Psychology in video games can easily just become just another statistic. No matter how well executed, no matter how well developed, it’s easy just to boil it down to another health bar you need to maintain. Very few games have managed to escape this trap, and even then it can unfortunately be more amusing than truly terrifying. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is the exception to this rule, as the protagonist’s constantly eroding sanity haunts the player’s every step.
Set amidst a Viking invasion, you play as the warrior Senua as she wanders through an underworld of her own making. Inhuman things crawl in her wake and terrifying constructs dominate the landscape, as her own psychosis begins to take over her world.
The imagery here is the sort that Berserk is often famed for - It’s incredibly detailed, extremely gory and incredibly disturbing. Even things you initially take for granted can quickly turn against you, as the animations and textures of seemingly humanoid beings quickly marks them as retaining a special kind of wrongness. From bizarre impossible jittering to malformed creatures of flesh and bone, the brilliant graphical fidelity has been used to constantly keep you on edge at every turn. This might have brought it up to par with a few other high-quality horror titles, but what pushes it over the edge is how it executes each scare. You can often turn back to see things have changed behind you, creatures watch you from afar only to flicker away the second you focus upon them, and then there are the voices.
Every manifested thought of Senua’s mind echoes through the speakers, taunting her, throwing you off and even addressing you directly. It’s the sort of up-close-and-personal experience that could have easily sunk the entire game, but it instead turns what could have been laughable into something truly chilling. The things it screeches at you add another layer onto both the narrative and the scares, and focuses its efforts onto how everything present is some inner demon or personal terror brought to life. Often the voices themselves are as helpful as they are critical, so you can never fully ignore them no matter how hard you try to do so.
Still, you’re probably wondering less about the presentation than you are its mechanical strengths. This is where some of that initial depth unfortunately bleeds away, as it’s competent but not outstanding. Often compared with Dark Souls’ methodical attacks and limited health pool, Hellblade’s system is notably simplistic. While it offers a decent number of combos, and the sheer weight of your attacks is constantly satisfying, it wins more points on drama than anything else. What was obviously intended for one-on-one combat suffers when you face six foes at a time, and it’s only during the spectacular boss fights where the mechanics truly shine.
Furthermore, the linear design proves to be a double-edged sword. It obviously allowed for greater dramatic effect and a fantastic execution of some of the bigger scares, but the later stages feel unfortunately quite constrained and limited. This makes the aforementioned multi-man fights more frustrating to cope with, and the puzzles which show up (while well executed and thought out) lack some of the variety you might want. Again, it wins points on writing and themes, but the underlying mechanical strength is comparatively weaker than you might expect. This by no means makes it a bad game nor does it undermine its concepts, but you might end up with that Bioshock feeling of “Huh, I thought there would be more to it…” by the end.
Still, when all is said and done, it’s only a few needling problems (and one or two awkwardly placed checkpoints) which holds this game back from a higher score. Between its story elements, presentation, creativity and fantastic bonus features, Hellblade remains a fascinating take on psychological and Celtic aesthetics which is more than worth your time. Any fan of Eternal Darkness or Spec Ops: The Line would do well to give this one a look.
Oh, and Ninja Theory? You’re officially forgiven for what you did to Dante.
HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE / DEVELOPER AND PUBLISHER: NINJA THEORY / PLATFORM: PC & PS4 / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW