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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review – The most important game I’ve ever played

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(Warning spoilers ahead).

“I will give you my soul.” Senua's final bargain with the God who holds the soul of her beloved. “I know it's what you want,” she continues as the god looks on in silence. Like a stampede, her words storm through my mind and pulls me to moments frozen in time – mine. The times I have bargained with 'the gods,' with life, with death, with good, with evil, with others, .. with myself.

Senua, and I; we are indeed fighting the demons of our combined soul, and in this lies the magic of Hellblade. If you let it, it can be the most important game you'll ever play. But it doesn't have to be; it is such a masterpiece that it can also just be a fantastic gaming experience that consists of equally good parts combat, visuals, story, puzzles, and gameplay.

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But for me, it was a mirror of the doubts and fears that haunt us all. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was an interactive self-portrait; even though I don't suffer from mental illness. I can relate to it in such a deeply personal way because it's a harrowing journey to face that which hides in the deepest recesses of my mind. Like the Lorestones in the game, Senua's journey activated my inner dialogue. “The mind is the seat of the soul,” is a refrain you'll hear throughout the game, and we all have things that gnaw away at the fragile bonds that hold our soul together. We've all faced moments when we thought it would finally snap, and the fear that we would unravel and give up. Only to start bargaining with whatever or whomever we think hold the keys to unlock that which we hope for, or that which will bring salvation.

Madness has knocked at the door of my mind often enough, seeking entry. I recognize her taint in Senua; I am familiar with her voice, I know her seductive call. In that way, Hellblade is the story of us all. Senua dances to the beat of guilt, and like us all, she guards it like a private treasure. She fights on in the hope of finding redemption, only to find that the biggest enemy hides within.

Hellblade is about the deepest betrayal imaginable; that of a parent to child and, about clinging to hope, and going on when there isn't any fight left in you. It's also about defeat, and battles that cannot be won.

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Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice shocked me. It's a very unusual game and speaks to the things we refuse to face. It calls it to the surface, and demands we pay the price to be free of it. It was a very distributing experience, and if it weren't for the challenging combat and puzzles, I wouldn't have been able to bear its weight on my soul. As I explained before, I came for the journey but stayed for the Photo Mode, and I am so thankful it exists in the game otherwise the descent into Hell would've simply been too much for me. The distraction of combat and puzzles made it bearable to play Senua's Sacrifice through to the end.

Senua's inner demons appear in the world as enemies she has to fight. I thoroughly enjoyed the combat; it was both challenging and rewarding, especially the boss fights. I only discovered the “Focus” ability (works somewhat like bullet-time by slowing things down), later in the game, and it makes things so much easier. At least it forced me to perfect my block which came in very handy later in the game when you are faced with wave upon wave of enemies. Hellblade has no tutorial and no HUD, it's only you and the voices in your head and a world painted in pain.

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What I loved most about combat in Hellblade is that you have to use all the gameplay mechanics at your disposal to advance. You have to dodge, block perfectly, use heavy attacks when you have Focus (and when you've done a perfect block), charge and quick switch between opponents. Each boss fight requires a different combination of your skills, and I never felt the fighting was boring or repetitive in any way. When you perfect the combos, combat plays like an exquisite dance of death. If you struggle to perfect it, it becomes a hack and slash exercise.

Ninja Theory's permadeath threat is a brilliant mechanic and it hanged over me like an unspoken judgement for most of the game.

The boss fights are extremely rewarding to complete, as each one differs in execution. My favourite was Valravn; the god of Illusion. He is extremely fast and I loved the arena and the challenges of the Illusion Trial. In Hellblade, every game mechanic, every blade of grass, every moment speaks of the same thing. Nothing is in the game per chance – it all weaves a tapestry of Senua's Sacrifice, and it's all polished to perfection. I struggled the most with Fenrir, as the boss fight at times happened in complete darkness. You have to listen to the sounds of his attack to successfully block and counter.

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When it comes to the landscape, Hellblade offers a beauty and horror that I've never come across in three decades of gaming. It attracts and repulses, draws you in only to spit you out. Every scene is drenched in sadness, points to unfathomable tragedy, and screams of madness – yet … yet it also screams of profound bravery and the courage residing in a soul that refuses to give up.

Something has to be said of the actress who played Senua, Melina Juergens. I have never encountered such a believable character as Senua. Immersion happens automatically as a meeting of souls. Senua isn't your typical video game hero; she is fierce, yet scared, she is brave yet timid, she is strong yet weak – she is a palette of human emotions. One of the things that accentuate her persona is the use of sound, and here Ninja Theory delivered something spectacular. The voices that Senua hears throughout the game each bring a different tone and feeling to the experience – and there are many. It contributes so much to our understanding of what people who live with psychosis experience every day.

I hope we've not seen the last of Senua as it would be a tremendous loss.

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Then there are the puzzles, which make up a big part of the game. It ranges from easy and simple to elaborate and challenging. The whole game fits together like the perfect puzzle, and I cannot image Ninja Theory leaving one thing out. The landscape, sound, combat, characters, cinematics, and story all blend to give us, perfection. It's not a game that paints a beautiful ending where the hero walks off into the sunset crowned by success and rewarded with love. But it is an honest game. Hellblade brings to the stage of entertainment something we've not experienced in gaming, and for that, it needs to be praised.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is the perfect game and deserves nothing less than 10/10. There isn't one thing I can point towards to say do this better or differently. It's a testament to the creative genius of Ninja Theory, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for taking the risk to make something like Hellblade. Senua's Sacrifice has left a Lorestone in my soul.

Thank you.

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Han Cilliers

Han Cilliers

Lola puts the cobalt back in all things blue. An active, but odd master of the unorthodox, with more than three decades of sore thumbs under her belt. Oh cat! Writer at Glitched Africa
Han Cilliers
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