Hellblade was a strange one for me. I remember hearing about Ninja Theory’s Hellblade over a year ago around E3 time frame and thinking to myself, “I’m sure that’s just another Dark Souls clone.”
Boy, was I wrong. If you would have told me Hellblade was about a female Viking suffering from schizophrenia…well, that was what the news was bubbling up around E3 and I remember thinking that I absolutely could not believe it. Then, Hellblade went dark and I didn’t hear anything else until the day it released when controversial reviewer (whom I love) Jim Sterling tweeted about how he gave the game a 1/10 because he had a game breaking bug, but he really loved the game up to that point. Watching his video explanation as to why he gave Hellblade a 1/10 when, as per usual, other sites were giving it unusually high marks made me roll my eyes, but I knew I had to jump in with both feet and see for myself.
It was that minor tempest in a teacup that brought me to the shores of Senua’s village. Senua, Hellblade’s damaged female protagonist, arrives back at her home after a long time away to find that her village has been ransacked by the “Northmen”, another tribe of Vikings and that her true love Dillion has been killed in a spectacular fashion. She sees a vision that if she takes his head and travels to “Helheim” (Viking hell) with it, she can save his soul and bring him back so they may be together.
Right out of the gate, Hellblade tells you that Senua has a darkness in her, symbolized by a stain on her right hand, and as you are killed throughout the game, the darkness spreads through up her arm. If the contagion reaches her head, your save file gets deleted. HARD CORE. Another reason why I jumped in with both feet, and definitely made Hellblade’s combat sections feel that far more was at stake then, “Whoops, I died, I guess I’ll just reload.” I was actively pounding on my keyboard when I got knocked down in combat, yelling, “Get up, get UP!”
As Hellblade’s introduction starts, it specifically says that the game is best played with a pair of headphones, which I fortunately always use. The next title card to pop up where the epilepsy warning might have used to go, comes a page warning of the scenes of graphic psychosis and that Ninja Theory had an entire team of psychiatric specialists advising them to make sure they were not being “video game-y” with their depictions of mental illness. It is an unfortunate thing that they had to put that in there, as the game would have been better not explaining why Senua, Viking warrior, has a chorus of voices nattering at her at all times during the game. The headphones are constantly bombarding you with whispers from a group of females, whose disposition changes quite frequently, who may or may not have Senua’s best interest at heart.
As much as I would love to dig into the story and talk about everything here, Ninja Theory, creators of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Heavenly Sword, love their story telling. Hell, even the revamp of the Devil May Cry series made me care about Dante by the end. Hellblade almost becomes more of a game to experience versus a game to play; to follow Senua and her story of cursed love. Let’s just say upon completing the game, I jumped into the Steam forums for the game to see what people were talking about as far as explaining the ending and what it all meant.
One thing we can talk about is the gameplay, which is a little lacking overall. Hellblade can be thought of more of a series of combat rooms mixed with a series of adventure-game style puzzles, where Senua is forced to use her environment to find a series of runes to unlock a door to progress. Senua does do battle with some pretty amazing creatures, which strangely made me think of Infinity Blade or even (ready for this?) the original Punch-Out for the 8-bit Nintendo. They are these odd beasts, larger than she is and constantly making these giant overhand strikes at her that she has to parry or dodge to then run in and chain together strikes. At first, the combat seems a bit clunky and repetitive, but it almost feels more realistic than to have her jumping around like Dante in Devil May Cry. There literally is no way to change targets. She locks onto a single target, and there are definitely times in the game where I was getting surrounded or there was a higher priority target I wanted to go after that I couldn’t because I was locked in battle with the monster in front of me.
There is no heads-up display, no health meter, no minimap, no…nothing. Simply a mirror that rests on her hip (next to the severed head of Dillion, her love) that shows your special attack charge meter in combat like the health meter from Dead Space, cleverly inserted into the spacesuit’s spine. That’s it. Sparse. And there is no tutorial. You get off the small skiff that brings you to your ransacked village and…good luck. Fortunately, there is a “controls” section in the options menu that tells you everything. I didn’t even realize there was a block button until my second or third fight. But I appreciated it. We’re all adults here, this game isn’t for kiddies that they would understand the deep meanings behind the story being told, so hey, surprise, use the WASD keys on your keyboard to walk around. You know this, so we’re not going to hold your hand, gamer.
While we’re talking about clever user interface design: Hellblade. Is. Gorgeous. Utilizing the Unreal 4 engine, the graphics in Hellblade are breathtaking. I’m not sure what facial capture software they used to map Senua’s every twitch and fidget as she battles with the darkness and voices in her head, but good lord. I’m usually a console gamer and I’m sure it looks fine on the PS4 Pro, but Hellblade makes me want to pitch these machines and go straight PC Master Race.
Ninja Theory took a lot of risks when they put together Hellblade, but as far as I’m concerned, Hellblade will be a game that sticks with me for some time to come. I’m at a point in my life where gaming is starting to bore me a bit (wow, never thought I would say that), we are living in an era where every game feels like every other game and studios are going with the easy layup with downloadable content and multiplayer bolted onto sequel after sequel. Ninja Theory does something amazing with Hellblade. It is a wholly unique experience that I guarantee will be getting whispered about during game of the year discussions by the big websites; maybe not for gameplay, but its story telling and how it gets that story across is second to none. Clocking in from start to finish at 7.5 hours, if you feel like a breath of fresh air as far as the stale games industry goes, Hellblade is definitely one for you to play through to completion.