the only findable items being lore stones that relate stories in Norse mythology that are pertinent to Senua’s quest. In these exploration scenes, she also moves like a character from the mid-2000s, such as Leon Kennedy of Resident Evil 4, stomping from corridor to corridor with not much else to do but examine the environment. The fact that about a third of play-time comprises blatantly un-cinematic walking scenes and occasional, simple puzzles, will be what turns away those on the fence—since the story and the combat are nearly impeccable and well worth investing in.
Cut scenes in Hellblade perform a surprising number of clever tricks to help keep the game’s budget from ballooning out. Senua herself is the only character model with a speaking part—all other characters are created with FMV (some of which was so well integrated that an onlooker commented on how realistic the graphics were). Much of the dialogue is spoken off-screen anyway, as the game’s chief storytelling tools are inside Senua’s head: the voices known as the Furies.
Recorded using 3D sound (experiencing it with headphones is highly recommended), the Furies are constantly commenting on things seen and unseen; on Senua’s state of mind; even narrating the events of the game for the player. The player themselves is implied to be joining them by picking up the controller at the start of the game.
The Furies even have a role to play in combat, voicing support or pessimism and calling out to help Senua avoid enemy attacks. On the whole, they represent a concept that could only work in games (indeed, worked wonderfully in Bastion), and if only one thing is stolen for future titles from Hellblade, it should be this.
Unfortunately, the combat itself seems destined to be overlooked, due to its apparent simplicity. With regenerating health, no HUD, and no in-game description of the combo system, Hellblade‘s depth comes instead from tactical positioning and an escalating array of imposing enemies. Choosing where to dodge and when to parry, especially given the risk of being surrounded, is challenging and entertaining despite a lack of unlockable skills or experience points.
Of particular note are Hellblade‘s bosses: at several points through Senua’s journey she must face towering warriors that equal or better the inventiveness of Ninja Theory’s previous boss work. As their creative design and difficulty clearly indicates some inspiration from Dark Souls, the only disappointment is that there are about as many boss encounters in Hellblade as an early six-hour stretch of a Souls title. About three-and-a-half, being generous.
At the end of the game, however, story is king. Hellblade‘s moody environments, excellent sound design, and terrifying enemies all support some of the studio’s best writing on any of their games, with dialogue and pacing that far exceeds the try-hard-edginess of DMC. Although many will see the story’s conclusion coming early on, the emotional impact these events have on Senua herself are well earned.
Any gamer who wants to see the medium expand creatively should give Hellblade a whirl, and thanks to some commendable development decisions, Ninja Theory has released the video game medium’s most thoughtful depiction of a difficult subject since Valkyria Chronicles tackled World War II. By experiencing the journey of a strong warrior who nevertheless must live with psychosis, players might even come away with greater empathy for those in their world who live with psychosis.
Having produced a game of such quality independently, Ninja Theory may never need to work with a triple-A publisher again, at least not for the benefit of fans. Hellblade is not fun in the way that a triple-A game is expected to be—even when it dives into pure horror—but it is a game that brave players will relish the opportunity to experience, even in its slower moments. Great out of 10.