I couldn’t pass up the chance to write about a video game re-imagining of Dante’s Inferno within Norse mythology. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a complex narrative experience, an adventure which mixes third-person combat with surreal exploration of adult themes. Developer Ninja Theory certainly can be considered veterans of this genre hybrid since they previously released DmC: Devil May Cry and ENSLAVED: Odyssey to the West. Two titles whose gameplay mechanics have been thoroughly refined in Hellblade.
Mythological studies are an integral part within my area of interests. As are all forms of organized religion, without actually having to believe in any of their creeds. You may regard it as a curiosity of mine. As far as Roman Catholicism is concerned, it has no better allegory than Durante degli Alighieri’s Comedìa. One of the Middle Ages’ best poem, it certainly gets lost in translation even if the English version is the one I managed to read in its entirety and still understand its subtleties. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice can be considered a mirror version of the Divine Comedy’s Inferno chapters. You have a deeply unsettled (and unsettling) protagonist, literally walking through Hell in search of a beloved one, while being constantly accompanied by voices of reason. Or not.
You see, Hellblade distorts reality far more than it may appear at first glance. It is indeed a fictional tale, same as its characters and locations. But insanity plays a crucial role and the protagonist’s descent into madness is more subtle than you’d expect. Senua, the game’s heroine is suffering from psychosis. Loss of external contact with reality, we’re told. It’s all just happening in her head and the real loss we’re lead to believe that it’s that of her lover, Dillion. Dante and his beloved Beatrice are an obvious inspiration. What about Virgil? Well in Hellblade, Senua is guided by Druth, a character with a background that seems mysterious and druidic. I couldn’t find any information linking him to either Celtic folklore or any sort of mythological entity. Let’s go with druid, instead. It sounds similar to “Truth” as well.
Despite her British accent, Senua hails from the Orkney Islands which did change hands throughout history between Picts and Norsemen before finally becoming part of the United Kingdom. Senua should have sounded a bit more Scottish, but given her Celtic appearance we’ll forgive the fact that Pictland gets barely mentioned. It seems an obvious choice to pit a Celtic female warrior against Nordic creatures and Viking warriors. These pagan civilizations clashed frequently and ultimately shaped the lands they roamed and the future inhabitants.
With Dillion’s severed head by her side (“Alas, poor Yorick!”), Senua wishes to find solace by undertaking one of the most perilous jouneys conceivable by her time and standards. To Helheim and back. The land of the dead and suffering. I don’t wish to spoil the actual storyline or its plot twists. Suffice to say, you will learn a great deal about Norse mythology by playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and activating the runes scattered across the levels. Druth explains in rich detail, the belief system employed by these sons and daughters of the North, their motivations and ultimately, their deepest fears. Know your enemy well before you face him…
An Unreal Engine 4 title in all its shining glory. What does that actually mean? Eye candy plus a truckload of instability if you’re going to try rendering it maxed out and at a resolution above 1080p. First, I tried 4K and it almost seemed locked at 30fps, with the occasional dips below. I settled for 2K as it’s a decent compromise between rich details and fluid gameplay. Even if graphics shall never overcome a good story’s importance, you must understand that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has managed to balance them quite admirably. The game’s a stunner and its story makes full use of Senua’s ingénue looks which would surely get portrayed best by Emily Blunt if this was a motion picture.
There are rare frame rate drops even at 2560×1440, yet I endured since Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an epic wallpaper factory, with its very own specialized menu for modifying screenshots on the fly (almost as good as the one in Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max) and Nvidia Ansel support. I finally got to test this feature out and the results are satisfying. Hellblade knew how to emphasize the narrative insanity with all sorts of effects and filters that turn the already surreal set pieces into stuff coming straight from Tim Burton’s wet dreams. I’d like to think that the unstable frame rate is a temporary issue just waiting for a permanent fix or “optimization”. Call it what you will but the trip to Helheim should be flawless.
I was pleased to notice that the sounds complement the graphical details and if you own a 5.1 speaker system or a headset capable of simulating that, you can witness another brilliant aspect within Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The voices which constantly help (or hinder) the heroine. They cement the idea that Senua has far too many emotional scars and that a main obstacle in her journey, is none other than her own self-doubt.
All voice actors present their lines with skill and an obvious interest for the characters while the soundtrack is subtle enough for the most part. The inner and outer voices play center stage and given the genre and themes present in-game, the music and sound effects are adequate. The English subtitles had a few typos here and there, along with script-speech discrepancies though.
Tomb Raider and Dark Souls meeting God of War head-on. Far from a crude comparison or accusations of inspiring oneself from already established franchises, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice merely emulates certain gameplay mechanics which made the already mentioned titles so enticing. You have a strong female protagonist which in spite of her seemingly frail constitution and young age, has the determination of a grizzled warrior & survivor, a literal battle against Norse deities and their minions while the Dark Souls elements are relating to the enemy encounters and combat.
If you’re even remotely familiar to this game, most articles treating its gameplay have already mentioned the permadeath aspect. It’s a narrative device far more than a looming threat since it’s quite forgiving to the point of allowing players to tone down the combat difficulty or even avoid Senua’s defeat by returning to the Main Menu and restarting that last encounter which proved lethal for the protagonist.
The lowest road you can take would be to actually make back-up saves, but I simply recommend you to play in an easier difficulty setting and to use the hard learned lessons from any game belonging to the Dark Souls trilogy or other challenging melee brawler. Blocking enemy attacks when possible and evading your foes for as often as you can. Standing in one place and just attacking them, is a sure way towards defeat and another level of rot on Senua’s already scarred body.
The permadeath mechanics use increments of visible corruption marked as “rot” through which the heroine loses yet another part of her health and sanity, with each battle she loses. If the corruption runs all the way along her right arm and reaches her face, it’s Game Over and apparently the save game is automatically deleted. I didn’t risk this and opted to play the battles in Easy mode while applying the basic principles mentioned above.
The combat scenes are always interrupted by sections of relatively peaceful exploration (as serene as a trip through Hell can be) where Senua and the players can take in the sights and contact Druth through the Norse runes while finding out more interesting details about Viking myths and their legendary sagas. No other form of collectibles is implemented, but it’s not like I missed them dearly. As recommended, once you finish the game’s story, you can find in the game’s Main Menu, a Feature clip which contains enough spoilers from the game along with explanations, that it really is a good idea to not watch it until you completed Senua’s sacrifice. You’ll see for yourself how far a Celtic “shieldmaiden” can go in the name of love and revenge.
Vikings and Norse Sagas have met a resurgence in popular forms of media, in recent years. By throwing some Celtic elements in juxtaposition, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a far more comprehensive experience than simply portraying Norsemen and Celts as savage warriors worshipping equally cruel deities. On Steam itself, there are at least a dozen titles focusing on Norse mythology, yet few go as in-depth as Hellblade while avoiding to bore its potential players at the same time. If the aforementioned topics are even of remote interest to you, I highly recommend you play this game at some point and you won’t regret it.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.