( Played on PC.)
Not many games touch on what Hellblade is centrally about. The themes around it is foreign to me and foreign to much of the game industry and foreign in general, it’s a topic of conversation that you don’t really hear much about and a videogame that wants to tackle that particular topic of conversation is quite out of left field and pretty remarkable.
The game opens with the title character, Senua, a Celtic warrior with severe mental illness, on her way back to her village and discovers it plundered after a Viking raid. After discovering her lover was sacrificed to the gods, she embarks on a quest to retrieve his soul from them. Throughout my four hour session with the game, Senua carries his skull wrapped in cloth, pushing on her quest to make a deal with Hela, the Norse goddess of death.
As I began the game, the first cutscene, Senua paddles past corpses that have been burned and staked by the Vikings. It isn’t long before the voices begin and they get louder and louder, until the voices are all around you. It’s impossible to figure out who’s talking and this is all brought to life using 3D Audio.
The 3D audio is honestly the best part of the game so far. Several voices are constantly present with no real sense of knowing who’s talking, which includes the narrator. As I was playing, some voices were cheering me on while others were degrading, laughing, cautioning, and asking me questions. As the voices were all around me, I felt myself slowly being immersed into the world that Ninja Theory created. The use of sound plays a greater role in the game then what you might think. In one section, I had to use my sense of hearing to navigate through the trial until I got to the end. Footsteps turned into something else, something terribly spooky and then monster-like growling signaled that there was some sort of creature here with me. The sound is utterly fantastic and it’s great that the developers went this far into tapping at many people’s fear of the dark and what might be lurking around.
Hellblade does a good job of giving a sense of fear, dread, and anxiety in other parts of the game that doesn’t play on your fear of the dark. In combat, you also feel anxious because there is no hand-holding at all in this game. There’s no combat tutorial, no hud, and no health. In fact, everytime you die, once you respawn back, Senua will have rot going up her arm and when the rot reaches her arm, she dies for real. It’s a mechanic that adds a great layer of anxiety and fear as you go further into the game.
How many lives I had or how much health I had left remaining is always a mystery in Hellblade, the only hints you get are distortions on your screen. The controls are easy enough to understand and most of the combat is timing and precision, timing your light and heavy combo attacks are key to winning fights. After a couple of minutes, you get into the rhythm of things as patterns become easy to spot and become quite predictable, I like the rhythm and the flow of combat.
Hellblade for me, as of this moment is an experience and not a game. It’s an experience of what was like during the time of the Vikings and learning about the central themes of mental illness that surrounds it, I’m not familiar with it and it is foreign to me so perhaps the game can teach me something about this foreign topic that most games and most certainly not enough people talk about. Stay tuned for my review.