Drag me to hell.
Video games are not, as a rule, known for their subtlety in dealing with complex subject matters. There are exceptions, of course, but when you start introducing concepts that don’t naturally fit with gaming as a medium it’s easy for things to feel forced at best. For every Spec Ops: The Line, there’s a Call of Duty. Games that explore their chosen subject matters with restraint and respectfulness are notable for their rarity.
Hellblade is not necessarily the most subtle in the way it deals with the complex issue of mental health that is central to its storyline, but it’s certainly respectful. Ninja Theory – best known for their character action games Heavenly Sword, Enslaved and DmC – has crafted a fascinating deep-dive into the sanity of its latest heroine, Senua.
A troubled girl from the isles of Orkney, Senua sets out on a journey into Hell after her lover, Dillion, is killed by Northmen from across the sea (read: vikings) to reclaim his soul. During her journey, she confronts the demons of hell, but moreso has to confront her own demons. I won’t spoil anything of the story here, as it’s definitely something you need to experience as you play the game. But suffice it to say Senua has not had an easy life, and has lived with her Darkness – a crude, if effective, allegory for her depression – since her childhood.
What makes Hellblade’s efforts so notable is the way that the depictions of her mental health bleed into the game design. Most notable are the Furies; disembodied voices that accompany her on her journey, questioning her actions and her abilities. When you’re looking for the next clue to proceed, they’ll whisper insistently. “She doesn’t see it! She’s lost. She’ll never find Dillion.” When fighting an enemy, they’ll taunt her, calling out her injuries or strong opponents. But it’s not all doom and gloom from them; sometimes they’ll call out gentle encouragement; even helpful advice on how to proceed on occasion. Their presence is a constant reminder of Senua’s anxiety, and instils a sense of anxiety in the player, too, as they question your competence along with hers.
Other depictions are more subtle, and are tied into the nature of the gameplay and world design. Most of the puzzles – such as they are – rely on environmental perception, tasking Senua with looking for runes in her surroundings, which might be a shadow cast on the ground or ornamentation when viewed from the right angle. These lend a feeling of Senua trying to make sense of her surroundings and exert a bit of control over her situation, and the game often plays with these ideas further, with alternate pathways and illusions a staple of its environmental puzzling. Sadly, these puzzles don’t really change much throughout the course of the game and are rarely difficult; the handful of other challenges on offer are far more interesting (a near-blind trek through a house and forest, haunted by terrifying creatures, is a clear highlight), though they never outstay their welcome.
When you’re not scouring the environments for runes, you’ll likely be fighting. Don’t mistake Hellblade for an action game though – the combat is deliberately paced, and Senua is limited to light and heavy attacks, a melee kick, dodging, and a simple parry. You can combine attacks and dodges into makeshift combos, and combat is relatively satisfying, but there are only a handful of different enemy types in the game, all of whom can take a fair amount of punishment- though the game does at least give Senua plenty of chances to recover from her own injuries. That’s just as well given the game’s controversial save deletion mechanic, where the game threatens to delete your save if you fail too many times, though there are conflicting reports over whether this does in fact happen. Hellblade does, however, fall back on its combat a little too often, and with many fights involving multiple opponents over multiple waves it can get rather tedious. The trio of boss encounters are slightly more interesting, if similarly overlong.
Whilst neither the combat nor the puzzle solving are exemplary, Hellblade remains a competent adventure that really shines because of the strength of its storytelling and presentation. The visuals are breathtaking – particularly the performance capture on Senua, which really drives home the depths of her character and her emotions, though the environments are just as detailed and evocative. Some of the later sections of the game are beautifully grotesque, and the monsters that inhabit both the world and Senua’s mind are nightmarish apparitions that almost tip the game into true horror at times. The voice acting and soundtrack are equally impressive, but its the way everything comes together that elevates Hellblade to something beyond the sum of its parts.
Taken purely as a game, Hellblade isn’t all that appealing. It can be tedious to play, has a few niggling bugs (like the fact that the dialogue subtitles don’t always match the spoken lines) and the heavy subject matter makes it bleak and far from an easy ride. Part of me even wonders whether the game would have been better framed as a walking simulator, but without the risk of failure the presence of the furies would be far less effective.
But if you’re going into Hellblade just for the gameplay, you’re in the wrong place. This is a fascinating, in-depth exploration of mental health in a video game, and it feels as authentic and powerful as you could hope for. Over the course of its 6 or so hours you’ll be dragged through hell along with Senua, but if even a fraction of what she goes through resonates with you, you’ll come out the other side all the stronger. Hellblade might not be a masterpiece of game design, but it’s a real achievement in interactive storytelling, and is a game everyone should play through at least once.