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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Ninja Theory is a small gaming studio that has been creating excellent action games with top-notch theatre performances. They push the limits of technology to convey the emotion they want, with games like Enslaved, Heavenly Sword and the DmC: Devil May Cry reboot. On the surface, Hellblade seems like any other action game, but the reality is that it’s much more. It’s a deeply personal exploration of the dark side of mental illness, through the eyes of Senua.

What’s it about?
This year has been shaping up to be a fantastic year for female leads in games. There’s Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn, 2B from Nier: Automata, and now you get to meet and play as Senua, the troubled protagonist of Hellblade. She’s a Celtic warrior who descends deep into the bowels of the Norse version of hell — Hel — to bring her lover back to life with her. All along the way, Senua is haunted by voices, which are her constant companions. They whisper angry thoughts, they confuse and conflict your mind, and they also guide you through the world. They are as much a protagonist of this game as Senua, in her descent into the underworld.
Hellblade grips you from the very beginning, partly thanks to the amazing performance by Melina Juergens, Ninja Theory’s video editor and motion capture artist. Her face not only evokes strength and emotion, but is also reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver in her Alien days. The rest of the accolades go to the technology that powers the facial animations, which look freakishly real. The last being the voice of not only Melina, but also a host of other characters, including the narrator, and the sound effect design. All of these come together in a visual feast of Senua’s descent into madness. Often, you don’t know what’s real and what is not, as scenes flicker from eerie calm and rising unease to flat out mad.

All those visual treatments and crazy sound effects are not just to dazzle and scare audiences. They actually serve a purpose. It’s to educate people on how traumatic it is living with mental health problems. The game also helps people suffering from mental illnesses to identify symptoms. There is a disclaimer in the game and on the site, asking if you are experiencing any of Senua’s symptoms. If so, they give you numbers to let you get help. Ninja Theory has worked with neuroscientists and with people who live with the condition of psychosis, to tackle the issue through the interactive medium of video games. Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the best stories and one of the most harrowing and visceral experiences you will play through this year.

How does it play?
A lot of Hellblade’s gameplay is about exploration to aid the narrative. The action and puzzle-solving sections are largely tacked on to make things more exciting, and they do that successfully for the most part. Puzzles are in the form of finding gates with certain patterns and in the area around you. This usually involves looking at trees, tortured souls, ruins of houses and other environmental detritus from different perspectives. It’s not terribly original, but interesting nonetheless.

Every once in awhile, you will get into battle with demonic creatures, and the game shifts to an arena of sorts. The action aspects are fun and addictive, as you have to think on your feet. Especially since the creators have a nasty surprise in the game. Every time Senua dies, the corruption spreads further, and once it covers her entire skin, your progress is deleted and you will need to start over again. To be honest, this is a lot less scarier than it sounds, as once you master the trick to dodging and attacking, you needn’t worry. It does help that the animations are beautiful.

Hellblade takes a very organic and minimal view in terms of interface, guiding you through the game world. The voices act as helpful cues, with snippets of the story drip-fed to you as you move along. In battle mode, the voices warn of incoming attacks and tell you when to use your ‘focus’ which slows down time. They also let you know of any attackers coming in from your blind side, behind the camera. All these devices help in navigating the world and gameplay elements with ease.
Should you get it?
The answer is a resounding yes, as Hellblade is an intense, masterful work of art. The game takes you deep into a rabbit hole of madness with plenty of Norse and Celtic mythology in a psychological thriller.

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