[WARNING OF SPOILERS AHEAD. PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE PLANNING ON PLAYING THE GAME. OTHERWISE, ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. THANK YOU]
Hellblade: Seuna’s Sacrifice is video game produced by Ninja Theory (the creators behind Heaven Sword and the Devil May Cry rebooted series) for PC and PS4. Entwined with Norse and Celtic Mythology, it follows the warrior Seuna as she embarks on a journey to Hellheim to bring back her dead lover, Dillion, and struggling through her psychosis of reality and her mind. I actually touched on the game very briefly a few years ago when discussing Heaven Sword 2 here.
As always with my reviews, they will be divided by the following section – Story, Presentation, Gameplay, Soundtrack and Conclusion.
As briefly mentioned before, this game focuses on a young woman called Seuna (Melina Juergens), who suffers from psychosis (I would say she suffers from schizophrenia, but it’s never been confirmed nor am I a medical professional) who travels to Helheim (Hell) to save her dead lover Dillion (Oliver Walker), who was slaughtered by the Northmen. There are around 3 – 5 female voices in her head (the narrator who is also a voice is Chipo Chung) that help her (to a certain extend) along with others, such as Druth (Nicholas Boulton) – a dead scholar; her dead mother Galena (Ellie Piercy); her father Zynbel (Steven Hartley); the Darkness and Dillion himself. It is said to loosely based on the Picts tribes – people who lived in the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods in the Scotland area.
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Some examples of the Picts’ many trinkets and customs
The story begins as Seuna travels a long river to Helheim as the voices explain a bit about her past, along with her insecurities and fears. When she finds land, kicks the boat away (as she knows there is no way back) and travels to the River of Knives, which leads to Hela’s Gate. Hela (a giantess and daughter of Loki) is the one who holds the souls of the dead and once Seuna meets her at the (locked) gate, she is attacked and given ‘the rot’ (a mechanic the game that I will go into more detail about in the Gameplay section). She fights off some more enemies where Druth (who returned to her at the River of Knives) informs her that she must fight two gods in order to get their marks to open Hela’s gate. These two gods are Surt – the fire giant – and Valravn – the god of illusions. Seuna defeats both of them after overcoming their puzzles and travels through the gate.
After fighting more enemies and solving more puzzles, Seuna crosses the bridge over the River of Knvies, where she encounters Hela once more and is sent into a spiral of her own psychosis. This section of the game gives more backstory to Seuna – she suffered from the same ‘sight’ as her priestess mother Galena did, so her father Zynbel keeps her locked away so her ‘darkness’ will not affect others. Seuna does venture outside, only to see a boy who trains to be a warrior. She too begins to train like him and when they meet, Dillion invites her to watch him at the Trials. Seuna argues with her father and leaves him to be with Dillion.
Seuna then undergoes the Trials herself to get the sword Gramr that can kill a god (her original sword was broken by Hela). With the help of Dillion and Druth, Seuna completes the four trials and gets the sword. She is transported to the Sea of Corpses, where her mother lies. She fights her way out and comes to a temple inside a mountain that houses the Darkness. After completing more puzzles and defeating the Beast that lies within it, the Darkness tells Seuna that she had to face her fear that she could be ready to face Hela.
Seuna suffers from more psychosis, revealing that a plague affected her tribe and many blame her for it due to her ‘darkness’ that her father had convinced everyone about (which killed Dillion’s father, the blind chief of the tribe). She fixes the bridge and finally faces Hela. Sadly, Seuna cannot defeat her after facing hordes of enemies but accepts that she cannot bring Dillion back.
Now, when watching the ending of the game, I didn’t really understand it (but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get any unsatisfactions from it) but throughout the game, I had a feeling it was going to end badly – very similarly to Heavenly Sword where Nariko (the protagonist and one of the characters you play as) died due to the condition of which she wielded the Heavenly Sword (but not before defeating the main antagonist, King Bohan). This article explains it in great detail, but I’ll explain it in my own words (I also didn’t get the extra scene with Druth, so I won’t touch upon it, but you can read it in the twinfinite article I’ve linked). After all the fighting and struggles Seuna went through, it seems as though this journey was all in her head (although, I do not believe that any of the characters – apart from Druth, the Darkness and the voice – were made up) and that Hela is really Seuna. She embarked on her own personal journey to her own personal hell with a goal – to save the one person who believed her and loved her for she was, no matter what others said. This was about triumphing herself – something that people who suffer from psychosis have to do (which I can confirm as I do suffer from a mental illness). Everything she suffered – the truth behind her mother’s death (she died when Seuna was young but could not remember how she died (a possibility of her mind protecting herself which does sometimes happen if you suffer from psychosis)) of how she was burnt alive like a witch; her father’s abuse; Dillion’s death – these are all things that shaped Seuna into who she is and gave her the emotional scars that needed to be overcome. And even though she did overcome her demons, Seuna still has the voices and the rot as she begins a new journey, it shows that not everything can be ‘cured’ magically – people who suffer from depression will always have depression but they adapt to it and live a life where it no longer controls their lives.
