Hellblade is a story told through the eyes of a Celtic-Norse warrior named Senua. You join her on a journey to Hel (aka Helheim) to save the soul of her love, Dillion, who was horrifically sacrificed to the Blood Eagle by a tribe of Vikings that plundered the village and slaughtered everyone she knew. But Senua is not alone in this journey. She’s haunted by the voices in her head…and her hallucinations. Not everything may be as it seems – or maybe it’s worse.
You MUST play this game with a headset or earbuds, it’s the only way to understand and appreciate Hellblade (I played through the game using the PlayStation Gold Wireless Stereo Headset). Ninja Theory suggests enjoying the game through headphones to get the binaural 3D experience they designed for. Binaural audio is a method of recording that creates a 3D soundscape that often simulates sounds you would hear around your head – such as someone whispering in your ear or behind you. It’s a far more personal, nearly invasive, experience than traditional surround sound (which places sounds around the room). Make sure you have any sound processing (like virtual surround sound) turned OFF because it will interfere with the binaural audio and negatively impact your experience.
Right from the menu, the audio in Hellblade is remarkable. Even without using Sony’s Platinum headset (which has 3D audio built in), the game utilizes binaural audio to such great success that you are completely enveloped in audio to incredible, and mostly horrifying, effect. Voices surround you throughout the entire game. From the front, the sides, behind and maybe even above – the audio is a character in Hellblade. It feeds into your psyche. Every sound is carefully crafted to great effect. I find it hard to think of another game that utilizes audio in such an effective manner.
There isn’t a hud in Hellblade. The only thing aiding you on your journey is the voices speaking to you. They give you clues to what you should do or where you should be heading and even how poor your health is. It’s a very unique method of gameplay. As you walk through the lands to Helheim, your head is filled with rain and thunder. Wind whistles through your ears, creatures cackle and disembodied voices scream and moan. Senua’s breathing fills your ears when the voices aren’t being heard. It’s all rather unsettling.
During battle, all the voices work to give you clues about what actions you should take to defeat your foes. That’s about the only direction you get in the game when it comes to combat, so listen well. In addition, you will come across many puzzles that you will need to solve before you can progress to your next objective. During these moments, the voices work to guide you or sometimes discourage you. You certainly get a feeling of confusion if you listen to those voices too much. But you have to listen to them, they are with you through the entirety of the game – almost every single moment in some form or another.
In one particular case where the audio work really stood out was when you were traversing through a network of caves and eventually in the pitch black. You had to use the audio to listen to where you needed to go. Head towards a voice when it was louder in your right ear or listen for flowing water – or listening for freakish creatures haunting you so you don’t bump into them and get killed. The audio and the headphones do amazing work in this particular slice of the game. Amazing.
The graphics in Hellblade are a treat. The environments are beautifully detailed. The character modeling of Senua is top-notch. It’s clear that Ninja Theory placed most of their efforts in that department. The animations are on-point and the eyes actually have soul. Senua is one of the best in-game renders I’ve seen for a character. She is loaded with detail in the face, the clothes, even the hair with all of its nappy décor.
The enemies leave some room for desire. They look pretty good with some details in material, but they are pretty ‘meh’ in design. They mostly look like gladiators. Maybe that few options in appearance was by design? Perhaps fighting against the same character over and over in a single battle was a way to make you feel insane? Not sure, but they definitely lack the detail that Senua enjoys.
The world is rich with visuals. Lots of rocks, greens and water in areas – hellfire and rain in others. One effect that I really enjoyed was the thunder storms. They have some real depth to them, and with the audio techniques they were using you could really get immersed in the world during those moments.
Where Hellblade truly shines with the graphics is in the handling of the psychosis of the character. Ninja Theory went through a lot of research to get the visuals right, and had psychiatrists and people that have history with psychosis play over the game and give advice. The artists and developers nailed it. From the kaleidoscope effects, bright colors, blur, jitters and melting walls – it’s all covered to great effect. The visuals are the next-best thing to the presentation after the audio.
The gameplay is interesting. You progress in the game by completing puzzles, fighting a few baddies here and there and then beating down some bosses. Most of the game is spent walking and solving puzzles. So if you are looking for a game that is packed with action, Hellblade isn’t really going to satisfy you until the closing moments. It’s in those later moments when you are faced with waves of enemies – an exhausting amount. Of course, that is intentional and when you play the game I believe you will understand why it was done that way.
Unfortunately, the puzzles aren’t incredibly memorable. You spend a lot of time matching shapes, changing angles to see hidden pathways, going around in loops to hide and unhide various elements. After a while they begin to grow very tiresome. But, while they do side on repetitive, the concept and execution of those puzzles is well done. They are all designed in a way to play on your character’s mental health. In fact, sometimes you may find yourself questioning if you actually saw what you think you saw. The psychology of the puzzles is definitely their strength.
