[Review] Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

 

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No matter how long you avert your eyes, the darkness inside you will always be there.

Minor Spoilers

So this title dropped around a week ago and although it wasn’t a particularly long game, it is a very good one. The game focuses on mental illness and the effects of mental illness and how stigma could worsen it. It shows you the beautiful side of supportive loved ones and the ugly nightmarish side when it is neglected and rejected. The developers for this game put a lot of effort into researching and depicting mental illness as accurately as possible which is very respectable. Overall, although this wouldn’t count among the best of games for graphics or game mechanics or the novelty of the story, it is something more than that: it shows the everyday reality of hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are and in the future, will suffer from mental illness.

The main character, Senua, is a young warrior from a Celtic tribe amidst the Viking invasions into what is modern-day England and the British Isles. You experience the game through her perspective, hearing the same voices she hears in her head, seeing the same visions she sees and gets scared when she gets scared. It struck a deep chord in me as someone who totters on the edge of darkness albeit I have a milder condition than her. The premise of the game is to retrieve the soul of her lover who had died. She arrives at the entrance to Helheim in hopes of bargaining with the Norse goddess of death, Hela. As she goes on her quest, she is plagued by flashbacks and spectres from her past. Her memories hold her back and the runes of the gods block her way. Through it all, she perseveres, believing that any sacrifice is worth it to get her lover’s soul back.

Without getting too much into the details of the story, we basically see her despair and her desperate hope while we play throughout. She has psychosis which is a mental condition characterised by a disconnect from reality. Symptoms include hallucinations (both visual and auditory), paranoid delusions and the general inability to perceive what objectively is true. She also shows signs of paranoid schizophrenia which has many symptoms that overlap with psychosis.

 

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The grasping of Death’s fingers

 

The game shows you visions of nightmarish landscapes and situations that some people with psychosis see. In the documentary film for the game, they said that many of the scenes and motifs in the game were derived from the real-life experiences of people who have psychosis and other similar conditions. There are multiple levels with hanging corpses which came from the experiences of a little girl where they were so real that she tried to actually pull them down to lay them at rest. There are levels where you’re fending off literal darkness in an attempt to remain sane. This is especially prevalent to me because I relate to it a lot. In the game, the word darkness is often used to describe Senua’s psychosis and often this is represented as literal darkness in the game.

There are puzzle levels in the game where you can get the feeling of frustration and in the last puzzle level for Valravn, this frustration was readily apparent. The feeling of frustration is constantly something that Senua has. She doesn’t know how to “fix” her darkness and she has things she wants to do but can’t because Zynbel, her father, isn’t letting her. During the game, her frustration is directed at her own powerlessness and the trials that the gods put before her to test her. This frustration was a strong identifying point for me too.

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The darkness that will eat the Sun

 

The combat system wasn’t particularly engaging and I already knew most of the lore that Druth was narrating so those are minus points for me. Personally, my favorite part of the game was the fight with the Beast who guarded the sanctum to where Hela was. The fight was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. The visions that you can’t control, a monster that spews darkness and melts into shadows. It is horrifying to see your nightmares as a child of monsters in the dark become actualized and at the same time, it is exhilarating to see something that was only previously in your head on a screen and be able to fight it and defeat it.

The last part I want to address is the portrayal of stigma in the game and the sequence at the end where Senua confronts her father about his abuse and intentional neglect as well as the murder of her mother. This is very important. Mental illness is a taboo subject and many people feel uncomfortable talking about it and think of those with more severe forms of mental illnesses as being less than human (or at least treat them as so). So the moment where Senua saw through the rationalisations that her father used to manipulate her and justify his actions and rejected them, it was very moving to me and meant a lot in the context of my own life. All of this only added to the realism of the game even though it was technically set in a fantasy setting.

The ending, I know, is a bit controversial and a lot of people are salty over the fact that the threat at the beginning of the game of your save file being erased if you die too many times was false (I actually saw an article about it even before I played the game myself) but I was satisfied with the ending and although I was bummed that the game won’t actually erase your save file, I really liked this game for the fact that it was pretty accurate in the portrayal of Senua’s psychosis and her mental processes as she struggled to clear the darkness in her mind. The graphics were also pretty good and overall, I give the game:

8.5/10

What do you think about the game? What rating would you have given it? Be careful about spoilers though.

This is Lieutenant and I’ll talk to you later.

 

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