— This post contains gameplay and mild premise spoilers for Hellblade.
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.” — Stephen King.
I must admit, I’ve been apprehensive about sitting down to write about Hellblade. The mental struggles of its lead character — the titular Senua — would seem to obligate a deep, thoughtful piece examining both their importance to the story, and that of their portrayal, but despite their profound effect on the experience, they are, ultimately, not what I’m going to remember most about Hellblade. Instead, when I look back on it, I’m going to remember the things that made it a game.
Hellblade’s story begins with a lengthy cutscene (the first of many) in which Senua makes her way towards Helheim. Hel. One of the few smiles Hellblade drew from me stemmed from the irony of having gone into it off the back of Tomb Raider: Underworld, in which Lara, too, journeys to the Norse land of the dead. In fact, both women are drawn there for similar reasons: Lara to discover her mother’s fate, and Senua to try to change that of her beloved Dillion.
Senua’s journey, though, proves to be a considerably more torturous affair than Lara’s. She must solve puzzle-after-puzzle to pass through gate-after-gate —
— occasionally doing battle with foe-after-foe whilst all the while struggling with the voices in her head, constantly doubting her, always questioning her actions — but, sometimes (though rarely), providing a spark of hope to carry her through.
As I mentioned earlier, Senua’s mental struggles are not what I’m going to take away most from Hellblade, but it would be disingenuous to ignore their effect on the experience, or the incredible performance from Melina Juergens that so effectively conveys their effects on Senua herself.
In fact, though relatively few in number, the various performances throughout the game as a whole are a highlight of the journey. Believable to the last, they, along with breathtaking visuals — which often bring a sensory overload of their own — and stark atmospheres, help draw the player in, imbuing the game’s world, fantastic and otherworldly though it is, with a distinct, unsettling credibility.
As I also mentioned, though, it’s those things that make Hellblade a game that I found to be most memorable.
The environmental puzzles — whether matching up runes to open gates, passing through portals to dispel the illusion of barriers and to create new paths, or piecing together a way forward from shattered fragments of reality — are, without exception, fantastic and, for me, the single most enjoyable element of the game.
And then there’s the combat.
Again and again in the days before Hellblade’s release, I saw the combat referred to as simple but satisfying. The cynic in me thought little of it, dismissing it as mere marketing spin, a way of admitting that there wasn’t much to the combat without outright lying about it. When, after the game’s release, I saw some people who’d actually played it express the same sentiments, the cynic rose again, telling me that they were simply jumping on the proverbial bandwagon, and that they would likely have some brown substance to clean off their noses before venturing back into the real world.
Which just goes to show that being cynical, while sometimes useful, can also, occasionally, make you flat-out wrong.
As it turns out, ‘simple, yet satisfying’ is the perfect way to describe Hellblade’s combat. The controls are a breeze to get the hang of and, once mastered, become incredibly satisfying. Block, parry, dodge, attack. Rinse and repeat, adapting as Senua encounters different kinds of foe, or is confronted — as becomes increasingly common as the game goes on — by more than one enemy at a time. And the constant threat of the dark rot growing ever-closer to Senua’s head with each failure, of losing all progress and being sent back to the beginning, imbues each confrontation with real, adrenaline-fuelled weight. It makes you pause to consider your next moves, rather than simply running in, sword swinging, safe in the knowledge that you just passed a checkpoint.
The sole issue with the combat is that it can sometimes seem needlessly repetitive, with a handful of encounters dragging on so much that they feel as though they’re doing little more than getting in your way. One such encounter comes in the Sea of Corpses, with Senua facing so many foes, back-to-back, that it ruins what would, otherwise, have been a thrilling battle.
As with the combat, there’s also considerable satisfaction to be found in the various collectibles scattered throughout Hellblade’s world.
Said collectibles take the form of Lorestones, not-too-difficult to find runes that, when focused upon, summon the voice of Senua’s ever-present Celtic guide, Druth, to dispense fragments of Norse mythology.
Second to the myriad puzzles, these Lorestones were my favourite part of the game.
Often, collectibles can be a pain to deal with, little more than a distraction from the main thrust of the story. Here, though, I found myself eager to seek them out, constantly backtracking to make sure I hadn’t missed out on the next little piece of mythology.
Ultimately, Hellblade will not be for everyone. Senua’s psychosis is undeniably difficult subject matter, and, even when enjoying the experience, can sometimes feel like too much.
Beneath it, though, there’s a genuinely compelling game to be found. It’s one I’d recommend you play — just be aware, going in, that the road before you will not be a smooth one.
Then again, though, what road worth travelling is?