This world is just illusions.
If I were asked to name a few game developers that I felt were underrated, Ninja Theory would be near the top of that list.
Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC are all games I’ve enjoyed in the past, and the polarizing DmC is one of my favorite entries in the Devil May Cry series. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned games went on to sell particularly well, and were often received with middling reviews.
Regardless, I believed them to be a talented studio, and was excited to see what “Hellblade” would be like when they first announced it in 2014. Years later, I finally got my hands on their new IP and am happy to report that not only is it their most ambitious project to date, it is easily their best.
Platforms: PC, PS4
Extra Features: Makings of Feature.
Played on: i5 4460K/GTX 1080
Length: 6 Hours
Cast out as a cursed one that brings misfortune to everyone she crosses, Senua returns home from her exile to find it ravaged by invaders and her beloved, murdered and mutilated. With the hope of reclaiming the soul of her loved one, she journeys to Helheim to confront the queen of the dead.
On the surface, the story presented in Hellblade seems very typical, but it is made clear from the onset that there is an underlying theme that drives the whole experience. Senua is a Celtic warrior, skilled in combat and determined to fulfill her mission at any cost, but at the same time she suffers from a rather severe case of Psychosis. Due to her condition, the reality of her world is one shaped by illusions and fragmented, much like a broken mirror. It is fascinating to see common symptoms of Psychosis represented in the game visually and also through sound, as she is haunted by constant whispers- voices with personalities and motives of their own.
As I certainly don’t want to spoil anything, I found that the subject matter was handled with grace and much more importantly, with style and substance that kept my attention from beginning to end. Senua’s journey is a perilous one, and how things end up may surprise you, and whether that be one of delight or consternation will be entirely up to your interpretation and perspective.
Visually speaking, Hellblade’s presentation is nearly flawless, with exceptional use of lighting and a laundry list of filtered effects that combine to make awe-inspiring environments. Better yet, the facial animations are top of the class in the industry, and I often found myself getting lost in Senua’s piercing gaze during one of her soliloquies. The game is also optimized quite well, and outside of small infrequent hitches, the game ran smoothly without any issue.
The visual presentation is complimented by the excellent voice over work, and the overall sound design, including the voices that kept me company throughout my playthrough, is deserving of praise and I can’t stress how important it is to make use of headphones for that reason.
When you’re not standing around looking at the environment or Senua’s model itself, thinking how gorgeous everything looks, you just might be locked in combat with hellish wraiths that want nothing more than to punch you a one way ticket to Helheim.
Senua’s arsenal of moves is limited to a series of light, heavy and guard break attacks. Defensively, she can dodge and block with little delay, which made her feel quite nimble. With a well timed block, she parries the onslaught and knocks the enemy off balance, opening it up to devastating counter attacks. She also has access to an artifact that allows her to make intangible foes vulnerable to attack and slow down time for everyone else so she can press the advantage.
Locking onto the enemy and shifting into battle stance happens naturally whenever the need arises, and I could quickly switch between my targets with the use of the right analog stick. Senua was often pitted against multiple foes at once, and it was important to be mindful of my positioning so that none of my enemies had a free shot at my back.
As debilitating as Psychosis could be, the whispers of the voices proved useful in combat as I would often hear something like “Look out!” or “Behind you!” when an enemy was about to attack me from behind, and thanks to that audio cue, combat against multiple enemies never felt unmanageable or cheap.
Outside of combat, I found myself exploring the environments and solving perception based puzzles. A door would be locked with symbols and I would be tasked with trying to find the same symbols nearby through focusing on objects and light sources in different ways. While the puzzles were novel at first, I found them to be a bit too basic to be of any challenge and far too commonplace as I grew tired of them rather quickly. While I certainly understand that these perception puzzles fit the theme of the game, representing the symptom of delusion where one makes connections where there are none to be found, from a playability standpoint, they stood out as a blemish all the same.
Lastly, it is worth noting that the game claims to delete your save file if you die too many times during your quest, but as I only died once during my playthrough, I can’t say if it’s true or not but as it’s not a particularly challenging game with multiple difficulty settings you can change at any time, I don’t think this will be an issue for anyone. On the merits of this concept’s originality, well- go play the original Nier and then we’ll talk.
Clocking in at around 6 hours, there isn’t any real replay value unless you’re someone like me who likes to go back to see how the experience changes after I’ve been enlightened with the full picture. While some may claim that it is far too short of a game, I would argue that it is the perfect length for this particular title, and as it retails at half the cost of a typical triple A game at $29.99, it more than justifies its asking price. After all, I certainly don’t think this would have been a better game if it was double the length at twice the cost.
I’ve saying for years now that videogames are not like books or movies or any other form of creative medium. It is something else entirely, with nearly limitless potential to thrust the player into an experience that would otherwise be impossible. Hellblade is one such a title that asks its player to step into the role of a woman suffering from an extreme mental illness. In doing so, it offers a glimpse into a world unknown- one of suffocating dread but also, one of breathtaking beauty.
Fun Tidbit – Much of the appreciation for the game as well as the developers at Ninja Theory for tackling such a difficult subject matter stems from my background in Psychology and my previous work with patients who suffered from similar conditions.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.