A perfect port of a uniquely harrowing game.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that was highly acclaimed for its storytelling when it released in 2017, and for good reason. The technology used for motion capture and sound design was impressive enough to be the subject of a mini-documentary on the game’s main menu, and the stellar performance put on by the actors who play Senua and the voices in her head work together to sell the narrative in a horrifyingly personal way. It seemed impossible for a game like this to run on a portable system, which makes it all the more incredible that Hellblade has made very few compromises in the transition to Switch.
Hellblade follows Senua, a Pict warrior in the 8th century who suffers hallucinations due to psychosis. The voices in her head, known as Furies, are heard to the player through binaural audio that simulates what someone’s voice would sound like when they’re standing near you in real 3D space. The Furies are a key part of the narrative but also factor into gameplay; instead of tutorials teaching you what to do, Furies will give hints for what you’re supposed to do. Ninja Theory went to great lengths to ensure that Senua’s delusions accurately represent real-world psychoses, and the results are extremely unnerving.
It’s never made obvious which parts of Senua’s quest are real supernatural elements and which ones are creations of her damaged mind, forcing the player to question the world just as much as Senua herself does. The use of the Furies and hallucinations of gods and monsters is what makes the storytelling in Hellblade as interesting and effective as it is. The brutal, unfiltered look into a mind suffering from psychosis makes this game particularly special. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game cover the subject of mental illness in a way that’s so visceral and affecting. Hellblade’s unique perspective definitely helps to sell the experience.
Unfortunately, gameplay in Hellblade is not nearly as interesting as the narrative. Most of Senua’s quest is made up of a series of puzzles to solve broken up by combat encounters with monsters inspired by Norse mythology. The majority of puzzles involve walking to a specific spot and looking at a specific thing, which can be pretty repetitive over the course of several hours. One of the most common puzzles is matching runes on a door to other patterns that can be found in the world around you. Though the making-of feature on the game’s main menu explains that this was meant to convey the obsessive pattern-finding that people with psychosis can sometimes be prone to, this is one case where realism probably wasn’t the best option. Aimlessly walking around the map until I happened to stumble upon the right pattern became frustrating and boring, and I never felt compelled to search for these patterns in the world as I think Ninja Theory wanted me to.
Thankfully combat is a lot more exciting. Senua’s fighting style uses a combination of light, heavy, and grapple attacks to build a rhythmic flow through battles that brings an exciting cadence to each encounter. Parrying enemy attacks to knock them off balance and following up with a sword combo was tuned perfectly to build excitement in each fight, and intensely juggling different opponents kept that rhythm varied and engaging. The Furies are utilized well in combat; for example, monsters will sometimes materialize behind Senua without making a sound, leaving the Furies to warn you that you’ve been surrounded so you can turn around to defend yourself.
Creating space between you and the monsters and managing your position to avoid being overwhelmed gets more difficult as you advance further in your journey, and by the end you’ll be juggling different opponents constantly as you try to decide which ones are the biggest threats and need to be taken out first. The one disappointing part of combat is the low number of enemy types; there are only about three or four enemies in the game that you’ll see over and over, so despite the incredible flow of Senua’s fighting style, the opponents you’re fighting get a bit too repetitive to carry the combat through to the end of the adventure.
Though the puzzles are bland and the combat is stretched too thin, neither of those aspects is bad enough to ruin the incredible journey established by Hellblade’s narrative. I can’t overstate how effective the realistic depiction of psychosis is at making Senua’s journey incredibly intimate and compelling, and a strong attachment to her character kept me hooked right up to the end of the story. The incredible port by QLOC has kept everything that made Hellblade enthralling completely intact, and besides a low resolution it’s difficult to tell the difference between the Switch port and the original versions without comparing them directly side-by-side. Hellblade is just as good on Switch as it was on other platforms, so now’s the perfect time to pick it up if you haven’t already had the chance to experience the journey of Senua’s Sacrifice.