I’m not usually one for video games that are dark, or scary, or seem too challenging. While some gamers are able to brave those waters, I’m too skittish to wade in.
Ninja Theory’s new game Hellblade is all of those things, but it’s different in that it wants you to feel fear — a new kind of fear. It’s what connects you to the protagonist you play as, a young woman named Senua who lives in tribal Europe during the Viking era. What makes her unique is that she’s dealing with psychosis.
That’s why I’m enjoying the game so much, despite my trepidation.
The game opens on a boat pushing through fog, which Senua rows with a wooden oar. Right away, you start hearing the voices in her head. All are female, talking to her or about her, arguing amongst themselves. With headphones on, you can hear them drifting in from all directions, overlapping in an acoustic nightmare. They’ll be with you through the game. There’s no escaping them.
Hellblade keeps you immersed in this psychosis, feeling more like a real experience than a video game. It doesn’t offer you any prompts about what controller button to press, what to do, or where to go next. You have to experiment a little, but it’s not hard to figure out how to progress through your quest. It’s an achievement in game design, how intuitive everything feels.
Hellblade also doesn’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s in Senua’s head — you are right there in it with her. She’s on a journey through hell to fight for the soul of her dead lover, a story that’s unveiled to you gradually. But is she really entering Hellheim? The Viking invasion is real, so it’s possible she’s fighting these enemies who in her mind are exaggerated into hellish beasts. In any case, this quest she is on is very much in her own mind.
This means that the game weaves magic into gritty historical settings. This “magic” is in Senua’s mind. Her unique view of the world offers a dark take on this period of history, and the mythology of the era adds to it. The world you enter here is littered with strange visions, glowing stones, and floating runes — some things may be real, but I believe a lot of it is in Senua’s head. It’s a historical game that feels like a fantasy, colored by Senua’s voices and visions.
My favorite quest so far is when Senua enters the territory of the god of illusion. Wooden archways decorated in animal skulls offer different views of the world around Senua. If she passes through an archway, things change — suddenly a wall opens up into a stairway, or a board appears where none existed before. These are illusions, but nothing prevents them from becoming reality. To progress, Senua has to walk under the archways, finding new paths or changing the locations of runes that she needs to align in the sky. The setting reveals crumbling stone castles, but combined with this god’s mythology and Senua’s psychosis, it becomes an ever-changing landscape of secrets and glowing mirages.
From a gameplay perspective, what makes Hellblade challenging is that Senua is infected with rot on her right arm, which spreads each time she dies. If the rot reaches her heart, it’s game over — you start from the beginning. This scared me at first. It’s supposed to.
Fortunately, every time Senua falls, a breath away from death, you can mash the X button on your controller to get her back on her feet. It’s like a second wind. She still staggers without much health, but if you can land a few good swings of the sword, she’s safe to continue fighting.
The voices never leave you alone, though. When she’s down, they tell Senua she’ll never get back up again. When she’s hit, they tell her she’s weak, injured, frightened. But they also encourage her at times, warn her when somebody is behind her, and point out the things she does right when she solves a puzzle. They’re the angel on your shoulder as often as they are the devil, and I’m constantly struggling with whether to ignore them or heed them.
While at first Hellblade feels bleak and difficult, it’s actually a game that’s very forgiving, letting you pick yourself back up if you have the strength of mind to do so. Since I’m eager to continue exploring this world, I’ll have to embrace my fears right along with Senua to do it. That seems to be exactly what Hellblade wants from me.