Alright, the question of how to approach this game lingers in the air.
A super serious game, tackling super serious themes, with a super serious goal behind it. Ninja Theory really has made looking at this game with anything other than a straight-faced eagle eye, difficult to do. Thankfully, as someone who has been surrounded by the air of mental health awareness my entire life, I know exactly how to approach a behemoth such as this: Relentlessly take the piss out of it. What? It’s what the game does anyway.
Yeah, call it “tasteless”, but sometimes you need to smile, even when your boyfriend’s head is strapped to your side. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice: The Dark Souls of Mental Health Awareness. Developed by cult favorites Ninja Theory, who made the superb Enslaved: Odyssey To The West and the not-so-superb DmC: Devil May Cry. With an acronym like DmC: DMC, what do you expect?
You play as Senua, local Viking lass, who looks like she headbutted the Blue Man Group before embarking on her adventure, the objective being that she is trying to remedy a case of the deadness. Her lover Dillion has been killed, with Senua strapping his head to her side, and that’s the first sign of insanity right there. Throughout gameplay, I was constantly reminded of Lollipop Chainsaw throughout, and from there the silliness grew, but in due time.
Senua has come to Helheim in order to barter with Hel, goddess of the Dead, hoping to get her lover’s soul back from Hel’s clutches. It’s no walk to the Viking City Hall, however, as Hel wants to see just how ballsy Senua is, and Senua herself is obligated to the deal when her body starts rotting inside out, cleverly tied into the gameplay. Well, I say “cleverly”… some might say “stupidly”.
Given that the day I own a PS4, will be the same day that I actually like myself, I didn’t play Hellblade when it first came out, instead, watching the fire-brew from a distance. The fire itself read “THE GAME OVER MECHANIC IS THE WORST THING ON THE PLANET”, and from there, my curiosity grew. No, the game doesn’t delete your progress if you cock up too many times, and was actually a statement made to evoke fear from the player. A noble move, but even if it was real, and the horde of crap gaming journalists who don’t have opposable thumbs were actually screeching truthful embitterment, maybe they should get better at gaming.
The actual gameplay of Hellblade, when you’re not wandering around Dark Souls concept art for the Darkroot Garden, is a normal hack-n-slash affair, where your camera locks on to the nearest Mayhem fan. Most of these combat encounters are a one-on-one combat scenario, and these guys take about 8 months to finish their attacks, allowing Senua to run around the side, give them a wedgie, and piss off to the next guy to repeat.
It’s simple and surprisingly energetic, for a game that mostly wallows in its own tears and feces, even if it’s about as smooth as Mount Everest’s breasts. You can practically hear the gears and cogs whirring as you wind up another poorly-done X, X, Y, B combo, but nevertheless, it is beautifully animated. Let’s divert the pain train to talk about that real quick.
The facial animation and graphical quality are superb. Utterly magnificent, almost unmatched by other studios with an even higher budget than what Ninja Theory had in the first place. Senua’s emotions, or the ones that aren’t “brooding misery” for reference, are displayed immaculately, and easily escape the Uncanny Valley that so many other studios fall into.
The problem with this unabashed beauty is performance, and this game certainly chugs a bit at certain sections. Senua surveying the landscape thrown before her is one of the obvious examples where the game coughs through its attempts to process it, and a more prominent case would be the combat itself whenever a boss or more than one dude show up.
When the game does actually throw more than one enemy at you for a fight, it’s never actually a struggle, even when the engine chugs along. Despite what others and the incredibly claustrophobic camera angle may tell you, and have you believe respectively, the combat is never a problem. This is also because of another core mechanic: Voices that never shut up.
Senua is plagued by “Furies”, whispers of damned souls that constantly speak to her, whether it be with the intention of belittlement, cruelty, laughter, conversation, they never shut up and exist only to torment Senua. They’re annoying, insulting, and after a while, you do want them to go away and let the bullying end. Basically, it’s an accurate representation of a mental illness, which is something I can confirm myself.
