Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a difficult, challenging game, though not in the ways you might expect. It’s not mechanically difficult, but it is very emotionally and psychologically challenging. Because of this, I’ve found it difficult to review as well. It’s definitely not a game I can recommend to everyone.
Leading off with the good, Hellblade is a very pretty game. The acting, both voice and motion capture, are top notch. Almost all of the game is Senua by herself, talking with and hearing voices in her head, or flashbacks that seem to be partially fragmented memories. Without getting into spoiler territory, Senua experiences various psychoses, both auditory and visual. These play into her personal journey throughout the game.
Mechanically, the game is clearly divided into combat and exploration/puzzle solving. Combat is smooth and fluid. The complete lack of UI throughout the game is a bit jarring at first, but once you get used to the fairly minimal controls it just adds to the immersion. The next paragraph is going to spoil some puzzle types and how they’re solved, so if you want to remain unspoiled, skip ahead past the glowy circle picture.
In the narrative of the game, much is made about Senua’s ability to ‘see the world differently’, which is reflected mechanically in the puzzles she has to solve. Senua will periodically come across a gate with symbols in it. She then needs to scour the surroundings for shapes that can be fitted together to match the symbol. Reflections of the shape will float in the air when Senua gets close to the objects. By focusing on the right objects at the right angle, she can unlock that symbol on the gate, and the hallucinations go away.
My main gripe with Hellblade is that it seems to almost trivialize mental illness and psychosis by using them as a beneficial game mechanic. I won’t get too deep into it, since it would be spoilery to do so, but I will refer you to an excellent article on Polygon that covers it much better than I can.
I think that Hellblade is very well made, very pretty, but not a game that I would play for fun. To make a pop culture analogy, I’d compare it to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode The Body. It’s a great episode, but it’s gut wrenching and hard to watch. Likewise, Hellblade is hard to play at times, but I think the resulting experience pays off.