Video games are rarely emotionally challenging. You press X to say your respects and then blow up some more doods. Nothing has any consequence, and it all comes back when you reload, right? Even “hard” games have the advantage of distance; they take place in netherworlds, or fantasy settings, or somewhere players are at a safe, god-like remove to command their puppets. What makes Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice ($30, PS4 and PC) so brutal and vital a game is that it rips that remove away. You are inside its protagonist’s mind, and the game’s triumph is that you can’t help but get emotionally invested in her.
The plot follows Senua (Melina Juergens in a hell of a performance), a young Celtic warrior who lost her lover Dilllion to the Vikings and is out to reclaim his soul from their Hel. At least in theory; it quickly becomes clear Senua is mentally ill and what she sees may not be reality. And then the character you’re supposedly controlling turns and stares at you, as her internal voices start jabbering fear or rage.
This is called direct address in the film, TV, and theater worlds, and video games almost never use it. When they do, it’s because you are ostensibly the main character in a story; you’re looking through the eyes of our hero. That’s not the case here. From the get-go, you’re forced to question just what your role is here, especially as Ninja Theory’s graphics work is stunning in the vividness it brings to Senua. And you may not like the answers the game gives you, as Senua turns, begging for help, for relief, for escape. As I played, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was playing Senua’s psychosis, that I was complicit, and arguably the bad guy, in her struggles to keep her mind together.
Gaming culture being what it is, early coverage has focused too much on the mechanics, especially the fact that if you die too much in Hellblade, you lose your progress. In practice, though, you practically have to go out of your way to make this happen and it’s a problem only gamers playing the game on ultra-hard mode will really have to deal with. More importantly, though, that risk of losing your progress, of going back to the beginning, is crucial to the story. It’s represented by inching rot on Senua’s hand, which yearns to reach her head, and consume her mind. The metaphor is obvious, yes, but it underscores the real theme of the game. Senua is fighting to keep her grip on reality, even as her own brain is trying to pry itself loose.
This probably doesn’t sound like a lot of escapist fun, and it’s not, although Ninja Theory does encourage you to explore the levels to find runes and the polished combat system is easy to play but hard to master. It’s a serious attempt to use the tropes of video games to make players experience the world through someone else’s eyes, and Senua’s eyes are hard to look through, let alone into. Video games are often about saving something, a princess, a world, a scientist, but you can’t save Senua. You can, in the end, perhaps offer her a measure of comfort, even perhaps a measure of grace. But you can’t fix her. You can’t make it better, or level her up, or have her quaff a potion to make the voices go away. All you can do is feel for her, hope for her, and those who play this game will likely remember her for a long, long time. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a tough game to play, not in terms of mechanics, but in terms of emotions, and more games could stand to be this hard.
Verdict: Clear Your Calendar
This review was written with review code provided by the publisher.