Is this really worth writing about- you didn’t enjoy it- you liked it- you don’t know if you liked it- you can’t write- you should write- this game might be misunderstood- you can do it- every experience is different- the game isn’t worth it- the game is worth it- at least it’s interesting- don’t hit that submit button there’s no going back.
These are my friends from Hellblade who stayed in my head. This game has a very large emphasis on sound design, as everything you do is narrated by dozens of tiny voices whispering at you constantly throughout the game. It’s made to imitate the feeling of psychosis and mental illness and warns you of its heavy themes before you start the game. Senua’s Sacrifice is a very personal journey where you explore very detailed environments and the dark corners of your mind.
Is someone there? Nah, false alarm. The game has combat but enemy encounters aren’t too common. It makes them feel a lot scarier when they do show up, despite the combat being quite basic. The game doesn’t ever tell you what to do or flash buttons on screen, you just have to figure it out with the help of the voices in your head. Okay R button looks like a block, A can evade. X and Y are different attacks. Just gotta stay alive. There are no health bars, but you feel intense fear and suffering from not understanding the gameplay systems. Just run away and evade until you figure it out. There’s too many of them. There’s one behind you. The voices will never let you down. The whispering actually guides you and calls out enemies off-camera. Your insanity is a superpower.
The graphics are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially in motion with everything swaying in the wind. I was only playing one of the weaker versions on Xbox One S, but it looks terrifyingly real. The character model has a ridiculous amount of detail and so do the environments. It’s a short game without much gameplay interaction but they really made the most of it, making everything really dense. A lot of the game shares a similar art style, and many environments look the same. It can be confusing figuring out where to go, but that’s the main challenge of the game. Most of the stuff happens in your mind as you move the camera around hoping for some kind of moment of clarity. It’s important to play with the volume up pretty high, or with headphones, because there’s a lot of sound cues. The voices can get louder or more active near something interesting, and other things can reveal themselves.
This is what puzzle solving looks like in Hellblade. No, I’m not just admiring the shadows and graphical detail. This is the way forward. The puzzles in this game only make sense to insane people. Luckily this game encourages insanity, so that pattern in the tree shadow just opened a door behind you. It’s a very different way of thinking compared to traditional videogame puzzle-solving where everything is highlighted for you. The best hint you’ll get in this game are the whispers. It’s a fascinating concept but some of these are so obscure I was usually just left frustrated by the answers.
Some of them I solved without actually knowing what I did. A gate would just suddenly open and I’d nervously walk through to the next area. I also managed to solve a puzzle and then somehow “unsolve” it by accidentally looking at something else. Then I couldn’t trigger it again until I ran around a bit. This game has inconsistent logic that keeps you on your toes. You’re constantly battling the “rules” of the world.
You interact by holding ZR and “looking”, using shadows and random objects in the environment to open doors via perspective. It could be a metaphor that you need the right point of view to go forward, but sometimes it’s not so clear. It really pushes the limits of understanding to the point where graphical glitches or random textures start to look like gameplay clues. Suddenly I’m looking at everything and backtracking. Now I’m going insane, is that what they wanted? Is there actually a solution this time? It’s 5am and I’m still playing.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was an interesting journey but the gameplay was not that enjoyable. Despite that, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad game either. The gameplay is exactly what it’s meant to be. It successfully creates feelings of despair and throws you into the brain fog of mental illness, without really giving you ways to conquer it. The only way forward is embracing it and abiding to its rules. In that sense, it’s an eerily accurate depiction of mental illness. A game can become your entire world like a personal hell or heaven. Hellblade invites you into someone else’s mind, and it might be worth playing just to make you feel grateful that you can read this text at all.