The general idea of Ninja Theory’s latest game, a AAA-level title with roughly half the playtime at half the price, caught my eye. The premise of a Celtic warrior who battles psychosis won me over. I’ve enjoyed their work in the past and was ready for another high quality game which Hellblade certainly is. It has a blend of storytelling and mechanics usually reserved for much grander games with larger development teams. I hope this whole half-AAA thing catches on.
- TL;DR: High quality storytelling, unique mechanics, and detail in a smaller-than-usual package.
- Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
- Developer: Ninja Theory
- Time Played: 7:30
- What I Played: Completed the game with nine deaths, rot reached up Senua’s shoulder
Hellblade stars the titular Senua, a warrior on a quest to redeem her lover’s soul. You learn quickly that while Dillian is dead you don’t know how or why. You do know that Senua carries his head in a cloth bag and believes the only way to save him is to venture into Helheim and take it back from Hela herself.
The primary thing that sets Hellblade apart is the fact that Senua is battling psychosis. She has a darkness inside of her that manifests in many ways, the voices in her head being chief among them. There are about a half dozen different voices that will talk to each other, to Senua, to no one in particular, and even to you directly. The game suggests you play with headphones, which I did, to experience the 3D binaural sound. Every time I put on my headphones it was like I was being transported directly into Senua’s head. The voices, which really do sound like they are all around you, will tell you where to go, make fun of you for being lost, tell you to turn around if you’re in danger, laugh at you for being hurt, implore you to run away, and more. Senua will talk back to the voices from time to time, telling them that she isn’t lost or that she doesn’t want to do this anymore. I caught myself answering their questions both in my head and out loud a few times. It’s a wild experience.
Senua’s voices are your primary guide in the world as there aren’t any traditional in-game assistance tools: no HUD, minimap, arrow, glowing line, or objective markers. “Go in there”, “she has to go in that way” they’ll say. “Look for the light” the voices may remind you. Exploring the world in Hellblade means you have to be in Senua’s head and listen to the voices. Much of the light puzzle solving involves lining up the camera to match runes locking a door to their environmental patterns. The puzzles aren’t terribly difficult especially considering each area is fairly small.
When you’re not exploring hell and its suburbs, you’ll be fighting back enemies with your sword. Combat isn’t a largely fleshed out system in Hellblade as you can light attack, heavy attack, block, dodge, and guard break. Various combos can be strung together but there is no experience to gain or skills to unlock aside from a time slowing ability given to you fairly early. The lack of screen clutter continues during combat as there are no health bars or damage numbers. Enemies will instead double over in pain when they are close to death which is when the voices like to tell you to pounce and finish them off. The voices are instrumental in surviving combat by telling you when an enemy is about to attack from behind and reminding you to dodge. It may not be the most intricate system, but fight sequences in Hellblade function as a welcome break from the horrors that surround Senua at all other times.
Hellblade made waves on release day when players discovered one of its biggest secrets — permadeath. Senua’s darkness manifests itself physically as a black rot on her right arm. The rot climbs up her arm and closer to her head with each death. The game flat out tells you that dying too many times will not only mark the end of the game, but the end of your save file. Some players have reported that this is true. Others have reported that, no matter how many times you die, it’s a bluff. Either way, each of my nine deaths gave me a minor heart attack as I watched the black tendrils inch closer to Senua’s head. It puts extra emphasis on wanting to help Senua succeed in her quest.
The darkness inside Senua is an overarching theme in Hellblade not only in the voices she hears and the rot that physically afflicts her but in the environment around her. Bones and fire are one thing but cow skulls strung up like ornaments around doorways made of tree branches are straight up creepy. Watching people burn and hearing their screams, even though they are visions in Senua’s head (or are they?), is unsettling. Walking through a pool of blood while walls made of arms grab at you isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows. Hellblade doesn’t hit you with jump scares stitched between periods of normal everyday life. It’s pure dread, paranoia, and anxiety right from the start. Senua won’t even look straight at the camera no matter how hard you try. Her constant fidgeting adds to to the overall feeling of uneasiness.
That uneasiness radiates out from Senua and impacts the entire game. You’re never quite sure where the next fight is going to be, when the next sudden memory will come rushing back, or if what you’re doing will even matter in the end. Senua is alone in her quest and removing things like missions and progression systems really drive that home. The only thing you can do is keep moving forward. The game doesn’t hold your hand and overtly explain to you what’s going on. It’s up to you to decide how much of Senua’s strife is actually happening. Is she battling this darkness in her head? Is this somehow real? A combination of both?
Ninja Theory set out to make a AAA quality game at half the length for half the price. Seven to eight hours in a 4K-capable 60FPS world for $30 hits all of those marks. The over-the-shoulder camera angle gives Hellblade a more cinematic feel reminiscent of the recent Tomb Raider games. The camera shakes, twists, and zooms to keep you engaged. Senua’s screams and cries, coupled with the array of voices in her head, give the game a rich audio experience. Melina Juergens, the actress who plays Senua, deserves recognition. Her performance and the motion capture used to relay it really gives Senua life in a world of death and darkness. Her facial expressions are incredibly intricate down to the tiniest mouth movement or eye twitch. You can really hear the fear, hatred, and anger in her voice when she speaks.
Hellblade isn’t overly challenging, isn’t too long, and isn’t replayable. None of these things are necessarily bad, though. It’s a fantastic blend of storytelling, quality, mechanics, and an overall memorable experience. I hope Ninja Theory makes more of these half sized AAA games because if they are anything like Hellblade, they’ll be an easy sell.