The story – for one so simple – is great and truly emotional (I was very close to tears at the end). You may not have been with Seuna since the beginning, but to witness and struggle through her psychosis with her is a great way to show someone who doesn’t suffer from a psychosis how people who do have a psychosis how difficult it can be. And for people – such as myself – who suffer from psychosis that no matter what, we can overcome it.
I’m going to say something that will probably shock you: this game was made by a team of 20 people.
How can a game that so fricking gorgeous be made by only 20 people?!
This game certainly sets the dark, brooding and somewhat horrifying atmosphere you inspect to be portrayed in a psychosis-driven world. Of course, there are some truly beautiful scenery, such as the mountains at Surt’s Gate and the scene of when you uncover the tree that houses Gramr of past Seuna and Dillion. Of course, there were scenes that really scared me or made me uneasy – one the trials is to go through a house in complete darkness (with only Dillion helping you) and weird, blobby monsters pretty much everywhere. The game’s beauty is in your face pretty much as soon as the game begins with Seuna travelling across the river to Helheim as the credits are rolling.
Motion capture was used for this game – all voice actors also acted for their characters. Here’s something that may surprise you: Melina Juergens is actually a video editor for Ninja Theory, so when they began the read through of the story, Melina nominated herself. The director Tameem Antoniades was so impressed, they hired her to do all of Seuna’s capture – and she’s never acted before! I’m not sure what motion capture device(s) they used, but I’ll link the playlist of Ninja Theory’s Development Diaries so you get to see some amazing stuff (subscribe to them while you’re at it too).
This game was made with Unreal Engine 4 (and becoming my favourite engine in video games the more it’s used).
One of the features the game includes is the Photo Mode – this allows you to take photos within the game using various filters, colour grading, panning, rolling and more. For an already hauntingly beautiful game, the presentation of this game is truly incredible.
Most of this game is dark, but the light is presented heavily – for example, when you defeat Valravn and Surt in the early stages of the game, the sun begins to shine compared to rain, drear and drab. A perfect example of what this game has told me what it’s about – with light, there is also darkness and one cannot live without the other.
If you have not played the game yet (sorry for the spoilers, but I did warn you) that I’ll also warn you that the controls are not given to you in a hand-holdly way – I think it’s fair to say at this point, we’re pretty accustomed to video games so we know basic controls such a walk, run, jump, interact, etc., etc. Thankfully, the pause menu (as seen above) gives you a list of controls – how to walk, run, interact, focus, deal attacks, dodge and block.
The Focus mechanic is very good – think Tomb Raider’s Survival Mode or Batman’s Detective Mode, only it doesn’t tell you where everything is as it only reacts in certain parts of the game, such as runes (which give you history lessons from Druth) and doors (to start the puzzle to open them).
With doors, they have symbols on them that Seuna must match within the environment – thankfully it’s not too hard because if Seuna gets close to one, you’ll know from all the smaller versions of the symbol that swarm everywhere. These symbols can be anything, so you need a good eye (and possibly a controller as it vibrates when you’re near it too). You can later use the Focus when you obtain Gramr to slow time against enemies and just attack them with everything you’ve got in a small window of time.
The fighting mechanics are good too – very similar to Heavenly Sword, Seuna can deal light attacks (Fast Strike) and heavy attacks (Heavy Strike) along with melee and dodging. Light attacks are quick by deal low damage whereas heavy attacks deal a hefty amount of damage but take longer to execute. You can also combine attacks with Seuna’s speed (just by holding the run button while attacking) to perform good combos that defeat enemies quickly. Depending on what you’re comfortable with, you can adapt certain fighting styles – for me, I was happy to dodge and block then attack the small enemies but when it came to bosses, the still dodged and blocked but dealt heavier attacks. Again, it depends on the player.
