Listening to gaming podcasts back in 2017, I felt like every week marked the release of yet another must-play critically acclaimed game. Here we are in 2019, and I still feel like I'm playing catch-up with titles from this one jam-packed year. Among all these 2017 critical darlings, Hellblade caught my attention since it was lauded for having a strong story and contained scope (a big ask in that year's onslaught of open-world adventures).
Hellblade is a narrative-driven third-person adventure game that features action combat and puzzle-solving. The story of the game follows Senua, a Viking warrior, who is descending into hell to retrieve the soul of her slain husband. In addition to navigating the perils of the underworld, Senua struggles with her mental health and is haunted by memories of her traumatic past. The developer consulted with psychiatric professionals in creating depictions of conditions like schizophrenia and PTSD for this game.
- Hellblade offers a variety of equally beautiful and creepy environments; putrid swamps, desolate beaches, and of course, firey hellscapes are all depicted with a level of detail that makes them feel very real. Some of the more surreal parts of the underworld are particularly visually striking. The use of flame effects and shadows are also very well done.
- This game has fantastic sound design. Positional audio effects really make it sound like the voices in Senua’s head are coming from all directions. The game also uses spatial audio cues are used to help the player navigate the environment; using a good headset is essential.
- The voice acting for Senua and all voices in her head is quite strong, even though I found the script itself to be pretty one-note.
- Throughout the game, Senua can find and activate rune stones that play voice recordings the explain the Norse mythology associated with the situations Senua finds herself in. These recordings are in-character as one of the voices in Senua’s head. This kind of made me feel like I was in a museum as I traveled through Viking hell, but it was interesting to learn about an ancient culture as I played.
- Initially, I liked the deliberate and weighty feel of the combat. However, as the game repeatedly presented kill rooms with wave after wave of the same few enemies, battles quickly began to feel like a chore.
- Hellblade has some good puzzles, but much like the combat, the variety is extremely limited. Once I had seen a few examples of each type of puzzle early in the game, it was then just a matter of the same thing being repeated many times over for the rest of the game.
- While the environments Senua explores look great, I often had issues with navigating them. The game is inconsistent with what terrain our Viking heroine can and cannot traverse; in some cases, she can vault over tall obstacles, in others, a 1-foot tall object obstructs her path. Which doors can and can't be opened is similarly inconsistent. While there are some visual clues as to where the context-sensitive interaction points are located, I still regularly resorted to trial and error.
- A few areas of the game involve running through burning buildings or running from monsters. I had a couple of occasions where these tense moments were disrupted by Senua getting snagged on something in the environment, resulting in an immediate game over.
- Every time you continue from the game over screen, an infection in Senua's hand creeps a little further up her arm. The game warns you very strongly at the start of the campaign that getting too many game overs will cause the infection to reach her head, killing her permanently and resetting the campaign back to the beginning. This is a lie. I spent the latter half of the game worrying that my frequent deaths (several of which were not my fault) would result in complete loss of progress, only to observe that it spread of the infection would slow down or even reverse when it got close to Senua's head. While I get that from an artistic standpoint, this mechanic is supposed to enhance the player's feeling of tension in tune with Senua's situation, but I really resent that this game's messaging deliberately misleads the player.
- The tone of the game's story is largely doom and gloom the whole way through. Since it's apparent that the heroine's journey is hopeless from the very beginning, I found it hard to find something to latch on to and feel truly invested despite strong presentation and performances.
- Hellblade's campaign takes about nine hours to complete but still managed to feel long due to its repetitive gameplay and one-note story.
I really wanted to like Hellblade, but it just didn't work for me. There segments of the game that offer compelling gameplay or interesting themes but rarely did these elements gel together in a cohesive way. While I wouldn't say I regret playing Hellblade because it tried some novel things, I was eager to be done with it partway through. Since this is a case where the artistic vision is strong but the execution didn't quite land, I'd still be interested to try another game from this developer in the future. However, for Hellblade itself, I would only recommend it to those who value artistic expression highly enough to overlook the game's other issues.
Completion Time: 9 hours