I remember being told that gaming was the future of story telling, that developers would be able to immerse you in a story in ways that cinema and books never could. And since then, I have seen many try – but none have fully achieved the fear of Stephen King’s I.T., the loneliness that gripped me as I read Thomas Covenant or the disgust and horror I felt as I imbibed Iain Banks’ Wasp Factory. That is until now: Hellblade is an assault on the senses, it ravages your emotions and bombards your very being with sonic, visual and cerebral messages that not only show you the horrors facing sufferers of psychosis but also allows you to experience their world in a way no other medium could. Hellblade contains such powerful content that you are greeted with a warning about the issues dealt with in the game before you even start.
That’s not to say this is some sort of B-Movie horror game; the many different aspects of psychosis are dealt with in a respectful and delicate way, so much so that it manages to weave a rather beautiful story of redemption and self. There is so much to this game that I don’t want to spoil that I’m purposefully not going to go in depth into the story and though I won’t mislead you, I may omit certain truths so that you can fully enjoy this wonderfully disturbed game in all its glory.
Having rowed to a mysterious island, Senua, a troubled young warrior, lands upon the mist-strewn shores that lead to the gates of Helheim. Carrying the head of her beloved, Dillon, she quests to seek an audience with Hella, the goddess of the underworld, in a vain attempt to rescue her love from the pits of hell. Though her purpose is clear, she is dogged by voices and maddening hallucinations that harass her every move. This isn’t just a story of redemption or a simple battle against the monsters that guard the gates of hell but an epic fight against Senua’s inner daemons and a past she’s so desperately tried to forget.
Dealing with mental illness is an incredibly sensitive subject and has been poorly attempted before. However, Ninja Theory had leading professors consult on the game and guide them in their portrayal of psychosis and it really does show. Each aspect of Senua’s mental state is beautifully depicted, so powerfully and unnervingly real that you can’t help but be drawn into her world. It’s like being in the eye of a storm, there’s so much going on around you that its hard to stay focused on the challenges ahead and as Senua progresses through the craziness which swirls around her, you can’t help but become desensitised to the voices and whisperings to the point that they become comforting, almost calming. Which really helps as the rest of Hellblade is set up to put those nerves on edge! None of the controls are ever shown to you, no handy little X’s or R1’s pop up during exploration. You have to learn as you go. Everything is more of a struggle. Panic sets in during your first combat as you have no idea what to do – and it’s mechanics like these that really set the tone and help to unnerve the player from the very beginning.
The island leading to the gates of Helheim is lush with vegetation, rugged rocks and the corpses of dead Norsemen hanging from every branch. It mixes both beautiful scenery with horrific scenes, a vista that so closely depicts Senua’s emotional landscape that you will question how much of this is real and how much is just a figment of her imagination. As danger approaches, shadows emerge from the undergrowth, the sky darkens and everything becomes more oppressive. Enemies appear as puffs of smoke – yet your blade cuts them with a satisfying weight and spurts of violent claret. The voices in your head (literally, if you’re playing wearing headphones) become more tense, worried. They react to what’s happening around you, guide you, argue with each other and question your actions. You literally feel anxious for the whole game.
If battling with your own sanity wasn’t enough, as you progress towards Helheim, a horde of ferocious beasts barricade your journey to resurrect your beloved. Monsters are visually stunning and vary in their approach to combat, from your average hack-and-slash beast to a charging behemoth, as likely to cave your skull in with an axe as to crush you beneath his hobnail boots. Combat is relatively simple, relying heavily on a parry-riposte system, allowing for fluid brutal action which is both wonderfully gruesome, full of raw power and aggression, and horrifyingly tense: each time you die, a Dark Rott spreads up your arm, a physical representation of the darkness that slowly consumes your soul. Failures speed up the Rott’s ascent to your head – where if it infects your skull, Ninja Theory happily inform you that your game is over and all your progress will be wiped. Having died numerous times and seeing the Dark Rott creep over your shoulder, your palms become sweaty and your heart begins to pound as an onslaught of monsters appear in front of you: you cannot escape the ugly truth that your next death may mean more than restarting at your last checkpoint but the loss of everything you have achieved.
Luckily for Senua, the majority of Hellblade is about exploring your surroundings and solving puzzles. Hidden amongst the undergrowth are Norse symbols, relics able to regale you with stories of Odin, Loki and Fafnir – Hellblade’s version of collectables. These are glorious told and I found myself listening to some tales numerous times. However the main focus of Hellblade is the puzzles, all based on contorting the way we perceive the world around us. These principally consist of finding runic shapes hidden in the environment: they can be found in the trees, in scorch marks on the ground and as beams of light cascading across the ruins of Northern strongholds. It’s a really nice way to interact with the environment and yet again gives us another opportunity to experience how Senua views the world. In fact, the position of these runes seems to affirm Senua’s psychosis: she could see a symbol in a crushed Coke can, her mind is so desperate to believe its own delusions that it creates runic patterns everywhere she looks. You’ll also be presented with arches that change the layout of the land and one section has you use giant golden masks which transport you between two time periods to solve a series of puzzles. These are satisfying within themselves but placed with in the context of the whole game creates a larger variety of experiences, offering fighting, puzzles, exploration and a darkly evocative story.
Hellblade isn’t just a wonderfully conceived game, it’s also a visual treat. The Mo-cap and facial animation is insane – the fear, the pain, the joy that is painted across her fully emotive face is incredible. There are moments when they mix in real footage of actors interacting with our protagonist and Senua feels more real than they do. The graphics as a whole are better than a vast majority of games you’ll find on the market today and the cinematic use of effects and camera position create a claustrophobic masterpiece that I’m sure will set a trend in future game releases.
Hellblade has to be played with a pair of headphones: the voices come at you from every angle, bombarding your senses with their constant whispers. They echo and reverberate off the walls. They feel so real you’ll find yourself responding to them, especially during battles when they tell you to look out and you find yourself screaming, “I am! What the hell did you think I’m doing?!?” Enemy movement and attacks are signalled by sound cues, environments, weather, emotions – all have their own sounds and they’re all reproduced to an incredibly high standard.
Hellblade is a gloriously dark and disturbing game that will have you questioning your own sanity. It not only guides you through a wonderfully rich story set in the heart of Norse mythology but it’ll also drag you through an emotional grinder, transforming your understanding of mental illness. Ninja Theory set out to make an AAA game on an Indie budget and I believe they have done better than that, they have outshone them. I have never played a game that made me actually feel physically and emotionally sick afterwards. It was a true roller-coaster ride of fear, loss, hopelessness and an unrelenting drive to complete my mission. And I loved every dark moment of it. Better than any book, better than any film, better than any game I’ve played recently, I will continue raving about Hellblade to any voice that will listen.