It is inevitable: every time a medium tries new paths to express himself he is destined to displace his audience, fragmenting his opinion according to various factors such as expectations, preconceptions and sensitivity. From Shenmue to The Last Guardian, even the video game is no exception and in 2017 something moved with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrific e. Among the names most discussed in an unforgettable year for the density and quality of the releases, the dramatic story of Ninja Theory (now acquired by Microsoft under the wing of the Xbox Game Studios) was able to magnetize the attention of the most receptive players immediately. At first because of the singular production process adopted by the British studio, to then remain firmly at the center of the debate until now, by virtue of a delicate theme – mental infirmity and its consequences – which, although not previously unpublished in the field of videogames, perhaps it had never been represented in such a complex, honest and dominant way as happens during the Senua epic.
The Hellblade circle closes with the publication on Switch – only in digital format – thanks to the commitment of the QLOC team (already authors of Dark Souls Remastered), responsible for a technically demanding and unfortunately not flawless port, but which Nintendo owners should still consider. Now every player has the chance to know what is undoubtedly one of the most courageous titles of the generation, pioneer of a way of understanding the link between the creative and productive process that we hope will become an example to reflect and investigate the potential of the medium.
With the eyes of Senua
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was a bet and a challenge for Ninja Theory, because in fact it is an indie produced with the resources of a triple A and positioned on the market at a budget price of € 29.99. Only the creative freedom achieved in this choice has allowed Tameem Antoniades and colleagues to overcome the challenge, that is, to be able to recount with dignity respect a taboo subject such as psychosis, moreover through a relatively young medium like the video game.
Not just mentioning it through the usual one-dimensional stereotypes, but elevating it to a supporting column of the whole experience. Aware of this objective, Hellblade decisively rejects the classic scheme of the hero's journey to which the entertainment narrative has accustomed us.
At the time of the Vikings, Senua is a young woman from the Pictish tribe marked by the trauma of death of the beloved Dillion, brutally sacrificed to the gods during an invasion of the Nordics. From that moment the memory of lost love becomes a saving refuge from a meaningless life, the sole purpose of its existence, so much so that it pushes it to cross the threshold of the Norse kingdom of the dead – Helheim – in the hope of reviving its soul by bringing it back among the living, as in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A winding path, disseminated from beginning to end by desolation and self-deception, during which the protagonist will succumb more and more times to suffering without, however, ever completely losing a blind determination. And we with her.
It seems paradoxical that Senua's psychic imbalance is described with this scientific lucidity (literally, given the direct involvement of patients and professionals in the field), exploiting the grammar of the videogame language.
From the real to the virtual Also on Switch was included the interesting documentary "Hellblade Senua's Psychosis", a short making of which tells how the work of Ninja Theory was born, illustrating various sessions of motion capture and emphasizing the 'importance of collaboration with affected by psychosis and scholars of the University of Cambridge to be able to transpose the symptoms of mental illness in the videogame context and in a probable manner.
If Melina Juergens' masterly interpretation in motion capture contributes to making tangible the drama of the blue-eyed warrior, the most brilliant intuition is to ask ourselves not so much to empathize with her, but rather to assist her as traveling companions in her catharsis path. Everything we see in Hellblade corresponds indeed to reality filtered according to the logic of the devastated mind of Senua, which manages to attribute unique meanings to the colors and to his ni in the world. To this we owe an artistic direction dominated by hallucinatory video distortions, but above all an audio section that plays a crucial aspect : our perspective is that of one of the many voices, called Furies, that crowd its head – now helping her whispering what to do, now attacking her with sharp and discouraging words. During the intermezzo scenes then the director lingers on Senua in the throes of his delusions with a visceral, almost clinical look – and this is the most brilliant result – always careful never to induce compassion towards his difficult condition, seeking empathy only through openings in which everyone can see something of their own life.
The game of the mind
As well as Spec Ops: The Line deconstructs the war shooter to highlight the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, in the same way Hellblade breaks the action / adventure paradigms.
First of all sacrificing the concept of fun linked to challenge and progression in favor of narrative coherence and thus renouncing explicit graphic interfaces to avoid obstructing the dive. The strictly playful moments of Hellblade consisting of exploratory phases with puzzles and white weapon fights, are indispensable to break the rhythm of the narration, allowing to release the tension previously accumulated. So it happens both to have to find an association of shape between runic symbols and environmental elements (always referring to the creative perception of the patients) to unlock the path, and to scrutinize carefully beyond arches that change the landscape or to frame prospective perspective games to regenerate destroyed stairs. It is in these cases that the intertwining between gameplay and narrative is loosened: the places are sometimes too vast and dispersive, while the mechanical repetitiveness of some enigmas ends up making its weight felt in the more advanced phases.
The clashes with the disturbing projections of the Norse are furious in their raw physicality, emphasizing all the desperation evoked by Senua's strength of mind. Hellblade is not DmC Devil May Cry nor does he want to be: the skeleton of the combat system is simple and practically devoid of grafts in the long term, remaining however functional and effective (with remarkable flashes during the boss fight), with the increase in the number of enemies that makes up for their lack of variety.
The suggestion of the imminent attack on the shoulders by the voices is also another brilliant demonstration of versatility.
Finally, there is a whole series of other "exclusive" mechanics of particular situations, around which a excellent sound design work: phases in total darkness in which to go blind, straining the ear to understand how to proceed or using the vibration of the controller. Although the context foresees many variations on the theme, a certain lack of uniformity in the way in which the various challenges are distributed is evident, a defect partly mitigated by the short time – about nine hours – necessary to see the ending.
Switch's Sacrifice  From a technical point of view it was difficult to expect more from a conversion of a title that runs on Unreal Engine 4. Bringing Hellblade to Switch required several compromises and some "sacrifices": the resolution in TV mode it stays on 720p, going down a lot beyond the threshold in portable mode (accompanied by a heavy aliasing effect), while the action runs at 30 fps in both configurations, resulting however in the less fluid version of all.
Compared to the counterparts, there is also a different lighting and a clear gap between the game and the cutscene (they are pre-loaded FMVs), while occasionally some graphic bugs can be seen and sound. Appreciable to take advantage of the Joy-Con gyroscope to orient the view. Despite being far from insufficient ( the glance is still close to PS4 ) the Switch edition is configured as the worst performing version among those in circulation, not to mention that Hellblade is not there seemed very suitable for mobile gaming.