Katherine’s Hellblade Review for Nervous Stressed-Out People

WTF is Hellblade and why is it such a BFD?

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a videogame released by Ninja Theory in August, 2017. It throws cinematic storytelling, puzzle solving, sword-based combat, horror survival tactics, surrealism, psychology, and a lot of other things into a blender and awes and terrifies you with the mixture that comes out. The story follows Senua, a Celtic warrior who does a Dante’s Inferno and fights her way through Viking hell to save the soul of her dead husband.

The main selling feature of the game is that Senua is living with psychosis – meaning, she hallucinates, hears voices, and sometimes has unusual beliefs and perceptions of the world around her. The game was developed in consultation with psychologists and people living with mental illness, and uses 3D sound design to mimic the experience of hearing voices close to your ear while other environmental sounds are at a distance.

Although this got less press, Ninja Theory, also managed to MacGyver a bunch of budget motion capture solutions to create what is arguably one of the most realistic, detailed, and particular 3D animated characters in history, based on live-action performances from one of their team members and a stunt woman.

The story in Hellblade is rich and deep, the music and sound design are moving, the visuals are arresting – beautiful in the traditional sense much of the time, and sometimes beautiful just in how good they are at making you uncomfortable. It’s a really impressive technical achievement, and also a coherent, insightful piece of art. This trailer captures the essence of everything good about it.

How scary is it for a nervous person?

Medium scary. At a certain point, I took a break from playing and searched for spoilers to see if I was letting myself in for more than I could deal with. Having finished the game, I think most explanations of what’s in it make it sound more disturbing than it is. For the most part, Hellblade rewards calm, careful, patient gameplay, regardless of how chaotic or unsettling the situation seems and, since a large part of the story concerns Senua’s attempt to overcome her fears, the game will often try to coach you through the worst of it.

The scary stuff kind of falls into three categories: the disturbing imagery that appears, the generally unsettling atmosphere, and pressured situations. I did not personally find the voices scary, though the game comes with a warning that people who’ve experienced psychosis may feel differently.

Disturbing imagery is a little bit in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is there just to gross you out, and there aren’t many jump scares, but there are a lot of dead bodies laying around. There are some misshapen monsters along the way. Senua’s facial expressions sometimes become unsettling when she’s saying mean things to herself.

There’s a sequence called Sea of Corpses where you wade through blood while mutilated bodies writhe at you from the far edges of the scene – this was so stylized that it didn’t really bother me. Scenes that bothered me more involved trauma memories of seeing people burned alive as well as a tableau where Senua gets knocked unconscious and wakes to find her body jerking while the bird-like god, Valravn, does something we can’t quite see.

The generally creepy atmosphere is partly down to the fact that Senua (and the player) can’t trust what she sees and hears all the time. There are moments where the player starts to understand something about Senua’s quest that she doesn’t see yet – like, when we realize she’s pinning all her hopes on a story that an unreliable-seeming stranger told her. The voices express a lot of suspicion that everything that looks hopeful is secretly a trick, and sometimes that turns out to be true. The monsters she has to fight appear very suddenly out of thin air. Hela, the goddess of the underworld that Senua ultimately plans to confront, has a creepy, expressionless face and is just the right size to look wrong.

The pressured situations were my least favourite part, personally, and include things like having to run really fast while something chases you or while the scenery around you bursts into flames, a level where Senua can’t see and has to rely on other senses like hearing and Xbox vibrations to avoid some creepy monsters, a level where Senua has to run between patches of light to avoid having extremely scary flashbacks of her mother’s death, and a boss at the end of that level who breathes darkness and makes you fight him blind while having scary flashbacks.

Should I let my nervous stressed-out child play?

I wouldn’t. Take it from a nervous stressed-out child of yore – the main thing that insulated me from freaking out while I played this game is age, partly because I’m harder to surprise and partly because I’ve had more time to get used to feeling existential dread.

I don’t play combat games. Is this a good one to learn on?

No. The combat in Hellblade is pretty simple – you have two sword attacks, a block, a dodge, and a kick – but there’s added pressure that would make this an unusually stressful first experience. What I said about being patient, calm, and careful is as true in combat as it is anywhere else in the game, but it is definitely a strong advantage to understand how combat typically works going in. You don’t have a lot of space to breathe when you’re being attacked and you can’t run away from fights or be strategic about your line of approach or the moment you choose to engage.

Hellblade also doesn’t provide an in-game combat tutorial beyond the voices yelling stuff at you in real time as you fight – for example, they tell you when something’s attacking you from behind, and let you know how well you’re doing relative to your opponent, since there’s no health gauge. The game is structured so that you have to fight two bosses close to the start, one a slow-moving, hard-hitting dude who can burst into flames, and one a fast-moving, hard-hitting dude who can turn into smoke.

If you still want to try, be aware that you can change the combat difficulty level from the settings menu, and that Senua can often get back up when she’s knocked down if you hammer on the dodge or attack key a whole bunch of times. Timing your blocks correctly is probably the most important element – this means hitting the block/guard key just as an enemy is about to strike. For certain kinds of attacks, this can trigger a counter where your enemy’s knocked backwards, their smoke powers cancel, and you break their guard, leaving you free to attack. Permanently walking with your finger poised above the block/guard key also helps.

I’ve heard your save can get erased if you die too many times

*Spoilers* but that’s not true. Early in the game, Senua fights a battle that she can’t win and the player receives a message saying that, every time Senua “fails” in her quest, the rot inside of her will grow and, if it reaches her mind, the journey will be over. Most players (including me) took this to mean that they would have to start the game over if they died too many times but, like many of the things we’re told early in the game, this message is both true and misleading. The journey will end when Senua fails, and you will lose access to your save file – but “failure” means something different than getting killed by monsters too many times.

I don’t care whether this is a big technical achievement. Is there any other reason I should scare myself?

Hellblade elevates video games as an artistic medium in a way that few other games have done. The thing I admire most about it is that every piece of content, whether it’s dialogue or scenery or an en entire level design, exists to deepen the story’s themes and draw us into a profound meditation on suffering and resilience.

The trials Senua faces on her journey into hell are a metaphor for her internal struggle as she finds the strength to survive the pain and fear her experiences have brought her. As she moves deeper into hell, and deeper inside herself, it slowly becomes clear that the “darkness” Senua fights isn’t really her psychosis, and it isn’t a curse put upon her by the gods – it’s the result of things that human beings did to her; things so horrible that she’s forced herself to forget.

Carrying a head to hell begins as a metaphor for mental illness, but ends as a metaphor for being human in a world where other humans act like total monsters. The stigma moves from Senua, back to those who use her difference as a club to beat her with – where it belongs. By the time Just Like Sleep starts to play, and Senua runs toward Hela, we know that the darkness isn’t going to go away. The best ending we can hope for – the ending we deserve, and the ending we get – is one where the darkness has changed.

Hellblade is stylish, and insightful, and challenging, and respectful, and made with such obvious care and passion and effort that you can’t help but be transported as you play. Fear is part of Senua’s journey, but there’s a rich well of emotions inside this game, and the terror, when it comes, doesn’t last that long.

TL;DR

Hellblade is a really, really good interactive story, and I have no regrets about forcing myself to play through it, even though I am a nervous stressed-out person. However, if you are a nervous stressed-out person, it is kind of an ordeal.

This is a big enough deal for gaming and for advancing video games as an art form that it’s still worth checking out if you are an adult interested in either of those things. The learning curve will be unusually steep if block-strike-strike-strike-dodge is not muscle memory for you.

Image: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice; Ninja Theory | September 15, 2017