Developers today are trying to reach their audiences by making claims of a customer first approach and putting the power in the hands of the player. While larger publishers sometimes struggle to connect with gamers, the gaming community has fully embraced this renaissance of independent developers and software. Ninja Theory, created by Tameem Antoniades, have been doing their thing for a while now creating a solid pedigree with titles such as Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the more recent reboot of the Devil May Cry series for the previous generation of consoles. With Hellblade, it’s clear that they were trying to tread new ground, once again, while continuing to own the AAA Independent moniker.
A small disclaimer: this game may not have the appeal for anyone who has played it before. This is a straight port and offers nothing unique from the other console versions. If you have completed this game and are looking to revisit it or show it off to someone looking for something different, then there may be something here for you. But at an approximate run time of 8 hours for the campaign, and not much else, the replay value here is extremely low and may not be worth the asking price to some. This review is for anyone who missed this little gem the first time.
As the game begins and you see your character for the first time– one of the game’s greatest strengths reveals itself, the sound design. It’s at this point that I can say the main reason you would play in handheld mode on the Switch is if you can use a good pair of headphones. Handheld mode is serviceable and plays well enough, but the visual fidelity is obviously going to be slightly better on your TV. As you’re introduced to Senua, the main character, she is being plagued by a litany of voices that only she herself can hear. Some whispers speak of the dangers while others express doubt about your ability to handle what lies ahead. The voices and whispers overlap with some great reverb and echo effects to create quite the chilling result and leads to some great, yet smaller storytelling moments as you approach new areas or points of interest. The voices are representative of the many different thought processes that Senua simultaneously has throughout her journey. An obvious reference to one of the major symptoms of psychosis. The voices she hears are referred to as “Furies” and are prevalent throughout the rest of your quest through Helheim, thought to be the equivalent of Hell in Celtic mythology.
The truth is, it would be very easy to speak about psychosis or mental health in general and really get into my feelings on the subject. However, this is a game review and not an outlet to express the legitimate concern of how mental health permeates all of our lives. All that needs to be said is that mental health is such a sensitive subject and I applaud any developer who’s willing to take a chance and make a game that invests heavily in the study of something that affects literally everybody at some point in their lives. Let alone implement and interpret the mental subtleties and complexities of psychosis into proper game mechanics that don’t feel ham–fisted, and executed with a true understanding on the subject. It serves to not only push the story and characters along but also to bring the player on a fantastically oppressive journey similar in concept to Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.
The main plot has Senua on a quest to find salvation for the soul of Dillion, the lost love of her life, from an evil goddess named Hela. Throughout your quest you will be guided through dingy bogs, ruined fields, and forests aflame while steadily engaging with the hack and slash combat to take down your foes and bosses. Essentially, when you engage an enemy, you enter a kind of focus mode where you are directly targeting your opponent from up close, while also looking for audio and visual cues to parry and dodge attacks. It was extremely satisfying to properly parry an attack and take control of a fight with help from the game’s “focus” system that can be used in and out of combat for either world and environment exploration, or help with an adversary in a tight situation. While the difficulty is not extreme by any measure, it should be noted that there is a light version of the permadeath concept that has you restarting the game anew should you fall too many times during your playthrough. Although that might turn off some players, it shouldn’t. This reviewer managed to only die a few times during some late game encounters and shouldn’t be an issue for the average gamer, but seeks to add a little more tension to the game.
The environmental puzzle solving can also make for some pretty neat moments. While some of them involve having to align your perspective in particular ways in order to unlock doors and pathways, others will have you using your focus abilities to get past obstacles or for uncovering hidden secrets. The audio visual aspects are also meant to strengthen the quality of the puzzles in the game while still making you feel accomplished in either advancing or uncovering something. With such seamless immersion between both gameplay and story, it’s no wonder that this game has been referred to as a work of art in some respects by a few critics. The other thing to take note here is how consistent Ninja Theory is in terms of the quality and polish of their titles. Hellblade is no exception.
A great example of their ingenuity is the way that the developers use live action footage with actors for certain characters and having them interact with animated characters during some story beats in the game. Another smart decision was to completely remove the HUD. Having no HUD also creates an immersive effect that just adds more to the way you interact with the world design. Not only is the game (in all it’s dread) fantastic looking, but the star performance via some of the best motion capture I’ve seen to date by Melina Juergens as Senua is the real substance of the game. Many aspects of this game could easily be swapped out for another but without this incredible performance nobody would have given it the time of day. It would have made a mockery of the subject they were trying to tackle and whatever message the developers would be trying to convey would be lost in the lack of fidelity. The message, the game mechanics, the story about a woman who’s willing to go through mental and physical Hell to save the soul of her love, the loose Celtic/Nordic settings and aesthetic, and the audio and visual presentation all come together to form a cohesive package that Ninja Theory can be very proud of. If you have not played through this brief yet mesmerizing experience, then this should be on your list.
Forged in the 8 bit era, Duarte can be found quietly contemplating the future of the games industry. Wondering what the exhilaration of digital achievement will look like on the next horizon.