Must be seeing things.
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Format: PC, PS4 (Reviewed)
Released: August 8, 2017
Well fuck me, who knew Ninja Theory had this in them? Knowing almost nothing going into it, I was expecting the usual Ninja Theory de jure: another visually impressive action game with the same sense of wholesomeness as eating a can of Pringles. So you can imagine my stunned surprise when what I ended up getting instead was a gripping and emotional tale that I couldn’t pull myself away from, no matter how hard I tried. Even more astounding was the unique way it tackled themes of loss and mental illness, done with more insight and intelligence than I ever expected from the developers behind such adrenaline-fueled hacky-slashy affairs like Heavenly Sword and the Devil May Cry reboot.
You play as Senua, the titular Celtic warrior burdened with a severe case of psychosis, along with “tragic character backstory #4” as she returns home from a self-inflicted exile, only to find her village destroyed and her beloved, Dillion, brutally sacrificed by Viking invaders. But after learning that there may be a way to save him, Senua sets sail for the grim shores of the Viking land of the dead, Helhiem, determined to beat up the gods until they bring her lover back to life. With only the voices in her head for company, Senua will have to journey into the deepest depths of the underworld to face her fears and her tragic past. But with a looming darkness slowly rotting away at her body and soul, whether she can even get that far is another question entirely.
Played entirely from Senua’s perspective, Hellblade aims to simulate what it’s like to experience psychosis. Right from the start of the game, it’s immediately clear just how much respect and care Ninja Theory put into its portrayal of the condition. Even more so when you watch the short documentary that comes with the game, which looks at the in-depth development process and the amount of homework the team did to ensure that they were crafting a faithful interpretation. And after consulting with mental health professionals, as well as people living with psychosis in order to better understand their first-hand experiences, the end result of all that effort is nothing short of phenomenal thanks to a clever combination of visual and audio tricks.
One of the moments this really hit home for me was a point early on in the game when Senua would notice a repeating pattern in the environment. Suddenly the world became a beautiful kaleidoscope of bright, fleeting wisps of light as the patterns would begin to illuminate in a strong blue hue, as though they are all her mind can focus on. But then, alternatively, there would also be moments these effects would terrify me more than any horror game ever has. One particular example of this reared its head when Senua found herself being chased by a nightmarish beast whenever she stepped into darkness. Suddenly, whenever she was away from a source of light, she would begin to go into a state of blind panic. Her vision would begin to blur and obscure the view ahead as ghoulish noises would scratch and gnaw angrily into my ears in her desperate scramble for safety.
But where the game really shines in its portrayal is how it simulates the concept of hearing voices. By using binaural audio, which makes headphones a must, the game creates the sensation of several contradicting voices whispering in your ears at once. It especially makes for a harrowing experience at the start of the game as these multiple disembodied voices dance around your head, whispering eerily about the horrible mistake that Senua is about to make, begging her to go back and childishly giggling at how gruesomely she is going to die as a result.
Unfortunately, Hellblade’s gameplay doesn’t quite meet the same heights as its presentation and storytelling. Exploration, for example, is about as involved as following a line of tape measure. For a majority of the game you’ll be strung along through the game’s stunning environments with nothing better to do but listen to ephemeral dialogue and solve the occasional perspective puzzle blocking your forward path.
Although I did enjoy the slow and tense nature of its combat, focusing more on timing and positioning than wild sword swinging, there isn’t all that much variety on offer to keep it interesting. You’re only given small array of actions to work with: fast and heavy strikes, a block, an evade and a defence-breaking kick. As a result, the quickest and easiest way to defeat the nightmarish goons eventually boils down to “dodge or block their attacks, then beat the shit out of them until they wind up the next strike. Rinse and repeat until everything is dead.” Admittedly, the game does attempt to add some variety to this formula by drip-feeding a small handful of new enemies that come with different weapons and attack patterns. But after about halfway through the game, it seems to just run out of ideas and instead simply starts throwing a bigger number of foes at you to deal with at once.
Thankfully, the game still manages to make you care about combat in a devilishly ingenious way by threatening you with a permadeath mechanic that will wipe your save if you die too many times. And I absolutely love how, with nothing but a small warning in the game’s opening hour, the game makes even smallest battles against cannon fodder foes carry dangerously high stakes that force you to fight smart as you desperately scramble around the small arenas in order to keep Senua alive and your progress intact. While this may sound like an incredibly unfair mechanic at first, the game does a fantastic job of balancing its difficulty so that you never feel like every single fight may be your last. In fact, more often than not, I found myself dying from the game’s instant-death puzzle hazards than any of the combat encounters.
With strong writing, and fantastic use of visual and audio design Hellblade is an absolutely stunning game. It’s amazing to see the extra mile that Ninja Theory has gone to in order to craft a unique and sympathetic portrayal of mental illness that never feels patronizing. And even though a little on the repetitive side, its combat still has that slick Ninja Theory polish that makes every battle a tense struggle for survival. It may not be perfect, but it’s an experience that will stay with you long after the credits roll, and one you can’t afford to miss out on.
A masterclass in interactive narrative that suffers from a few small gameplay shortcomings.
Writer: Tristan Venables
Editor: Joseph Diskett