You are not a monster.
Across many forms of media, not only limited to video games, mental illness often falls into trope and cliché, ending up misused and misrepresented. Within the world of gaming itself, mental illness is often recycled as a one-off character trait or twist, or exhausted as a way to present a diabolical villain out of his or her mind. These maltreated examples only grow weaker with the arrival of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Hellblade presents a tale about the titular Senua, and her very personal journey. This isn’t simply a voyage into the depths of a hellish underworld, but one that pits Senua against her own psyche. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is brutally honest, harrowing, and entirely enthralling.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is set in the Viking age, following the titular Senua. Senua is a broken Celtic warrior who has embarked on a quest into Viking Hell to fight for the soul of her dead lover. Senua’s excursion is based on both Celtic and Norse mythology, and it was commendable to see an “independent AAA” game ahead of the curve in approaching this mythology before being possibly overshadowed by similar source material in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok or 2018’s God of War. Not only is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice ahead of the trend, but now the bar for adapting this source material is set even higher following its release.
While Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is very much about Senua and her battle against both the hellish underworld and her own psychosis, the Norse mythology and setting only enhanced the atmosphere. Throughout the seven to nine hours spent with Senua, players discover lorestones that serve as audio collectibles, but also as slightly more. These lorestones, scattered along the path Senua follows, not only provide bits and pieces of Norse mythology, but also parallel Senua’s own mythology. The recently recognizable players of Norse mythology, Odin, Thor, and Loki, are featured, but so are smaller tales that still delight. Throughout the story, players learn about Sigurd, Fafnir, and Mimir, tales so expertly told that players experience the lessons alongside Senua herself. While collectibles, especially audio collectibles, are oftentimes throwaways and background noise, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice uses these opportunities to educate, delight, and shock.
At its core, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, despite the entralling setting and mythology, is all about Senua. Ninja Theory collaborated with neuroscientists and individuals whom have experienced psychosis to create a truly enrapturing experience. Not only does Senua, and the performance by Melina Juergens, feel truly compelling, but players are also pulled deep into Senua’s mind and soul. This begins and ends with Juergens’ performance, but there are so many layers to why this aspect of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is so successful.
Motion capture has become more and more prevalent in the world of video games, due to the success and depth of performances that can be captured, and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice continues to show an exceptional translation from person to pixels. Melina Juergens’ Senua leaps, screams, and explodes onto screen, a newcomer to performance, but an immediate and noticeable talent. Juergens started as a video editor for Ninja Theory about five years ago, and wasn’t even slated to take on the role of Senua. With zero acting experience, Juergens simpy sat in for tech tests and demos and as a stand in as Ninja Theory looked for their starring hero, and she didn’t think twice about it. That soon changed when she was offered the opportunity and challenge to officially take on the role of Senua. I would highly recommend checking out the “Dev Diary” series that Ninja Theory put together, one of which showcased Juergens talking about this life-changing experience.
Despite the lack of experience, Juergens truly gives a standout performance as Senua, through and through. When Senua experiences joy, it shines ever so brightly. As Senua struggles and laments in pain and frustration, you can feel the damage. Even further, Juergens is able to method act, pulling from her own personal experiences that translate mesmerizingly onto screen. There wasn’t a moment during my time spent with Senua that I wasn’t completely enraptured by the performance. Every moment felt brutally honest and personal, not a second wasted. Ninja Theory crafted a genuine experience wholeheartedly packed full with emotion, fear, anxiety, and the appropriate touch of madness. Mental illness is so often “gameified” to serve a very surface level purpose, but Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice appropriately addresses Senua’s heartbreaking struggles, to a point of near perfection.
While Ninja Theory designed a phenomenal story with unforgettable lore for Senua, a journey that I felt privileged to share, I was surprised to experience a more carefree and lackadaisical approach to combat within Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Combat and mechanics within are simple, to the nth degree. I appreciated the slow-burn approach of the game initially being more of a Norse walking simulator than a third-person action game, one in which it was more of a fight against Senua’s mental illness than anything else. Even with the addition of the engaging puzzles scattered throughout Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I still enjoyed the simplistic approach that Ninja Theory put forward. But then, combat is introduced, and there’s not a whole lot to say about it.
Combat is introduced, and there’s not a whole lot to say about it.
Combat within Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is not despairingly bad, as it feels fluid enough, but it is simplistic to a fault. With Ninja Theory’s past résumé of creating compelling third-person action in games such as Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and DmC: Devil May Cry, I was expecting a bit more. Fighting the same handful of enemies with the exact same simple move set throughout the campaign became almost complacent at times. I wasn’t expecting Senua to constantly be picking up new weapons and power-ups every time she defeated a new enemy, but I was expecting a bit more than the effort that was put forth. By the time I defeated Enemy X for the hundredth time, with little challenge, I came to question if combat was even necessary within Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice when every other aspect was so strong.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an unforgettable experience, and the time I spent paired with Senua will stay with me for quite awhile. From the visual and audio design, the approach and handling of mental illness, Melina Juergens’ breakout performance as Senua, all the way to the unique approach to Celtic and Norse mythology, Ninja Theory created a masterclass in “independent AAA” development. That being said, it’s a shame that so much time is wasted within Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on averagely standard combat, which ultimately takes away from Senua’s compelling and heartbreaking struggle.