The game bellows and begs for you to wear a gaming headset while playing it, and it’s quite literally just because of these Furies belittling you, or the one Narrator telling Senua’s story, who Senua acknowledges. The only difference between these voices and the real-world voices is that her voices spout exposition constantly, which is a pretty good deal if you ask me. Mine warn me that the police are currently trailing my killing spree, 6 months after I already got put on Death Row.
Beyond that, there are a few other mental illnesses that get a chance at the spotlight and are also ironed into the story with some care. Paranoia springs into the puzzle design, where you have to inspect the land for a representation of the key in areas. The only problem with this is that Ninja Theory clearly doesn’t expect too much from the player, which is why they automatically lock on to the solution, sometimes spinning the camera around by 180 degrees.
I wish I was kidding, but the big kicker is that Hellblade doesn’t expect too much. Every combat sequence, every puzzle, every statement, it always feels like you’re in the tutorial of the game, even when you notch the difficulty up a few million pegs. Boss fights weren’t difficult since side-stepping seems to confuse every single one of your adversaries, puzzles were practically solved for you, and the writing? Oh good Odin above, the writing. We’ll get to that.
As it stands for difficulty, maybe we’ve been spoiled by Celeste being a hearty help for both newcomers and old-school players to both pick up and play. The message was also told better in Celeste, if you ask me. It was a down-to-earth description of the problems people face daily, without putting on a business suit and drudging the player through a 12-point plan to understand.
The other big kicker, the one that slams you down to the ground with a pretentious air, is that the writing, dialogue, and Furies, seem to have been written by somebody who just finished their first Horror RP. I shit you not, the Narrator literally says “When the Darkness comes, it becomes dark”, and how are you supposed to respond beyond that? The only one who is saved from it is Druth; Senua’s live-action companion who appears in vague hallucinations.
Druth saves some moments of the playthrough, with his thick Scottish accent providing fear and tension with every syllable uttered. You can find “Lorestones” dotted around the area, where he reads aloud the Norse mythology related to your adventure, and it’s all so campfire-esque. You can practically feel the marshmallows roasting on the open fire, as he tells stories about how badass Ymir is.
With the pseudo-sidekick being written so well, it leaves me to wonder just who was this temporary writer they got on board briefly, and why they didn’t care for Senua’s story. Whoever directed the actor for Senua must have watched Mad Max: Fury Road before they started the mo-cap sessions, because Senua almost plays her role the exact same as Charlize Theron’s fantastic performance as Furiosa.
Is that an insult? Of course not, Fury Road is badass, and you should watch it right now, but the niggling difference is that Ms. Theron knows more than two emotions. Like a light switch, Senua will switch between two modes, “muted bewilderment” and “SCREAMING AT EVERYTHING BECAUSE SHE’S ANGRY”, and it takes you out of the game after a while.
So yes, Hellblade? Kind of bad, and after a while “bad” turns into “reprehensible”. Over time, you start to piece together that Ninja Theory has turned the whole “mental health” schtick, into a gimmick. A gimmick that slowly gets shuffled away and that is more than enough for me to give the middle finger to the devs. It’s not smart, it’s not heartfelt, it’s a fucking joke to them, and no amount of donations to charities can really hide that.
Yeah, I’m aware that I’ve been taking pot shots at something that doesn’t deserve it, however, I’m not making money off of it. I’m also aware that mental health shouldn’t be looked at with such a straight face. You don’t sit there with the clipboard, taking notes that relate to the lines of “This guy is batshit bonkers”. You get down on the same level as the poor person, not taking pity but supporting them.
You look at any other game with this angle, and they don’t turn it into a vehicle to make sure their game has more air-time. Celeste at least comforted Madeline, and by extension, the player as they overcame their fears, and The Town Of Light served as an example of just how abrasive and passive the world was to mental health at the time. The more things change, eh?
Then again, it’s not like this review is going to hurt the sales. Ninja Theory has already swept every award from organizations that hear the words “Mental Health Awareness”, and have been quick to proclaim it “genius!”, like the oblivious sods they are. Heed my words: Hellblade isn’t smart, it isn’t genius, and it isn’t fun. Hellblade is insulting.
This review of Hellblade is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A brief, condescending stroll through miserable woods.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.