Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice in eleven annotated screenshots
I would have finished Hellblade faster if it did not feature a ‘photo’ mode. The game is not particularly long, but when you’re pressing ‘down’ on the D-Pad to line up an arty shot every few minutes, it stretches things out. By the end I’d spent so much time snapping shots of Senua’s journey, lining up shots and filtering them like an Instagram model on the verge of 10k followers, that I felt like a review where photo mode was relegated to a half-paragraph or mentioned in passing (as is custom) would not properly reflect my experience with the game. So instead, I’m filtering this review through some of those shots.
Note: these screenshots are not necessarily in the same order you might encounter the locations pictured, and they are free of spoilers.
Hellblade is a game about psychosis, although it’s never as explicitly clear about this as it maybe thinks it is. The developers consulted with mental health professionals to properly capture the experience of a psychotic breakdown, and have crafted a game that is, at least, trying to provide an empathetic experience. The warning at the start is certainly apt, though – Hellblade can be a very traumatic experience. The game plays a cruel trick on you up front, threatening the player with a save file deletion if they die too often, to try and get you into the nervy, jangled mindset the game world preys on. This is not actually the case, as far as I can tell, but it was a nice try at least.
You play as the eponymous Senua, a character whose design and personal journey pull heavily from Celtic and Norse mythology. She’s a wonderful character design, although I’d struggle to really tell you anything about her beyond the broad strokes of the narrative she’s involved in, and that she – like all videogame characters – has inhuman levels of endurance. Much of the game focuses on her suffering, and most of her dialog is either whispered or screamed. She’s hoping to retrieve something that has been lost, and she’s constantly beset by her own past. Voices chatter in her ears constantly, although it’s not always clear what they’re trying to say. All of this is meant to represent her mental state, and the strength she must find to continue on, but it can be exhausting.
The actual mechanics of Hellblade are extremely light. You spend a lot of time just moving forward, pushing towards the next set piece, occasionally stopping to work through fairly tame environmental puzzles. Here, I’ve been tasked with finding a certain shape in the environment, and I’ve managed to locate the ‘X’. Most of the puzzles in Hellblade look something like this, and they’re not exactly super engaging.
There are enemies to kill, of course, which is perhaps the most ‘enjoyable’ part of Hellblade. Every now and then enemies will materialise, and Senua jumps into zingy, reactive combat. There are only a handful of enemy types, and the game doesn’t really offer anything new in terms of battle mechanics, but this doesn’t take away from Hellblade’s fundamentally good game-feel. The best moments – as is true of just about every sword-fighting game – are when you perfectly parry an enemy blow, which causes a just-perceptible slowing of time as your sword clangs and your enemy is left vulnerable. It’s lovely, although it’s not quite as lovely by the fiftieth time.
But there’s not actually a lot of fighting in Hellblade. There are long stretches of the game where all you’re doing is walking forward, taking in the sights, checking out that photo mode. For Senua, you begin to suppose, simply pushing forward must be difficult. When you suffer from a mental illness, of course, just getting out of bed can be a struggle on some days, let along fighting your way through the damn denizens of the underworld. But then there’s also a feeling that perhaps making these connections involves reading into things a bit, because the exact details of Senua’s journey are often confusing. Her motivations are actually very simple, but what’s really happening, what’s happening in her head, and what the distinction is between those two isn’t really clear. This isn’t a David Lynch film, where the breakdown between these spaces is thrilling and horrifying. Perhaps Hellblade could have used some more subtlety – more moments like the one in this shot.
I don’t have a lot to add to this one. I just really like the shot. If you pause at just the right moment, you can catch Senua in what looks like a moment of tranquillity (she’s really just jumping down this ledge to face further trials).
This is more Senua’s speed. The mythologies that Hellblade pulls from often don’t feel like they’re really contributing much beyond the broadest, darkest imagery. There’s little in the way of beauty in Hellblade, outside of the perfect shots you can line up. The world is scattered with ‘lore stones’, which will impart some audio-diary style stories for you, focusing largely on Norse mythology. They’re well-acted (the entire game is full of fantastic performances, actually), but as with many things in Hellblade, I can’t say that I took a lot away from them once they were done.
Hellblade, which I like to think looks a little Dark Souls-y in this shot, definitely has its inspired moments. An early sequence – which I played through before I started messing around with photo mode – really stands out. For a half hour stretch, the game’s puzzles get sharper, requiring you to wrap your head around the relationships between several dimension-jumping gates. Plotting out a course forward involves looking through skull-adorned archways and figuring out how the environment around you will change if you walk through it. This is Hellblade at its best – creepy, inventive, and clever. Ninja Theory has called Hellblade a ‘Triple A indie’, a game with high production values but without the budget or scope to go all-out on it. Perhaps that’s why these really wonderful ideas are spaced out quite a bit.
Honestly, I just think this is a cool shot.
By the end of the game I found myself appreciating what Ninja Theory had done, but I had no real emotional investment in the game. As the final cutscene started to roll, I paused the game to go and do some laundry, honestly not really caring about how things turned out. There’s plenty to like about Hellblade. By the end the bleakness has really ramped up, and Senua’s ordeal is plastered all over her face (literally as well as figuratively, as some blood doesn’t wash off). But I’m not entirely sure what the game wanted me to take away from it. Sometimes it asked me to take everything literally, and at other times it asked me to interpret everything as a metaphor. I know that Senua is a strong person, but I don’t know what kind of strength, really, she’s meant to be exuding. My favourite part of the game was, I think, the photo mode.
There’s a documentary in the game as well, which outlines how the game was made, and how mental health professionals were involved in its creation. This is great, but I feel like I got a much deeper understanding of what the game wanted to be from watching this than I did from actually playing it.
Because I was having so much fun lining up cool shots, I didn’t actually realise that the rest of Hellblade didn’t really resonate with me until I sat down to write this review. And that’s an odd critical position to find yourself in! I really enjoyed pressing that ‘Share’ button over and over, and I think Hellblade is a uniquely cool game for a photo mode, if only because so many of my best shots were taken during cutscenes. It’s really cool getting a unique shot, and knowing that you picked the exact right moment to take it. It’s like being a real photographer, needing to seize on the perfect moments, instinct kicking in so that you’re prepped to take a photo right as it emerges on the screen in front of you. The threat of permadeath might not be real, but the perfect shot can slip out of your reach if you’re not careful.
I think this is a perfectly valid reason to recommend the game, too, especially as it comes at a budget price and isn’t actually bad in any other way. I ended up with a good 40 shots I really liked (many of them spoiler heavy), and got to experience a not-bad-not-great little experimental action game along the way. Just know that the ‘warning’ screen up top really isn’t kidding around.