It was only relatively recently that humanity even started to understand the concept of mental health, and only very recently that people have really started to take it seriously – and we still have some way to go in that direction. Back in the days of tribal people, where healthcare, in general, was not even really understood – people might have thought of people suffering from mental disorders as being slow, evil, or even an oracle who can see visions. They might have shunned these people or even burned them as witches out of pure fear.
Senua is a tribal woman living in what I can only guess is northern Britain who suffers from psychosis – meaning she hallucinates through psychedelic visions and sounds in her head. This game tells of her quest to bring back the life of Dillion – a man she loved before he died of spoilers. The game is told through the eyes and ears of Senua – the player experiences her visions and hears what she hears, and Senua isn’t having a good time of it. She’s seeing visions of scary monsters trying to kill her and occasionally of being set on fire. She doesn’t cower in fear, however, she instead fights through in her determination to reach Helheim to beg the God, Hela, for the life of Dillion.
Nothing is handed to you when you’re playing Hellblade. The game only acknowledges your presence once, when it tells you about the black rot mechanic – which is an unintrusive life countdown mechanic. Everything else is left for you to work out through trial, error, and experiance. I didn’t know I could block attacks until I accidentally pressed the corresponding button. Over the course of the game you’ll do better naturally, rather than artificially, through augmentation of stats. It should be said that the game does give you a list of controls when you pause, but that’s just a reference for if you forget. The effect of this is that every visual, which would normally be a UI element, can be explained as something that Senua is actually seeing due to her psychosis. Nothing is allowed to be intrusive and everything appears to be real for the player.
This is also true for the audio. Senua hears voices in her head, and to communicate this to the player, these voices have been recorded using binaural microphones. If you’re not familiar with the concept, I would highly recommend you listen to the Virtual Barber Shop, wearing headphones. This microphone system uses two specialised microphones with ear-shaped covers on them, placed a head’s width apart. The result is an illusion in which the listener can tell where the sounds are coming from – it sounds like noises are coming from in the room with you, rather than through your headphones. In this game, the effect used is to unnerve the player. In stressful situations, it can really throw you off if someone starts whispering right by the back of your head. This game does that a lot. Also, everyone whispering in the background is kind of creepy. A really creative use of the voices in this game is in combat – you’re friendly head voices like to warn you about enemies coming up behind you, and they like to remind you to evade some attacks rather than block them.
The atmosphere of this game is its strongest asset. If you’re going to play this game, play it with the lights off and headphones on. It’s a spooky experience to behold. From the sound design to the wild and creative visual effects, this game has got its tone nailed. I felt stressed as Senua did, felt calm when she did, and even felt a bit traumatised at times. This isn’t an experience you can get in most games; it takes real skill to get it right, and Ninja Theory must be praised for it. A lot of this, I think, comes from the authenticity of the experience – Ninja Theory worked with several mental health experts to ensure the experiences present are true to that of psychosis. There are sections of this game that are simply frightening. When atmosphere alone makes you tense up and get’s your blood pumping – that’s when you know you’ve got something good going.
This atmosphere is craftily built and very delicate – anything could destroy it, like a bug or a glitch, for instance. This game isn’t AAA. That’s something which, in the interest of fairness, should be established before continuing. This is an independent project, focusing on creating an AAA experience, but shorter – meaning it’s cheaper and less of a risky investment for publishers. It’s clear to see where they skimped out with the budget. I encountered many small glitches and bugs which ranged from negligible to very frustrating, sometimes requiring the game to be restarted. I got a couple which just meant that things didn’t trigger when they should’ve, but, because of the no-hand-holding nature of the game, I wasn’t sure whether I had just done something wrong and ended up wasting a load of time trying to solve a puzzle that doesn’t exist. These glitches weren’t too often, however, and they were easy to get past – but not good for maintaining the atmosphere.
Speaking of combat – this game has it – and this game’s combat is, like many elements of the game, very stressful. The combat style is what I would describe as being ‘half-Dark Souls’ in nature. Movements are fairly slow and deliberate, letting the player really feel the weight and brutality of this kind of combat; but it’s not as unforgiving as Dark Souls. It’s hard but not punishing – and there is an easy mode (although the game does a good job of setting the difficulty automatically). You can do all of the usual things like dodging, rolling, heavy attack, light attack, and block. The enemy types are not particularly varied – you have the usual ideas for enemy types like sword boys, shield boys, mace boys, and so on. It honestly wouldn’t bother me if the combat sections didn’t have a tendency to drag a little due to the game’s habit of throwing waves of enemies after you endlessly. I feel like more could have been done with the combat sections to make them more interesting.
Similarly, the puzzles can suffer from an over-abundance of repetitive mechanics. This game has a few really creative puzzle ideas, but once you get used to the idea of one, you won’t struggle to solve more of that one as it occurs. That said, solving them the first time can be fairly frustrating, especially when the style of puzzles has not been well established enough – you need to remember that interacting with things in this game isn’t always about pressing a button, sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. I’m not saying the puzzles are bad – they’re actually pretty good – but you’ll be in the dark for some of them until a lightbulb pops up above your head, and others can feel like they’re the same as each other, deminishing the challenge somewhat.
Playing this game has been an experience I’ll probably remember for a while yet. It evoked fear, stress, anxiety, and hope in me. The ending touched me with its message about loss and greif. It ended up being a far more profound experience than I had anticipated. Well worth whatever I paid for it.