I’m just going to come out and say it right here. Ninja Theory may have outdone themselves with Hellblade. They have always been good at storytelling and creating believable and engaging worlds and characters with their games. Heavenly Sword and Enslaved could be considered cult hits among many fans. Hellblade also creates an interesting story and world while also confronting a subject that most games have shied away from. Psychosis and mental illness. It’s all presented in a more positive and realistic way then has really been done before in a game. Or in most other media for that matter.
The team went above and beyond to make this game realistic even though it takes place in a historical/fantasy setting. They talked with mental illness experts and people that deal with psychosis to create an accurate representation of what it’s like to experience this kind of thing. The game credits even open up crediting these people even before the Ninja Theory team themselves. They really took this subject seriously and it definitely shows in the game. This alone is a reason to check out the game.
A Story of Legends
In Hellblade you play as Senua, a member of an ancient warrior society of people called the Picts. Senua leaves temporarily to battle what she refers to as the darkness, her mental illness. When she returns to her village, it is destroyed along with the people in it by Vikings. One of those people is her lover and the one person that helped her through her darkness, Dillion. So she takes his head (believed to be where the soul resides at the time) and makes a journey to Hel itself to bring him back. This is where you start the game.
As you travel along your journey you’ll speak to numerous voices and visions that flesh out the story of her life and the world she is exploring. Whether it’s all real or in her head is up for debate. You’ll also experience what it’s like to have psychosis and battle the darkness in Senua’s mind. It’s all wrapped up with a message that, quite frankly, hit pretty close to home for myself.
As I mentioned the whole concept is quite bold and refreshing take on the stigma that is attached to mental illness. What happens and whether she gets through is up to you to discover. I’ll just say it’s quite an adventure and is both harrowing at times and beautiful. This game doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff here.
Along your journey you will also delve into the lore and history of both the Picts and the Vikings. This includes their history as well as their religious beliefs. You’ll get a lot of folklore and mythology to go along with Senua’s story. Gods and goddesses and mythological beasts included.
A Gorgeous World in Hel
Graphics are really good in this game and bring the world of Hellblade to life. There are plenty of different environments that range from wooded areas to underground tunnels and dungeons to Hel itself. Everything is varied enough to make each section of the game unique and interesting. And it all looks really good. Just like in Horizon, this is one of the few games that I would stop every once in awhile just to take in the environments.
There were a couple times that I noticed some slight clipping with Senua’s hands on doors but it wasn’t a huge deal. Other characters looked pretty good and were actual performances of the actors whereas Senua herself was CG. You might think that would make them stand out against her but they are usually set behind some sort of haze or object and so fit in just fine.
Senua herself is very engaging thanks the motion tracking technology they used for the actress. Speaking of which, here is some bonus info: the actress who plays Senua was actually a video editor for the team that stood in while they worked things out and until they found an actress. She did such a good job that the director convinced her to stay with the role. She does very well and I’m glad they happened upon that opportunity. She brings Senua to life in an uncompromising and real way.
The Whispers in Your Mind
The main aspect of the game and Senua herself is that she has psychosis. Psychosis is a very real issue that people have. Basically what it means is that, in their mind, they see and hear things that aren’t real. They can hear voices and even create entire worlds. Senua hears many voices in her head and sees visions. This of course makes sound design very important. And Ninja Theory does this very well.
The voices aren’t just an element to the story and Senua as a character (they very much are of course) but are also a guide for the player. A UI is nonexistant as well as your typical tutorial so the voices act as a replacement of sorts. For example the voices will sometimes guide you. They may point to where you need to go or tell you what to do. In combat they warn you when someone is about to attack or tell you to dodge.
The voices can be both positive and negative. Sometimes at the same time. Some voices encourage Senua while other relay doubts about her success. Other times they ask questions like what is the point of doing this? Is this really worth it? Can she do it? She can’t do it! This is all done in a way that makes them sound like they are all over and inside your head.
