Was ... Was everyone except me aware of this game? I swear, I'd never even heard of it before it was already out and getting reviewed, and even then, I only actually heard about it because of the controversy over Jim Sterling's initial low review score for it. Were it not for that, this game would have completely gone over my head, possibly for months.
Which would have been a shame. A perfect game, Hellblade is not -- it's nowhere even in the vague ballpark of perfect -- but a meticulously researched, artistically driven game that clearly had a lot of passion and care put into it by developer Ninja Theory it is, and it's one of the most devastatingly realistic portrayals of psychosis in fiction, and certainly the most realistic in video games. It was only able to achieve that feat because Ninja Theory consulted heavily with neuroscientists, the Wellcome Trust, and people who suffer from schizophrenia.
It's also worth mentioning that this game was worked on by just twenty people, a comparatively tiny amount for a triple-A game.
Hellblade follows Senua, a Celtic warrior in the aftermath of the Viking invasion of Britain, who ventures into Helheim, the Viking land of the dead, in search of her lover Dillion, sacrificed by the Vikings to Hela. Senua, guided by Druth, the spirit of a man who regaled her with stories of Viking legends in life, ventures deeper and deeper into Helheim, and the further she gets, the worse her psychosis becomes, as she's forced to repeat the traumatic events of her past and fight for her life against figures from Norse mythology.
The game is certainly striking, boasting graphics that are easily contenders for the most gorgeous graphics of 2017 (at least so far), with the game delivering beauty and horror in equal doses and bolstering it with a brilliant soundtrack and some astounding voice acting. The story is a simple one, but it's no less heartrending for that, as we're made to viscerally feel Senua's pain, despair, and desperation.
It's also almost constantly voiced, which is to say that the game is rarely silent. Senua hears voices, and throughout the game, they will almost constantly be chattering and whispering, oftentimes mingling with Druth's frequent interjections to tell Senua stories from Viking mythology, or the narrator's description of what's going on. The voices will argue amongst themselves, with some of them expressing trepidation and fear, while others urge Senua on -- the effect is disconcerting at first, but, like Senua, we eventually grow used to the voices as the journey goes on.
That's key, because the story is, at its heart, largely about accepting your own mental illness -- not to the point of precluding treatment, but to the point where you can go 'I have this, and I can and will do what I can to lessen its impact on my life, but I won't torture myself over it.' I've seen some reviewers saying that at the end, Senua is 'cured,' but she's not: Instead, at the end, Senua has come to terms with the fact that she herself is blameless in the matter of her illness, that it doesn't make her a monster, that she can stand up and move forward in spite of it.
|Flaming trees! Flaming trees.|
The story's biggest flaw is a somewhat slow middle act, where it becomes sharply divided into a series of often ponderously slow vignettes, coincidentally coinciding with the point where combat briefly becomes available and the gameplay becomes reduced almost entirely to puzzles.
Because the puzzles in Hellblade aren't that good. They're thematically appropriate, as Senua constantly returning to finding runes, and seeing them in incidental, accidental features of the landscape is indicative of the tendency of schizophrenia patients to see patterns where there are none -- but in gameplay terms, they amount to roaming around a set area looking for the right shape, and that's just not that compelling, especially when there are literally dozens of them in your game.
The other part of the gameplay is the combat, and it's miles better. It's a mixture of slow, careful positioning and fast, frenetic hacking, often accompanied by the use of Druth's mirror, which briefly slows time and empowers Senua's strikes, allowing her to deliver a rapid flurry of slashes to overwhelm her foes, and every blow feels heavy and weighty. Senua herself can't take many hits before she goes down, so the emphasis is on dodging, parrying, and putting distance between yourself and your foes when you need to.
This builds to some of the best parts in the game, such as the Sea of Corpses and the final battle, where Senua must fend off hordes of enemies while advancing forward. The realness of the combat makes those sections genuinely desperate and harrowing.
All in all, Hellblade is a really good game -- in fact, it's arguably Ninja Theory's best work to date, for all that it didn't have the funding or manpower the studio's other games would have. I highly recommend it, and come early 2018 it's definitely going to be under consideration for one of the best games of the year.