A walk in the art: A critical review of “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” (2017)

It’s probably fair to say that video games don’t suffer from the mystery science ghetto the way they used to. In fact, that’s an interesting question. What do you feel more comfortable admitting to your normie peers: that you like video games? that you like horror movies? or that you like Japanese cartoons about young men in fantastic settings who inadvertently surround themselves with groups of sexually hungry young women?

As interesting a question as that may be, it’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” a game that developer Ninja Theory sold as more than a game. It was an experience, one that took mental health and authentic medieval history seriously. That’s fair, but it’s also fair that “Hellblade” is a hack and slash dark fantasy game. Achieving a balance between those concepts might be a thankless task, but it’s one the game itself set out to do, and the developers have no one to blame but themselves.

“Heckblade: Shenmue’s Sacrifice” concerns the story of Senua, who is not a Viking but has come to Viking Island to save her dead lover’s soul from Hel, the Norse goddess of hell, unless of course she’s just having a psychotic break. Either way, she’ll navigate the island with the company of the myriad voices in her head, but she’ll have to face demons, seemingly from without and within, before she can achieve her goal.

In the conceptual balance alluded to before–the balance between experience and game–“Hellblade” exceeds at experience. Everything good about the game is experiential, and the environment one experiences is good indeed. From the minute one starts playing, the visuals and sound are just about perfect. A narrator announces that Senua has reached “the land of mist and fog,” and players can practically feel the damp and chill along with the character. Every environment of “Hellblade” is rich and painstakingly crafted.

Players who want to examine every nook and cranny of the environments will find some Dark Age design to observe. Additionally, the lighting and sound shift, sometimes not so subtly, in relation to Senua’s mood and perspective. Sometimes things are pretty and calm, as when Senua is optimistic or energetic; other times they’re dark and stormy, as when Senua hears a grave legend or unhappy prophecy. Regardless, this environmental flexibility always feels natural and never intrusive.

If “Hellblade” functions at all as a psychological horror game, it’s here that it does best, creating engaging and atmospheric environments that range from spooky forests and abandoned settlements to screaming hellscapes and beached dragon ships rotting into the ground. There is a constant sense that things are forgotten and falling apart, and it is a testament to the game’s design that the mood always feels fresh.

The sound is likewise fitting. On the ambient side of things, forests hum, swamps plop, fire crackles and swords clank, but it’s the voices in Senua’s head that draw the most attention. Well placed and well acted, they seamlessly blend into the experience. Also, since the game has no tutorial, the voices shout out advice. That’s a nice touch, although it can grate after a while.

The presentation is great, but unfortunately “Hellblade” suffers as a game. Remember how we said “from the minute one starts playing”? Well, that was a lie. The minute one starts playing is actually after a minute and a half of cutscene, which is fine, but control is leashed for another five and a half minutes. One can just barely adjust the camera while Senua paddles past the credits. Maybe you think that’s creative, but I’m pointing it out because it’s indicative of the game’s attitude toward the player.

“Hellblade” wants you to experience something, and it wants you to experience it the way it wants you to experience it, dammit. There is no room for innovation or interpretation. The game is aggressively linear. Maybe it will comfort you that everything you encounter has a purpose, but this blog was somewhat disappointed when an abandoned house that initially appeared to be atmospheric ended up being part of the game’s narrative structure. It was just a vehicle to find a stupid rune in the dirt.

All “Hellblade” is divided into two parts: puzzles and combat. The puzzles mostly involve trying to find depictions of runes in the landscape to unlock doors, and the combat involves using light attacks, heavy attacks and blocks to fight off spooky Viking warriors. At first the puzzles were so tame that this blog longed for more combat. But as the puzzles got slightly more complex, it became increasingly clear how repetitive combat was. And no, it did not mix things up to throw increasingly more Vikings at Senua. Considering how visually creative the game is, it’s surprising that it never varies in its range of enemies–barring one encounter with a spectacularly bestial boss rather than a humanoid one.

It also doesn’t help that the camera is eternally fixed behind Senua’s shoulder. It’s tolerable during puzzles, but in combat it allows enemies to spawn randomly behind her. The voices in her head try to warn her against such hijinks, but I’d rather play without the hijinks. Besides, Senua needs all the breaks she can get. Everyone in the game is yelling at her, from the various voices to a guy who looks like “Songs From the Wood”-era Ian Anderson. Her development as a character consists of standing around cross-eyed and getting the crap beaten out of her.

Still, it’s the narrative hand holding that gets to me. For example, “Hellblade” taps briefly on the fourth wall at the beginning. The chief voice in Senua’s head appears to address you, the player, to invite you in, which is when the game actually starts. Is it possible that you are also a voice in Senua’s head? It’s an interesting idea, one that is given no further consideration by the game and, considering how linear things are, seems thoroughly unlikely. I’m not one of the competing voices because I ultimately have no influence on Senua’s actions. Only her environment and the developers do.

Another thought. To what degree are mental illnesses temporally bound? If mental illness has certain biological or genetic markers, it’s fair to say that biology and genetics change over time. Also, mental illness is defined by the society around it. What is considered shameful in one culture might be celebrated or ignored in another. Definitions expand and contract. A mental illness, through biological, genetic or societal means, might evolve or even go extinct.

Accordingly, is it anachronistic of Ninja Theory to consult modern mental health experts about Senua, her motivations and experiences? Ninja Theory definitely did research on both psychological and historical fronts, and the goal was presumably to strike a balance between the two. It’s a noble effort, but one side or the other would end up suffering, and historical accuracy takes the hit. Upon closer scrutiny, “Hellblade” is a game that speaks to its audience–who is more familiar with contemporary psychiatry–than it does to its characters–an eighth century party of one.

Also, why is there a run button? Given Senua’s middling pace, I had that thing pressed all the time. In fact, why are there any run buttons in any video games? One would figure by now we’d have learned that if someone is leaning on a joystick they want the character on screen to run and we shouldn’t bother dedicating a button to it, but I guess not. Whatever.

I’m straying, and perhaps being critical, but “Hellblade” sets itself up as a work of art, and artwork invites artistic criticism. Ultimately, “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is not as original as it thinks, but it is beautifully designed and relatively accessible, a moody and engaging think piece. Too bad it’s not quite as good as a game.

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