Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was deservedly dubbed as one of the most important games of 2017 and of this generation. Sheer ambition of 20-people crew at Ninja Theory to create something they called a „Triple A indie title” resounded throughout the industry, with the best proof being the amount of accolades and awards won for both Hellblade’s art direction and its depiction of psychosis. Senua’s journey gained a lot of fans and revenue, so the game’s further presence among the playerbase had to be established. And Ninja Theory did just that. 2018 saw Hellblade published in the box edition and its soundtrack finally came out, previously available only for the game data dwellers. Even though David Garcia and Andy LePlegua’s composition was published only digitally, near 50-minutes long album is worth the time of a video game music enthusiast and the game’s loyal fan.
Rarely do I find myself just not noticing the flaws because of pure emotion and art-direction the tracks present.
David Garcia and Combochrist’s Andy LaPlegua had to create composition so vast and completed that it fulfils the studio’s AAA dream. The aesthetic demands were hovering above them as well, to create a dark, almost mythical feel of the story in their music, while at the same time expressing the game’s psychosis themes. Perforce, their composition turned out to be very mosaic in its nature, drawing inspirations from different genres and ultimately using many (if not all) ways of expressing musically all of the game’s ideas and motives. They merged modern and ethnic sounds, not being afraid to draw from classically orchestrated scores and not losing the track of the main premise.
Considering the heavy reliance on sound in Hellblade, their composition shines when it comes to utilizing it to further drag the player into Senua’s troubled mind. Spacious soundscapes are a thing to submerge in and the sound design is clockwork-precise — it includes a plethora of eerie sounds to replicate Senua’s experience of her own mind and voices speaking in her head. Twisted and sick, her perspective is represented with a vast textures of modulated voices, echoes and synthetic sounds, and tracks like Northmen makes me think that ambient couldn’t have found it’s way into a better source material to present what the genre is capable of. In this track, dehumanized, hellish voices get under your skin, questioning your ability to distinguish human voice from a monster-like growl. Helheim drops you alone and cold in a world of tortured imagination, introducing the soundtrack’s leitmotiv — male choir.
White voice singing and menacing war cries — known better from efforts of the bands like Wardruna — are at the core of action music, although not in it’s full meaning. The game’s world, and sometimes its music, is not there to motivate the player but to break them. Vikings themselves and their gods (writhed inside Senua’s head as ethnic elements of the score) are in fact the main source of trauma in Senua’s journey into darkness. Surtr is an amazing piece that menaced the hell out of me, deafening me with its drums, anvils and of course Andy LaPlegua’s voicework, and ultimately made me feel belittled. Just like River of Knives or Sea of Corpses, this piece creates the atmosphere of fighting numerous foes towering over you, threatening you with fluked „permadeath” as more and more waves slowly charge at you.
There is a strong vision and dedication here. Everything has meaning and place, being tightly bound with the game’s world, characters and story.
Druth is where I noticed the album is a thought-out work. It’s opened by Druth’s pessimistic monologue that fits the somber, ambient-backed female vocals soothing the player after two tough levels with boss fights. Even though this track remains among the calmest ones, its still accompanied by creeping, hissing voices not letting the player forget that Senua merely won a battle, not her own twisted mind. Darkness is the only, „classically” orchestral piece featuring lyrical strings. It’s also preceded by one of the best lines from the game. Not distorted in any way, it stands out as a small masterpiece thanks to Steven Hartley reading some poetic lines as the Darkness. Dillion introduces electric guitar to the score along with some lighter tones of hope, and even though it sounds sentimental in indie-rock kind of way, it doesn’t go as far to sound kitschy or corny. It’s the most „pleasurable” listen from this album.
I should also mention of other pieces, not composed by the duo, that accompany the game’s last quarter hour or so. Just Like Sleep by Pasarella Death Squad is a trance-like, electronic track with looped beat that stresses the implied endless struggle of Senua’s psyche with her own past, that also demands from the player to give up in this pointless fight. It’s one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve had in my life, with music creating tragic yet breathtaking atmosphere of fighting the undefeatable. To close the journey, Ninja Theory picked VNV Nation’s As It Fades giving us a moment of genuine, actual peace. Illusion of the same group plays in the closing credits, with its lyrics hinting at Senua and closing the game’s theme perfectly.
From the gamedev perspective, Hellblade is stuff for long discussions. Its soundtrack as well, but not because it broke some boundaries or it is an especially engaging and „attractive” listen. In that regard, it lacks in some departments, like mastering or performance. Its also very demanding with it’s dark atmosphere, LaPlegua’s chants and creepy voices. But I will still call it one of the best soundtracks in recent time, as it weaves with all of the game’s complicated ideas and themes while keeping things interesting with new instrumentations and inspirations. A skilled ear will catch samples and flat sounds here and there, but rarely do I find myself just not noticing it because of pure emotion and art-direction the tracks present. There is a strong vision and dedication here. Everything has meaning and place, being tightly bound with the game’s world, characters and story. Tracks may differ greatly but they share the same musical language, creating the same person in many ways without sounding too eclectic and cliched. It’s an entire clockwork of sounds, noises, themes — all precisely composed. If the composers were the ones to pick VNV Nation’s and PDS’s songs as well, that means they understood the vision and what the game needed — a skill of good video game composers. If you need a proof that you can do great things with a small set of tools, Hellblade is your best bet.