Between puzzles you are faced with some baddies that you have to kill. This, I feel, is where the game suffers a little bit. The first time you are introduced to your foes, you are given zero direction on how to fight. It’s an exploratory moment. That’s not generally a bad thing of course, but it does set the mood for the rest of the fights. You need to learn some patterns, do a lot of dodging, and then charge your foes with a bunch of hack and slashes through light and heavy hits, counters and Focus. Embarrassingly, due to zero direction, it took me about half the game to figure out how to utilize Focus so I could begin slicing through the enemies more efficiently, especially the brutes with the shields. Focus is basically an energy bar and it presents itself as a design that lights up on the back of the mirror that Senua carries around. You fill up your Focus by landing hits and evading incoming attacks. When the Focus is full, the action slows down for a time and you gain a bit of extra power and the ability to break through enemy defenses, as well as uncover enemies that have covered themselves in Darkness and are otherwise invincible to attacks. Focus is critical to success, as I found out after several wasted deaths. It’s particularly more valuable and a key strategy in later parts of the game.
I actually found myself dreading each fight. The dread seemed to come from the sluggishness of the controls. When I first started playing on the PS4 Pro, I had the game at its default settings, which is 30fps. I later found out about the option to switch to 60fps, and it made a big difference in handling. If you have a Pro, I highly recommend playing in 60fps, the hit to the visuals is worth the switch.
Another issue is the environment. In many fights, I found myself getting stuck by walls and doors, unable to easily dodge away from the enemies – which resulted in a ton of damage, and sometimes death. The button presses didn’t seem overly responsive at moments, especially when evading. It just didn’t feel good to fight in most cases.
I’m going to put it out there right now that Hellblade isn’t fun. That sounds terrible but in this instance that is not necessarily a negative. The game is extremely dark, violent in tone and sometimes makes you question your own sanity as events unfold and the audio plays with your perception and emotion. Things only get worse as the story goes deeper. The environments become more dark and psychotic – and eventually nightmarish. Senua’s story is one you want to see unfold as you work your way through the insanity of Helheim and with the voices that haunt her/you as the game progresses. The narrative leaves you guessing from start to finish. In fact, you will probably finish this 6-8 hour adventure and have even more questions that you want answered.
In general, I felt the fighting leaves much to be desired. When the battles happened, I just wanted them to be over. It got very boring hacking up the same variation of enemies over and over again, and the frustration of clunky controls didn’t help the situation. Some of the baddies were just a real pain in the ass to kill. The bosses in particular were a real grind in some instances, the engagement felt like it would never end. By the time I defeated something, I didn’t want to see it again and just wanted to be left alone with the voices and Senua. The waves of enemies in later parts were even more frustrating.
There is another factor that takes a notch away from the fun factor, and it has been a controversial one. When you die, it matters. You don’t have lives, per se. When you die, a piece of you becomes consumed by the Darkness. It starts at your hands and works its way up to Senua’s head the more you die. When it gets to her head – you’re done. Your progress you made is lost and you have to start over. Yes, it’s really that cutthroat. Now, the system is forgiving. It takes A LOT to die permanently. But, the idea that your life is finite creates a sense of unease that follows you through the game and every engagement with the enemy. Of course, this may just very well be part of the design to make you feel uncomfortable and panicked just like Senua. This is a journey of the mind for both of you.
As amazing as the presentation and experience is, I wouldn’t place any replay value on it. It’s a rather unpleasant experience from beginning to end. It’s dark, violent, horrific and deals with mental illness. It doesn’t help that the fights aren’t fun and are a chore more than they are entertaining. Hellblade, with all that it does do right, is ultimately a one-time experience in my book. There is not any reason that I can think of that makes me want to return to the world of Senua and Helheim. In fact, I’m confident the developers intended this because all of the Trophies unlock just by playing with the exception of one. There is a trophy that requires collecting Lorestones (constructs that trigger extra story narrative) hidden throughout the game. You get that trophy, you will unlock the Platinum when you beat the game. If you acquire all those Lorestones there will be an additional cutscene near the end of the game. So it’s possibly worth trying to achieve just for that. But, I didn’t get the trophy and nothing was missed having viewed the cutscene later online. Unless you’re a trophy hunter, I wouldn’t fret about getting all the Lorestones. The main ending is the same with or without the trophy. The last thing you want to do with this game is have your nose deep in a walk through. You really just need to take it in the first time.
Hellblade is a game you must experience. It may not be a “must buy” but you have got to experience it. The audio is really where the heart is. If it wasn’t for the audio, this game wouldn’t have the incredible presentation and impact that it does. The audio is what separates Hellblade from the rest of the hack and slash puzzler pack. For $30 and an experience of up to around 6-8 hours, Ninja Theory isn’t asking you for a lot. The game is a good value, and considering it was made with a team of about 20 people and presents itself and plays like one of those AAA tent pole productions, the feat that was accomplished in Hellblade must be commended and experienced by everyone that is able. You won’t regret the experience, that is for sure!