Hellblade is the most recent title out of small development studio, Ninja Theory. They had a goal set out to make something classified as “independent AAA”. By making a game that looks and sounds like a AAA title, but comes out of a small team more aligned to that of an indie team is something we don’t see very often. The end result is something truly remarkable that not only nails that AAA in a small package, but also gets very deep into portraying and making the player feel issues of mental illness.
In Hellblade, you play as Senua, a Nordic warrior. You embark on a personal journey to save the soul of a loved one. Your path takes you through a hellish underworld where reality and Senua’s psychotic manifestations meld into one. Senua is alone, save for the voices inside her head. Hellblade tells a captivating story about hope and love. Interpreting it’s story is no easy task, as Senua’s psychotic manifestations make it difficult to discern reality from illusions.
The voices do everything to toy with Senua’s emotions. From making her doubt herself, to feeling guilty, to warning her of incoming dangers, they are a part of her. In the opening moments of the game, this is made clear as you are rowing through muddy waters, while the voices barrage you with a flurry of questions, and statements. When they ask “Do you see that over there?”, your eyes scatter across the screen expecting to see something.
The use of voices is done magnificently. As the player, it really does a good job of casting those feelings of doubt and fear onto the player. What’s beautiful is they aren’t just random, and are tied to parts of the environment you are exploring, or situations you are in, such as battle. When climbing your ladder, they exclaim “Don’t look down!”, as if to play on Senua’s possible fear of heights. Or in battle when an enemy attacks from behind and they scream “Look out behind you!”. My personal favourite is when enemies perform a huge power attack, and the voices simply overpower you with screams. It really gets you tense at the right moments, and scared when there is nothing to be afraid of.
The voices on their own take the stage in a way. Often times when simply walking, I tend to stop and listen to what the voices have to say. As they are performed remarkably, and the way they have been recorded really give the feeling that they are in the same room as you. The voices sound like they are pressed up against your speakers, as if something will emerge and enter what you perceive as reality.
What truly takes the spotlight before talking about other aspects of the game is Senua’s actress, Melina Juergen’s. She does such an amazing job and truly brings Senua to life. From her excellent voice acting, to how she portrays her character through her body language and facial animations is incredible. I’ve seen huge advances over the years in regards to animations within games, but Hellblade takes it to another level.
Part of what makes Senua’s facial animations so believable is the technology behind it. Ninja Theory implored techniques that you’d see out of the making of a Hollywood film. They setup a digital stage for Melina to be able to act in the games engine in real time. Whatever movements she makes, whether that be walking or talking are directly translated into the scene in real time. Along with that, the team took a lot of care in capturing lighting and even having a dog tear up some rags to give her attire that old beaten up look.
One unique aspect that sets Hellblade graphically apart from other games is it’s blend of cutting edge technology with practical effects. Take for instance the many times where people from Senua’s past speak to her. Their appearance is a video recording of an actor or actress overlayed on the scene, or on objects in some cases. The end result looks great as it captures the human performance the best, and Senua still looks impressive next to these ghost like actors despite them being the true representation of human acting.
As for the graphic fidelity, it’s damned impressive. Textures are sharp and detailed. Lighting casts great looking shadows that can lend to the uneasy feelings in certain scenes. Light is used so effectively during game play and cutscenes. Whether it’s making you navigate to pitch black dungeons with a single torch, or a cutscene hiding a threat behind you, it looks amazing.
Hellblade plays as an action, adventure game. The game is structured in a very linear manner, as you travel from section to section. Each section will present puzzles that you must solve, and the occasional battle to take part in. Inbetween all of this, there is a lot of story to be told, and there is a great balance of each. You’ll never feel bored as you’re switching between each quite frequently.
Fighting in Hellblade is quite simple. Senua is equipped with a sword, and with it, she can perform normal and strong attacks. For defense, she can use it to parry most of the enemies incoming attacks. She can also dodge to avoid attacks, and kick enemies to force them to stagger or drop their shields. As an added option, Senua can run to enemies to perform even stronger attacks.
The fighting mechanics are super simplified, but they feel very smooth and fluid. Unleashing a barrage of attacks on enemies feels very satisfying. The animations and sound design lend a lot to help make the fights feel intense. When parrying attacks, it’s accompanied with huge over exagerated movements from the fighters, along with a loud clanging sound and sparks flying in the air. It’s a great audio and visual queue that indicates a successful parry that make it feel great to block attacks and counter attack. Also, doing things like running and performing attacks make Senua leap in the air and perform an awesome looking downward stab. Even enemies are great to watch. They not only look big, but their demeanor gives them a very heavy, weighted feel to all their attacks. Even when they simply walk up to you at the start of battle and taunt conveys this feeling. When they perform their strong attacks, you can’t help but panic and get out of the way. Taking down these brutes makes you really feel like a bad ass warrior. There are times where I wished there was more fighting, but they are very well balanced and spaced apart enough to get you excited when enemies take the stage.
Outside of fighting, you will be solving many simple puzzles to advance areas. The basic concept of the puzzles is you encounter a door that is marked with runes. By focusing Senua’s vision, you “collect” these runes as they are then imposed in your vision. The objective is simple, and you need to find the shape of the required runes in the areas nearby. These can be found in the form of wood planks, shadows, or even blood marks.
This basic concept of the puzzle is quite simple, but Hellblade does some really cool things to mix up the formula as you go through the game. They start by introducing you to the basic concept of these puzzles. Later, they’ll throw in some twists, like having portals that open up new pathways to help collect the runes. Or in some cases, throw you in a maze and have a ghost made of fire hunt you down while you frantically search every nook and cranny for the runes. It’s a great way to keep the puzzles feeling fresh each time. Some of the methods they implore down right made them quite scary to complete.
Outside of simple puzzle solving, Hellblade throws Senua into some pretty twisted situations. The game can get quite scary, and in a way borders the horror genre a bit. I’m not one who handles “the scary” very well, but what I love about how Hellblade handled this is it never relies on cheap scare tactics to spark a reaction from you. Instead, just the mere sight or thought of what Senua needs to overcome is enough to send shivers through your body. Hearing Senua speak with the obvious fear in her voice also makes things even more grim. My heart would race through many of these dark moments of the game.
Hellblade is also very intuitive in the way it presents its challenges. What Hellblade does well that I’ve talked about on the blog before is it’s refusal to hold your hand and tell you what’s going on. Instead it forces you to learn through it’s interaction. The game uses Senua’s voices as a form of tutorial at times to whisper vague instructions to you. It acts as a form of guide, but doesn’t give too much away to make it feel like you got a freebie. Combine that with the lack of on screen HUD, you also have no way of knowing how much health you have, or where your enemies are placed around you. Yet again the game uses those voices as a guide.
What the game does best, is force that feeling of helplessness onto the player. By having you play through grueling sections of the game where all hope is lost, ultimately to learn these play a part of the story makes you feeling the suffering and agony of Senua. It’s moments like these that really make the story feel like the driving force behind everything.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a masterpiece. It’s amazing that such a quality game was brought to us by such a small studio that ends up having everything thing you’d expect from a AAA game. Hellblade tells a riveting story that really makes you feel pity for Senua. It further conveys those feelings of helplessness of agony onto the player through it’s many interactions with the world, and really engrosses you into Senua’s journey through hell. There’s always something unique and amazing to experience through every turn of the game, and all of these moments managed to blow me away by how they toyed with my emotions during all the ordeals. Hellblade is a must buy, especially at it’s price. It may not be the longest game in the world, but there’s nothing else like it, and has easily become one of my top games of 2017.