Imagine losing your lover to forces beyond you, then having to chase after their soul, facing off against fire giants and gods to retrieve it once more. All the while, you’re forced to deal with the voices inside your head telling you that you’re going to fail no matter what. That’s the plight of Senua, the fragile yet indomitable heroine of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It sounds like an excellent premise, right? It is, until you look a little closer.
Ninja Theory’s latest title is a much more zoomed-in and somber affair than its excellent riff on the Devil May Cry series. But beneath an aesthetically impressive veneer lies several bizarre design decisions that bog down the experience as a whole in several frustrating ways. Unfortunately, the game ends up doing both its lead character and premise a disservice with an ultimately meaningless portrayal of mental illness and meandering gameplay.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review: Discovering Senua
Senua is on a journey to recover her beloved, and that means traveling all the way to Hel, Norse mythology’s vision of Hell, and back. The rest of the details surrounding her quest are purposefully shrouded in mystery at first, but there’s a very dark plot thread involving abuse suffered from her father, the loss of her mother, and other traumatic events that have resulted in the onset of her mental illness.
Senua deals with psychosis, or a mental disorder where individuals have seemingly lost contact with reality. It’s a symptom of a larger illness, most likely schizophrenia, as evidenced by the dozens of whispering voices in Senua’s head that punctuate the journey as you move forward.
From the very beginning of the game, Hellblade does its very best to paint Senua as a different kind of heroine. When you finally take control of her as she rows her way to shore from a rickety canoe, she sports a wide-eyed, bewildered expression. It doesn’t appear she knows where she’s at, or quite what she’s doing. But there’s a wizened voice narrating her story — is it her? is it someone else? — and there appear to be a chorus of voices inside her head. She also appears to be carrying a human skull with her.
All of this makes for an opening rife for expository developments to take over, but the payoff is hardly worth the wait. In the end, the same elements meant to make her stand out are the very ones that Ninja Theory planned on using as buzzwords to promote the game. The opportunity for discourse on how mental illnesses can affect everyday lives is lost in this way, as it’s been transformed here into a marketing tool and narrative vehicle.
The text during the opening credits a “mental health consultant,” and the game itself even includes a 25-minute documentary about how Ninja Theory met with individuals with similar difficulties to Senua’s. And yet all of this effort feels as though it could have been better spent on expanding the game beyond instances of combat and walking to and fro a few times each area before defeating bosses.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review: Normalized nightmares
Don’t mistake Hellblade for a poignant journey that offers any real conversation about the horrors that mental illness can inflict on anyone. With that said, removed from this narrative ball and chain, it’s an enjoyable adventure, despite being incredibly linear. Weirdly enough, the game doesn’t encourage exploration. In fact, there are no collectibles to speak of beyond activating all the lorestones scattered throughout each area, and you can’t get lost.
What you will do is be propelled along a singular path as Senua delves deeper and deeper into her own nightmarish delusions. Occasionally you’ll be interrupted by a few battles with what can be described as shadow demons, armed with Senua’s sword. Combat feels like an absolute dream, some of the best Ninja Theory has crafted so far, so it’s a shame that you only fight the same boring creatures a few times so few and far between.
Between battles, you’ll decipher simple puzzles that require you to match runes with areas in the environment to pass through to the next area. Sometimes this is matched up with a hallucination where Senua must travel through a village plagued by flame, a mirror image of what happened to her own people. Other times you’ll have to fight off a few more shadow people. There are very few instances where you’ll fail or need assistance figuring out where to go next save for some frustrating rune puzzles, but then there’s also the “threat” of losing all of your progress if you die too many times.
The game tells you up front that Senua will eventually die and you’ll have to begin again due to a “rot” that infects her body. For every battle you lose, the rot will travel further up her arm until it engulfs her. It lends a dark immediacy to the game that’s a good idea, to be fair, but the rot never got past Senua’s shoulder for me. I’m fairly certain at some point it just ceases to matter, which neuters the punch a permadeath mechanic could have given a game that wants to go all in on feelings of dread and terror.
All of this is disappointing, considering how beautiful the game is. Combat feels fantastic, but there isn’t enough of it. Senua has the potential to be an engaging and illuminating character, but instead her narrative feels forced and contrite. The “surprise” twist at the end is telegraphed from the first few moments of the game. When it all comes down to it, there just isn’t much going on here.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review: Wasted potential
I wanted to love this game, especially when I thought it was willing to “kill” Senua if I failed too many times. The expressions on her face were so unlike anything I had seen in previous games, and I felt Ninja Theory was really going the distance to bring me a unique story I hadn’t played before. I also found myself entranced by the stories of Norse mythology and wanted to learn more. There were quite a few times I found myself looking up some of the terms and deities referred to in-game after finishing up a play session. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see more out of Senua.
But I don’t want to see her continue to be relegated to a vehicle for a developer’s thoughts on mental illness. I appreciate the effort and the intention behind speaking on a delicate topic such as that one, but overall Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice misses the mark on all counts. I’d like to see the better pieces of the overall puzzle, such as the stunning graphics and Senua herself, melded with an improved focus on expanding gameplay and narrative in future adventures.
Hopefully Ninja Theory can learn from this and move forward, just as we all hope Senua can.
More gaming news and updates
Check out the latest from Mic, like this deep dive into the cultural origins of Gamergate. Also, be sure to read this essay about what it’s like to cosplay while black, a roundup of family-friendly games to play with your kids and our interview with Adi Shankar, producer of the animated Castlevania Netflix series.