Speaking of which, I can’t recommend it enough to play this game either with headphones or a really good surround sound system. It will sound like the voices are all around you, both from far away and sometimes right in your ear. It’s very effective at immersing you into not only the world of Hellblade but Senua’s mind as well.
This is all topped off by a score that compliments the world of Hellblade very well. The orchestration adds the immersion and emotions of Senua. There are even a few memorable tracks that stick out including some that have some haunting vocals.
Simple Yet Deep Combat
The combat of this game is where this game might get a little divisive for people. Ninja Theory has been known to implement some really good combat into their games. Hellblade is a little different then their other games. And, depending on who you ask this might not be a good thing. At face value the combat is pretty simple. You have a light attack and a strong attack. Along with that you have the ability to dodge and block. And that’s pretty much it.
It’s when you actually delve into the combat that it fleshes out a little more. There are several different enemies in Hellblade, all of which have different ways of fighting including bosses. This all means that you will need to have a strategy for each enemy using a combination of the above abilities. This really gets interesting when you have more then one type of enemy to fight against at the same time. They don’t wait around for you to finish one off. They will all attack as soon as they have the chance whether you’re busy fighting someone else or not.
Battles are more strategic then what you might think. Sure, it’s not too difficult once you figure out the strategy for each enemy but encounters are varied enough to keep them interesting and there are still times when you can get overwhelmed or make mistakes. Plus taking too many hits is a quick way to get yourself killed. So no rushing in sword swinging randomly.
Don't Die Too Often
Speaking of getting killed there is an interesting game mechanic included in Hellblade that is also a bit divisive among people. Early on you’ll get killed and a rot will start making it’s way up Senua’s arm. The game even tells you that if the rot makes it to Senua’s head your progress will be erased. Basically implying that if you die too many times it will erase your save data.
At the time of this writing this concept hasn’t been proven one way or the other. But it’s very effective at doing one thing - making you fear for your life. Each time I died it had way more meaning then in other games. This was always in the back of my mind throughout the game. Especially when I got stuck in a particular part of the game and died several times in a row. Think what you want about this mechanic, be it bad or good, it definitely had a lasting effect.
You Must Be Seeing Things
When you’re not fighting scary enemies and running from invisible beasts (trust me, this part is terrifying) you’ll be exploring environments and solving simple puzzles. The majority of the puzzle elements of this game are in the form of finding runes in the environment to unlock doors to the next section of the game. This mechanic is again derived from the research they did with the mental health professionals and people with psychosis. One of the concepts they talked about was that people with psychosis notice things in their environment where most people would not even give it a second glance.
When you come across a locked door it’s covered in a few runes that you have to find in the environment to unlock. This could be the shape itself in the environment or in a shadow. Or it can be seen from being in the right spot and lining up objects to make the shape of the rune.
There are also parts of the environment that are fragmented and can only be restored by being in the right spot and focusing on it. An example would be a staircase that quite literally looks shattered and the pieces are floating in the air. Only by getting in a particular spot can you see how it all fits together will it be restored so that you can use it.
Overall Hellblade is a fun game to play. While the puzzles are fairly simple and the game isn’t overly challenging it’s enough to create a memorable experience. The main focus is on the story and on Senua’s journey into the underworld and her battle with her personal darkness. It’s hard to find faults in this game.
Hellblade is a bold game in that it represents an issue that people have in a more positive and realistic way and more importantly confronts the stigma attached to mental illness. All this is all wrapped up in a tight, purposeful, and meaty package that should be experienced at least once. You may not want to play through again (I still might at some point though) since there isn’t much after you beat it, but it’s worth it to at least go through Senua’s journey once. Plus it’s all well put together with that quality that Ninja Theory is known for. This game could pave the way for other games in the future and help bring the industry into a new light that takes serious concepts and possibly, hopefully, might even open up a few eyes and minds.
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9/23/2017 Christopher D. Anderson