Hellblade is the 2017 game from Ninja Theory. After it received mostly positive reactions for the PS4, Xbox One owners were finally able to get their hands on it nearly a year later. It follows Senua as she travels through Helheim to save the soul of the man she loves. What really got most people about this game was that Senua also suffers from psychosis, and the developers worked closely with mental health specialists to recreate this feeling for players.
I was extremely interested in Hellblade but sadly never got around to playing it on the PS4, when it came out for Xbox One I promised myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. After sitting down and experiencing the game it took me awhile to process everything that had happened, and everything I felt. Many critics have praised Hellblade as a work of art (even to those that said it wasn’t necessarily the best game), and I find myself agreeing. It brings something to the table that I never expected, and it is an intense experience overall. It’s hard to break down Hellblade without spoiling too much, but I will do my best.
Senua suffers from psychosis (as mentioned above), and given the period of history it’s set in, many people respond to her as being a curse on them. Her “darkness,” as it’s referred to, is feared by all and as a result, she is raised in near isolation and abuse. She meets a boy from the village, and he slowly starts to pull her out of her shell and away from those that consider her a mistake. She is stuck walking the line between believing the horrible things said about her, and wanting to believe the man she loves.
The way that her psychosis plays out for the gamer is effective. While you are playing the game, you are almost constantly bombarded by voices. They will range from encouraging, to annoying, to downright cruel when the game is at it’s most bleak. It becomes this other character that picks at you and starts to make the experience something else than what you’ve ever played before. They can get repetitive at times, but I don’t know if this was an intentional choice or not. Either way, it is something unique and compelling. Hellblade’s decision to dive into mental health so aggressively is such a fantastic choice, and I love it for it.
The game is also beautiful. Melina Juergens does a great job with the motion capture, and the world of Helheim is well done. It is gorgeous and terrifying at different times, and often both at once. Parts of the game are breathtaking, and if you are to talk about visuals in games, this one deserves a place as one of the best. I wasn’t a fan of the other characters being live action especially when put up close to the motion capture performance, but you can likely brush that off as a personal preference. It wasn’t bad, just odd to me.
The audio of the game is also up there with the visuals. It has a beautiful soundtrack that plays well with the game itself. Many moments of the game have swelling music that works with the violent nature of the gameplay. It makes for an interesting counterpoint to what you are seeing vs. what you are hearing. The voice acting is also phenomenal.
Gameplay itself is where most seem to start to fall off a bit with this game, and I have to agree. The game is a challenge, which is fine. You are presented with different enemy types, and like many challenging games, the key is in memorizing their attack patterns and learning to work with it. This works well, and for the most part, I like it, but there is a lack of variety and several times where you are hit with just the same enemies in long waves. At many points, it becomes less about discovering a pattern and more about repeating a pattern you’ve already done before and repeating it far too many times. I also struggle with the difficulty of the game given how story driven it is. It’s not that I hate challenging games, rather it’s that I worry that many people who would truly appreciate the experience of this game might never get to play it. However, the difficulty of the game and the fact that there is potential perma-death is supposed to add to the anxiety of the player to help build more on the stress and mental health aspects. It’s hard for me to say whether losing that stress would impact it so much that it’s not worth making the game more approachable for a broader audience or not.
There are also a number of puzzles in the game, and I had varying opinions of them. Some are clever and challenging, others just require you trying to line a few things up with the camera and can end up taking a long time simply because the camera is not lining up as it should. At one point I ended up “stuck” trying to get the camera to recognize a symbol that it just wouldn’t.
While not entirely in love with all the aspects of gameplay, they are solid. I think the criticism that the “artistic” aspects of the game far outweigh the gameplay itself is valid. The story, the acting, the art, the look at psychosis, all of these things are well done, fleshed out, and beautiful. The gameplay is above average but can’t reach the heights that the rest of the game reached though. In the end, I don’t think it really matters though. The gameplay is not bad, so it’s ok that the “art” of the game is so much better. If you had a bad game with that degree of effort put into the art, you might have a bit of an issue, but the gameplay taking a backseat while still be serviceable is okay by me.
In the end, I would highly recommend this game. It’s an experience and can be a challenging one at that. It hits you hard many times but is entirely worth it. It’s fascinating, compelling, unique, and has an exceptional story. Senua is a fantastic hero, and I felt for her more than I have felt for many others in my past. I am still struggling to put into words exactly how this game made me feel, but I think it’s worth it to experience that for yourself. I am curious to see what Ninja Theory will bring to us next, and in the meantime, if you haven’t, I would say pick up Hellblade.