Console, Games

The Backlog: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a Beautiful and Somber Journey into Hell

I’ve had Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in my gaming queue for months. I always said I’d get to it eventually, but I prioritized The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Ape Out, and even Metro 2033: Redux before it. It’s not because I didn’t want to play it, which is far from the truth. I’ve been itching to play Hellblade the moment I heard about it, and when it finally got ported to the Nintendo Switch, I was ecstatic. I was ready to take Senua’s journey into the underworld.

Except I didn’t. I sat on this game for half a year, daunted by the prospect of the binaural audio simulating the hallucinations in Senua’s head. For some reason, it terrified me to have these voices coming in all directions.

It terrified me to experience simulated symptoms of psychosis, or what is more commonly known in the US and Philippines as schizophrenia, which Senua is implied to have.

 Now that we’re two months into lockdown and I’ve burnt through most of my backlog. I don’t have a choice anymore. Time to put the headphones on and jump into Senua’s reality.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was rightfully praised for its nuanced and sensitive treatment of mental illness, often hailed as one of the most important games of 2017. Does it hold up in 2020 on the Nintendo Switch?

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOR HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE AHEAD

Visually Arresting

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What struck me about the Nintendo Switch port is the graphical fidelity. The visual downgrades were pretty obvious, with the use of lower-resolution textures and a lack of lighting effects. Despite the cutbacks to make this run on portable hardware though, the game still looks great.

If you want a deeper dive into the graphical differences between the Switch and PS4/Xbox One/PC versions, Digital Foundry has a great video showing where exactly sacrifices have been made.

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m playing a game that is visually rich, downgraded slightly, on a Nintendo Switch. I’m not here for the graphics. You play Hellblade for the story.

A Journey to Helheim

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Senua is a Pict warrior hailing from the Orkney Islands. Her village was attacked and ravaged by “Northerners” – heavily implied to be vikings – and her lover Dillon was sacrificed to the goddess Hela in a horrific ritual called the Blood Eagle. Senua then tries to venture to Helheim, the underworld of a culture totally alien to the Celtic warrior, to rescue the soul of her dead lover and bring him back to life.

Senua and her mother Galena are afflicted by a curse that they refer to as “The Darkness.” The game depicts it as a series of auditory and visual hallucinations, which can range from the mundane – a series of whispers gossiping about Senua’s trajectory – to the absolute worst – a house full of corpses hanging from the ceiling as she is being chased by a horrible creature. This curse also allows her to suss out patterns in the world, and finding these patterns let her unlock gates and proceed to the next area.

Let’s Talk About the Voices

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The voices in Senua’s head, as I mentioned, were the very things that prevented me from starting this game in the first place. They creeped me out for some reason, and I was worried that having these voices plugged in my ears would trigger an anxiety attack or something.

I needn’t have feared – the voices are unnerving, sure, but I managed to keep the proper mental distance between them and myself, especially during the times when they were goading Senua to off herself. These voices were at times helpful, as the camera zooms in to a claustrophobic view during battles. You can’t see anything outside of what’s immediately in front of Senua, and you have to depend on the voices to tell you if you have an attack approaching you from your blind zones.

And that is where you start to trust the voices – which, apparently, you should not do if you are suffering from these sort of hallucinations. The game, through the simple act of pointing out where an attack is coming from, you find yourself in the quandary psychosis sufferers find themselves in every day.

Hack and Drudgery

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Speaking of combat, this is my least favorite part of the game. You are given way too many blind spots, as I mentioned earlier, which lets you die more than usual. Senua doesn’t feel as responsive as she should be, considering that the developers Ninja Theory cut their teeth on hack-and-slash action games like DMC: Devil May Cry. And while you can chain a lot of combos if you know what you’re doing, combat never feels rewarding. You only get past another wave of enemies as you brace yourself for the next one.

It’s not fun.

But do you want fun when you’re playing a game that explores grief, depression, and mental illness, and pushes it to the forefront? That would be the biggest cognitive dissonance ever, and I am glad that the game made the smart choice to not let the combat overshadow the story.

Unlike Anything I’ve Experienced

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And oh boy, what a story. Senua’s journey to Helheim is harrowing and you end up questioning what is just in her head and what is real.

But differentiating reality from hallucinations shouldn’t matter – to Senua, everything is real. The voices, the vision, Hela emerging from the depths, her firm belief that she can bring Dillion back to life – it’s all real. You’ll find yourself at odds and cooperating with this reality, often in the same instance. You’re going to find yourself getting as exhausted as Senua as you battle wave after wave of enemies, only to be rewarded the chance to go through the drudgery yet again.

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Somehow, it all clicks – and as you reach the final level and you finally encounter Hela, Senua learns to let the past go and learn to live with her trauma and mental illness. It’s a bittersweet ending, and it’s the most realistic one. It’s a journey I don’t think I can replay in a while, but I am thankful that a Switch port happened for me for me to experience.

I cannot wait to see where the next Hellblade game goes next.

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