August 11, 2017 // 2 p.m.
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Platforms: PC, PS4
Version Reviewed: PC
Hellblade is a rare game indeed to see emerging from a mainstream developer. Ninja Theory's latest is a virtual character piece where almost every facet of its design is geared towards building up a portrait of a person and providing us a window into how they see the world. On its own this would make it fairly unique. But the worldview Ninja Theory presents to us is one that is fractured and unstable, where the lead character, a celtic warrior named Senua, struggles against her affliction of psychosis to decipher the real world from the voices and hallucinations projected by her own mind.
It's highly unusual to see a game that is so dedicated to a single purpose, and perhaps not surprisingly, the result stands out as one of the most distinctive, affecting, and at times unsettling experiences I've had this year. That said, the weight of the focus on this one goal means that some of Hellblade's other elements – its level design, its gritty third-person combat – are perhaps less well serviced than they deserve to be.
It's worth emphasising the strength of Hellblade's story and characterisation now because, in synopsis, its plot sounds a touch silly. Beginning the game floating on a rotting log in a crystal-clear ocean, Senua lands on the shores of Hellheim – the Viking equivalent of Hell – carrying the severed head of her dead lover. She intends to visit the goddess of the dead, Hela, to bargain or even fight for her lover's soul.
Along the way she must battle gods, monsters, and the demons in her own mind. Structurally Hellblade is a fairly traditional action-adventure, a third-person mixture of exploration and combat, featuring some dazzling environments draped along a resolutely linear path. Yet whereas in most action-adventures these things are the subject of the game, here they are objects intended to reflect and personify Senua's thoughts and feelings.
This is not to say they are simply projections of Senua's mental state, although they might be. Part of what makes Hellblade such an arresting experience is the way it muddies the water between reality and psychosis through Norse myth and legend. The land of Hellheim is an eerily beautiful mix of verdant pine forests, icy fjords, and imposing mountain-ranges. Meanwhile, the story is laced with a brooding, folkloric tone. One of the “companions” in Senua's head is a man named Finnic, who relates the ancient Norse legends in his dulcet Irish tones. The way Hellblade conveys the Nordic pantheon is reminiscent of CDProjekt's Witcher series, stripping away the sheen from these myths to reveal the dark and cautionary flesh beneath.
Hellblade's production values are generally superb, but the work done on Senua herself is on another level. Two things in particular stand out. Firstly, the facial animations are absolutely incredible, conveying Senua's emotional state and physical reactions to events with almost hypnotic accuracy and detail. It's so convincing in fact, that Ninja Theory is able to combine Senua's model with footage of real-life actors in cutscenes without breaking immersion. Granted, there's some clever masking of the actors through make-up and visual effects, but it's a milestone worth noting nonetheless.
The other standout element of Senua's character is the voice-acting. The nature of what Senua experiences on her adventure constitutes an extremely demanding vocal performance, one that involves a whole lot more than talking and could easily lead into overacting. But Milena Juergens turns in a brilliant performance, infusing everything from Senua's trembling whispers to her combat shrieks with heartfelt depth and nuance.
Both achievements stand out in their own right, but they're crucial to the success of the game as well. Senua needs to be an earnest and empathetic presence because of the territory that Ninja Theory is delving into and what it puts the player through in the process. Hellblade is a remarkable experience, but it's definitely not a pleasant one. Its depiction of psychosis is stark and unflinching to say the least.
Throughout the game Senua is plagued by voices in her head, whispering and laughing and mocking in her ears in a way that slowly becomes more and more disorienting, especially if you're wearing headphones. What's arguably even more disturbing about these voices is they're not always hostile. In Hellheim's brutal realm, they can be a comforting presence and even help you to progress, hinting at puzzle solutions and hissing 'behind you!' when an enemy attacks you in combat. Half the time, they feel like old friends, and that's terrifying.
Furthermore, these voices are really just the basic level of Hellblade's depiction of psychosis. The game constantly messes with things like space and proportion and scene-setting to upend your sense of reality. One minute Senua will be standing in a picturesque forest glade, the next minute, the whole forest is on fire. Is this a memory? A hallucination? Or is it really happening? Some of this is baked directly into the game as well. Many of the game's puzzles revolve around optical illusions that, when lined up correctly, change something in the environment. Other times, Senua will be struck by hallucinations so vivid and intense that it's hard to keep your eyes on the screen. In these moments Hellblade reminded me more than a little bit of Thumper, the mind-fracturing rhythm game from last year. It's a similar level of audiovisual overload, but designed to a far more specific and human purpose.
Hellblade frequently repeats the mantra that the hardest battles are fought in the mind, but you'll still have to draw your sword from time to time. Hellblade's combat is a halfway house between the gritty tactics of Dark Souls and the empowering fury of Platinum's best, a simple yet effective mix of blocks, dodges, and light/heavy attacks. Senua also has a 'focus' ability that slows down time and lets her really go to town on an opponent.
It's not the most imaginative system around, but it makes up for this in just how darned savage it is. Senua fights ferociously, stabbing and slashing at her opponents with barely controlled rage. She can deflect all but the most powerful of attacks and slip between a half-dozen enemies without receiving a scratch. By comparison, your opponents are large, slow, and extremely powerful. When Senua is struck, you can almost hear her bones creak as she staggers back and collapses, a hair's breadth from defeat. But hit the right buttons, and Senua will claw herself up from the dirt and throw herself back into the fray, screeching, kicking, and cleaving.
The fast and physical nature of the combat is both thrilling and evocative of the game's dark and elegiac tone. But it falls just short of being great. While carving cross-hatches of wounds into an enemy's chest is extremely satisfying, that final blow is always a little underwhelming. Meanwhile, Hellblade fails to build upon these basics in any meaningful fashion. There are only a handful of opponents in the entire game, and with one exception, no other weapons or abilities are introduced in that time.
Indeed, perhaps Hellblade's biggest problem is that the core systems are too shallow and repetitive. Interactively the game does not evolve much beyond the basics, with both its puzzling and combat remaining largely unchanged throughout the experience. Any new ideas that are introduced tend to be disposable, restricted to specific segments of the game. The lack of more general interactions with the environments means at times you can feel oddly disconnected from the world around you. Perhaps this is deliberate, but I'm not convinced.
One last point that ought to be made about Hellblade. You may have heard that the game includes a permadeath mechanic, whereby dying a number of times will result in the deletion of your save. You may also have heard that this is not the case. That it's a trick. What I would say is this: If the previous paragraphs have intrigued you about Hellblade, play the game and find out for yourself.
The lack of mechanical depth to Hellblade is unfortunate, but in the end the game transcends these flaws. Like Yager's anti-FPS Spec-Ops: The Line, Hellblade makes certain sacrifices in order to present a specific and unique experience, and in that primary focus, Hellblade is an unmitigated success. This is a powerful and significant experiment in virtual empathy, appealing not just to the player's emotions, but to their physical senses and rational mind that is hugely affecting and at times quite distressing. Yet even though Hellblade is dark and disturbing and at times outright morose, I don't regret playing a second of it. Like Senua herself, Hellblade may be imperfect, but it's also determined, relentless, and outstanding.