There’s also a strategy you can develop when fighting these guys with shields
The blocking mechanic was my saving grace (after I found out you could it when fighting against Valravn) but the dodge could be…well, a bit dodgy. Sometimes, there would be a small delay from me pushing a button to Seuna actually doing the move (not like Street Fighter V delay) so I may have dodged too late or in the wrong direction, but it’s not like it was the cause when I died (that was just my own unskilled ways). I also discovered later on in the game that when Seuna gets down, you can repeatedly tap any button to get back up (albeit much weaker but still able to block until Seuna’s health is regained) – this is something I would have liked to have known early on when facing Valravn so I wouldn’t have gotten as frustrated as I did (it’s not mentioned in the pause menu or anything like that).
The rot mechanic is cool – until you release it’s a lie. Basically, when Seuna gets the rot, the player is told that if they die enough times, the rot will spread. If it spreads to Seuna’s head, it’s game over and you’ll have to start from the beginning. Because of this, I actually got scared to get past a certain point in the game (during the Trials, I had died quite a few times at this point) and even though I thankfully got through it (on my first retry nonetheless), there did come a point where I died, but the rot simply reset itself (I reviewed my footage and took pictures just to measure the amount of rot just to make sure). Granted, I had this game on medium difficulty setting, so maybe the hard difficulty is where this is true? I honestly don’t know. I would have liked it to be true (somewhat) as it is a punishing game mechanic, compared to those who hold your hand or give you infinite start overs.
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The soundtrack (which you can listen to here) is a perfect fit with the atmosphere – dark and strange, mixed with chanting to give you that Norse mythology feel or epic drums to get your blood pumping for battle. There are some soothing tracks and others make your hairs stand on end with anticipation that flows with Seuna’s emotions.
There are 2 licensed songs included in the soundtrack which are both played towards the end of the game. The first is Just Like Sleep by Passarella Death Squad which really reminds me of The Yawgh‘s soundtrack (especially the song that plays if you get a bad ending and you discover what happens to your village). It plays during the final fight and adds to the feeling on knowing that Seuna’s determination is what is keeping her fighting, but knowing that she has to let go. While I can make out some words form the lyrics, I don’t care that it doesn’t make sense – it’s such a perfect fit.
The second licensed song is Illusion by VNV Nation which is played as the credits roll. It’s first line of lyrics (“I know it’s hard to tell how mixed up you feel”) summed up my feelings about the ending perfectly – while I was glad Seuna had survived, I was sad for everything she had gone through and not being able to bring Dillion back. I actual looked at the comments of the YouTube video link I’ve given – while lots of people had been brought there for the Hellblade trailer and/or game, many others had been brought there as a recommendation to listen to while suffering as a form of hope. And the lyrics reflect that – many of the lyrics I agreed to feeling while suffering from a mental illness and sends a powerful message that you shouldn’t give up. Again, this fits perfectly with the message I got from playing this game.
This soundtrack is perfect – there is nothing else I can say.
Overall, Hellblade is a fantastic cinematic, horror-ridden, emotional-filled journey about a woman and her struggles. Struggles that 1 in 4 people suffer with. I know Ninja Theory worked very closely with people who suffer from psychosis along with professionals within the industry which I think aided them in hitting the nail on the head. Some parts can be disturbing, some parts can be uncomfortable, some parts can be a straight up struggle. The game is short, but gives such a great example of what people who suffer from psychosis go through on a daily basis. Seuna is a strong and likable character, along with the other supporting characters, even if they only have a small part to play (apart from Zynbel, but then again he must have been written well for me to hate him so much).
While I did uncover a glitch or two and the sound/subtitling was not great, it did not ruin the experience for me.
While some video games have delved into the world of mental illness, I can say hand-on-heart that Hellblade is the best portrayal of it with the best message – you can overcome your own darkness. I highly recommend this game to anyone.
That’s it, thank you for reading! Hope you enjoyed it. Here’s a link to the playlist of my Hellblade playthrough on my YouTube channel. Let me know if I missed anything, if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said or just want to discuss something.
If you are suffering from anything that is present in Hellblade, please visit this page Ninja Theory has set up for helplines and such for various countries around the world.
If you’re also UK based (like me and Ninja Theory), please consider donating to Wellcome, who worked closely with Ninja Theory during this process.
Thanks again and see you next time!