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Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PlayStation 4) artwork

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PlayStation 4) review


"Per aspera ad inferi"


Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PlayStation 4) image

The darkest games frighten, challenge and confuse us. They do so to thrill players, offering the implied promise of a reward for that perseverance. They may be frustrating or horrifying, but ultimately they're entertaining. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice takes the concept a step further. It intentionally befuddles and emotionally beats players down. It presents action-packed segments that offer a little catharsis, before putting one's heart back into the grinder and slowly, agonizingly turning the crank.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is not a traditional action game. It sports plenty of swordplay, sure, but around them it wraps psychological horror elements and a strong narrative. You play a young Pictish warrior named Senua, who delves into Helheim in an attempt to free the soul of her slain lover, Dillion. The game starts off by wowing you with eye-popping, photo-realistic visuals. Many landscapes and environments appear to have been photographed and digitally rendered. Character models as well resemble live actors, complete with detailed facial expressions.

But as you press deeper into the gut of hell, the eye candy becomes less noticeable because Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice begins to torment you. You hear the voices of furies taunting you, though sometimes they celebrate your victories or offer in-battle cues that help you to dodge or block off-screen attacks. You think they're on your side until they cast doubt upon your abilities, saying "She'll never make it!" "She's going to die!" Meanwhile, a curse works its way up your arm, threatening you with the prospect of perma-death. You wonder why a cinematic adventure game would offer such a feature and question the validity of the threat. Already Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is playing you, filling you with dread and uncertainty that you can't shake.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PlayStation 4) image

It also presents a multitude of environmental puzzles and challenges, each with its own unique gimmick. You might praise the game's sense of variety, if it didn't use each new segment as a means to further pummel you emotionally. It thrusts you into harrowing segments where you must escape raging forest fires while the voices of the dying overwhelm you with tortured screams and accusations. It's your fault they're burning alive, the game seems to tell you, and you believe it. You later rush into the cold darkness of a dungeon, constantly stalked by the Norse monster, Garm. The game maintains calmness while you keep to the light, but it's inevitable that you must step into the shadows to advance. That's when Garm comes for you in the form of hallucinations and panic-inducing flashes of nightmarish imagery. If you stay in the darkness for too long, you will suffer a horrible, screaming death.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice haunts you, turning your own abilities against you. Senua possesses a focus talent that allows her to see through illusions or activate runes. Later in the campaign, you enter a section where Senua is nearly blind and must rely on her focus to allow her to catch glimpses of her pathway in the dark. However, using this skill turns her into a beacon, allowing deformed monsters who skulk in the shadows to see her. Your only reprieve is to sneak past them without panicking, sometimes practically gliding right up against the beasts as you pass.

This scene and others like it are all the more tense thanks to Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice's binaural sound. This creates the impression that you're surrounded by voices, especially those of the furies who constantly hammer you with commentary. The game's sound serves to further bring you down and adds an extra layer of dread.

And yet, through it all you want to keep playing. You see Senua constantly in peril, emotionally destroyed and struggling to resume her quest, only to get back to her feet. She screams in the face of the forces that hound her, and you can't help but root for her. She draws her blade and takes on multiple undead creatures at a time, armed with swords, axes and maces. She cuts into them with finesse, deflects their oncoming blows and dances around them with ease. Her focus ability also allows her to temporarily slow time and dish out more precise slices.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PlayStation 4) image

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice's fights grow more furious as you advance the campaign, eventually burying you in so many monsters that you'll wonder if an altercation will ever end. You'll often find yourself hacking away at one creature while parrying another's strike, and constantly (and capably) juggling multiple opponents. You'll wonder how you survived such grueling brawls, thankful that the game sports an auto-regeneration system and tight play control. That especially comes handy when you're tangling with bosses, such as the massive, demonic wolf Fenrir, or the swift Volravn.

No matter how tall Senua stands, though, the darkness always finds a new way to plague her. It dredges up horrible memories, speaks to her in her abusive father's voice and casts doubt on her ability to complete her quest. The game hits numerous empowering highs and tragic lows, from Senua's victory over a certain trickster boss to grim revelations of her past. And yet you soldier on, hopeful that maybe Senua will gain an ounce of relief or find a way through the punishment.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PlayStation 4) image

Every instance of antagonism is not an attempt to entertain or thrill. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a game that deals with mental illness, using Norse mythology as a backdrop. The developers at Ninja Theory consulted professionals in the field and patients to ensure that they approached the subject with care and grace. They do this so that players understand the struggles that patients deal with in their everyday lives, and they nailed it. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is not a "feel good" video game. It's a complex, downbeat action title that explores an important subject while fully making use of the medium's strengths. It utilize swordplay mechanics, binaural sound, jaw-dropping visuals and survival-horror elements to craft an experience that's well worth its price tag. As a piece of dark fiction, it's a fittingly heavy, well built journey into hell.

5/5

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (January 20, 2018)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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