Written by Ben Molenaar
Psychosis and the feeling of being psychotic is something that developers have been trying to incorporate into games for years. Games like Eternal Darkness and Amnesia: The Dark Descent give life to the illusion of psychosis and mental illness, but ultimately the player is not encapsulated and experiencing the insanity for themselves. Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of those rare games in which you can connect with the protagonist and see the world through her eyes, which may not give you the experience you would otherwise expect.
Straight off the bat is a warning telling you that if you suffer from mental illness, this may not be an appropriate game for you, and anyone experiencing psychological distress may find the content disturbing. Ninja Theory collaborated with real-world psychiatrists in order to make the experience as authentic as possible. This is a window into the darkness of Hellblade’s ominous world and nightmarish yet captivating story. You play as Senua, a ruggedly beautiful Celtic warrior suffering severe psychotic illness, who after learning about her lover’s death at the hands of the Northmen embarks on a quest to retrieve his soul from Helheim, or the Nordic version of Hell. Senua is utterly devoted to rescuing her lover, Dillion, going as far as to carry his skull wrapped in cloth on her person with a single-minded devotion to journey into hell and bargain for his soul.
Beginning the game throws you into the world and mind of Senua, paddling gently through a river of staked, burning corpses and listening to the whispers of the voices in her mind. It begins with one, then two, and suddenly the voices are everywhere, surrounding you like being submerged in a sea of people all whispering into your ear, impossible to tell where they are or how many. This, coupled with a disconnected reality and physical hallucinations is the true terror of Hellblade. It is a plunge into a broken and damaged human psyche which creates true terror that is unable to be emulated by any Lovecraftian horror.
The voices are your greatest enemy, but also provide assistance and comfort. Throughout my journey I was taunted, jeered, booed, made fun of and told I wasn’t good enough by disembodied voices with no true identity, but those same voices also watched my back, giving hints about the path ahead and shouting out when Senua was in grave danger. In combat, they would tell me that I was weak and going to die, and then the next instant calls out that there was an enemy behind me, or to dodge and evade an attack. It was a constant battle against not only physical enemies but also Senua’s inner demons, and much like mental illness in real life, it was unforgiving and exhausting at times.
The combat is simple, with only basic controls like attack, dodge and block, but it only acted as a buffer to keep the experience fresh and engaging when the real experience is going on in the mind of Senua. The lack of a health bar, HUD, minimap or any sort of onscreen communication to the player only reinforced the notion that you are alone, with nothing or nobody to accompany you except the ever-present sound of whispers and delusional thoughts. The only thing the game outright tells you is the fact that Senua is cursed; if you die in or out of combat too many times, Senua’s rot will spread and if the rot reaches her head, the save file will be deleted and you will have to start from scratch, again reinforcing Senua’s own insanity but savage determination to rescue Dillion.
The one light in an otherwise bleak and ravaged world is the disembodied voice of Druth, a man imprisoned by the Northmen and who Senua had met in the wilds and listened to his tale. Interactions with Lorestones throughout the world will trigger Druth’s voice recollecting his accounts of imprisonment, and telling tales of Norse gods and mythology. He does not, however, help you with puzzles, or combat in any way. That is left to the voices in Senua’s own head, although on top of the auditory hallucinations she has there are also visual ones that both help and hinder the player.
Whether it’s a bridge that can only be seen after walking through an archway or a hallucination in which Senua is forced into blackness and must navigate using only her hearing to guide her, Hellblade teaches you not to trust what you see or hear, and this gives a delightful sense of incoming dread at all times. Puzzles are all about seeing the world in a different and particular light, and this once again emphasizes Senua’s illness and gives insight on how psychosis affects the perceptual world.
The only issue I encountered during my playthrough were a small number of frame drops whenever entering an area with particularly extensive particle effects or facing a large number of enemies, although this could have been due to the fact I played on a rather old PC. I also had to scale the graphics settings down to medium, but with a more powerful PC the full expense of Unreal Engine’s graphics would be a sight to remember. Ninja Theory has not only built a beautiful world, but Senua herself is one of the best-animated characters I have ever seen in a video game. She has a life to her eyes, windowing into her soul and giving you an insight into her suffering, pain, and torment.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a tale of psychosis, fractured mentalities and a forlorn soul, but also a tale of love, of sacrifice and of a warrior with determination and grit. It is an experience which captures the shattered psyche of a person who experiences illnesses like Schizophrenia and other psychotic distortions better than any video game, TV show or movie has in recent memory. Every aspect of the game reinforces this notion and gives clear insight into how people with these illnesses see the world.