Is this ‘indie-AAA’ experience a game of the year contender?
An empathetic and sympathetic take on psychosis and mental illness, told through a engaging story that drips with Norse and Celtic mythology. Hellblade, in addition to touching upon themes and ideas many videogames haven’t broached, is an extremely well-crafted experience, hindered slightly by a few performance niggles, which do not harm the game in the grand scheme of things.
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Platform(s): PS4, PS4 Pro (Reviewed) and PC
Release Date: 8th August 2017 (WW)
If you had asked me a month ago if I was excited for the release of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I would have said no, no I was not. I knew about it, having seen gameplay footage at E3 and other trade shows, but it just didn’t grab me initially. It wasn’t until the reviews began to drop within the last week that Ninja Theory’s newest game, the self-dubbed “indie AAA”, really piqued my interest.
The concept alone felt interesting – the equivalent to an established author self-publishing their latest book – the idea of removing the massive publisher from the equation had a lot of potential. By doing so, it allowed Ninja Theory to explore themes and ideas that would otherwise be considered too controversial or taboo, namely, in the case of Hellblade, mental illness.
On the surface, Hellblade is an extremely competent combat game with some puzzle mechanics. Being set on the Viking conquered Orkney Isles in the eighth century, swordplay is the only means for Celtic warrior, Senua, to fight. In play, the combat mechanics do nothing special and you can dodge, block and parry and can make use of heavy, light and melee attacks. What does make Hellblade’s action so compelling is that each battle is a claustrophobic affair as the camera tucks up close to Senua as she fights against the hulking, nightmarish figures that pursue and openly mock her. Also, there aren’t any unlockable skills or abilities, save for a mechanic that enables you to slow down time during combat. What you have to work with is what Senua learned before this journey begun, which enhances her character as a skilled warrior who is hard as fuck.
Part of Senua’s illness is that she can see things that aren’t there. This forms the basis for puzzle solving, which generally takes the approach of enclosing you in a large open space, the only way out is through a door engraved with ‘runes’. To solve these puzzles, you have to use Senua’s focus mode to find the corresponding rune shapes in the environment. For example, a cross can be found by focusing on a crucified warrior, that sort of thing. The majority of these are line-of-sight puzzles which, whilst becoming more ingenious as the game progresses, also become more obtuse. That said, pacing between combat and puzzle solving is pretty good, and I rarely ever tired of one or the other.
Beneath the gameplay loop of fighting and puzzle solving as you move between each area, is Hellblade’s sympathetic and empathetic story of Senua and her struggle with psychosis and trauma. Senua, prior to the events of Hellblade, has seen her community, including her lover, slaughtered at the hands of northern-European invaders, an event which has escalated her illness, which she had always known as the darkness. What’s more is that Hellblade is set in the eighth century, when there was absolutely no understanding of mental illness and it is revealed through backstory that she was considered cursed by her people, who blamed all of the issues that affected the community on her ‘curse’. As you journey with Senua, you are privy to several voices in her mind that mock, deride, encourage and assist her in a terrifying, confusing mix of noise which, in addition to aiding character development, are a means of survival. When in combat, they will help give a sense of your surroundings by warning you if an enemy is trying to flank you, or they will tell you if either Senua of her opponent is near death. This is helpful, as there is no HUD, so paying attention to what the voices are saying is vital to surviving combat situations.
Ninja Theory encourage the use of headphones as the best way to experience the game, as all voice acting was recorded using binaural audio to recreate the sensation of the voices Senua hears being all around you. Generally, voice acting is of the highest standard and, in addition to the tirade of voices, you can activate rune stones scattered around each location to learn about Norse mythology which also parallels Senua’s journey. The quality of the voice acting made me actively want to search out these rune stones and learn more about the lore and mythos that inspired Hellblade, rather than walk straight past them.
The game also makes use high-quality textures and lighting effects, really showing-off the variety of swamps, beaches and caves you explore. Playing on PC would invariably be the best option to customise your experience, however, PS4 Pro owners are given the choice of a 60fps mode or an advanced resolution mode. While not currently supporting HDR, enhanced resolution mode bumps the visuals up to 1440p with a sacrifice to frame-rate. It is important to note that both modes utilise dynamic resolution and in 60fps mode, the maximum resolution is 1080p, but there are often dips which result in a softer and blurrier image. Additionally, FPS is known to drop in both modes but not by a great deal – certainly not enough to make you want to stop playing. Ultimately, these slight performance issues shouldn’t matter too much as, regardless of which mode you chose, Hellblade is one of the better-looking titles on PS4 this year.
Another point that wasn’t really emphasised in the run-up to release is that the game, apparently, includes a permadeath mode, whereby if you suffer too many deaths, your save file will be deleted. As of writing, it is uncertain if such a feature exists or if Ninja Theory used this as a scare-tactic. If the latter is true, it worked. Each combat situation and death had an additional sense of tension and, much like Senua, makes you fear an omnipresent and looming threat. Even if such a feature is in the game, don’t let it discourage you from picking up Hellblade. The game is forgiving when you make a mistake in combat and you have the option to adjust the difficulty if you begin to struggle.
What makes Hellblade stand out is not only is it a stellar piece of interactive entertainment, but that its take on mental illness and portrayal of Senua is so sympathetic, so sincere, that Ninja Theory deserve praise for that alone. The treatment of Senua’s character is never patronising and, despite her illness, she is one of the strongest female videogame characters in recent years. It is clear why Ninja Theory published and developed Hellblade the way they have. Mental Illness is a tender subject, one that needs to be approached with care – many publishers would not want to take that risk in a medium as young as the videogame. Ninja Theory have been able to provide the care and attention the subject matter deserves and, perhaps if a big-publisher was involved, deadlines and shareholder demands would pressurise Ninja Theory to rush elements of the game where it succeeds the most.
It’s clear that Ninja Theory took the time to seek out advice and guidance from mental health professionals and people who have suffered from psychosis. It is also clear both from the strength of the writing and the quality of Melina Juergens’ motion-captured performance as Senua, that Ninja Theory wanted to steer from the trappings of stigmatising mental illness and to humanise Senua’s suffering. There are moments when Senua looks at the camera during Hellblade, and you can feel what is going through her mind at that moment, be it joy or fear, and it doesn’t feel like you’re looking at carefully aligned polygons, it feels as though you are looking into the eyes of a real person.