Hell­blade

Hel­heim hath no fury like a woman who mourns

Games Master - - Contents -

Want to know what it feels like to go ut­terly, ter­ri­fy­ingly in­sane? Ninja The­ory’s got you cov­ered!

What might you ex­pect the first two ti­tles to be in a game’s open­ing cred­its? Pro­ducer and Direc­tor, per­haps? In Hell­blade: Senua’s Sac­ri­fice, it’s Men­tal Health Ad­vi­sor and His­tor­i­cal Con­sul­tant. The rea­son be­comes quickly ap­par­ent, as does the fact that Hell­blade is like lit­tle we’ve ever seen be­fore. For a start, it does an ex­cel­lent job of avoid­ing con­ven­tional la­bels: there’s DNA of Ninja The­ory’s ear­lier, ac­tion-ori­ented works here, but also spa­tial puz­zling, har­row­ing au­dio­vi­sual sto­ry­telling, and a blend of un­usual new ideas. Com­bined, those el­e­ments cre­ate an un­con­ven­tion­ally bril­liant nar­ra­tive show­case.

Hell­blade charts both Celtic war­rior Senua’s quest to res­cue a loved one’s soul from the depths of the Norse un­der­world, Hel­heim, and her bat­tle with se­vere, trauma-in­duced psy­chosis, and the lines be­tween the two are never made clear. Whether the for­mer is an in­ter­nal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the lat­ter is left am­bigu­ous, and that’s the point – de­spite the third-per­son per­spec­tive, you ex­pe­ri­ence the world as Senua pro­cesses it, dis­torted and twisted by her ill­ness.

Men­tal health has of­ten been poorly por­trayed within games, from Bat­man pum­melling ‘lu­natic’ in­mates in the Arkham games, to Out­last us­ing vi­o­lent pa­tients as the building blocks for its jump-scares, so it’s re­fresh­ing to see a sym­pa­thetic in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Here, the en­tire ap­proach is turned on its head: you ex­pe­ri­ence Senua’s an­guish and her pain, fear­ing that, rather than her. She is the one recog­nis­able shred of hu­man­ity in a bleak hellscape. So of­ten we tell sto­ries of the men­tally ill from the per­spec­tive of the out­side look­ing in. Here ev­ery­thing Senua faces, you face also.

While it’s han­dled with thought­ful­ness, there’s no at­tempt to shy away from the uglier as­pects of a psy­chotic dis­ease, with hor­rific im­agery plucked from Senua’s psy­che per­me­at­ing through­out. The way these take shape changes con­stantly, they’re never al­lowed the time to be­come nor­malised, but there are sev­eral the­matic through-lines which hint at her deep­est fears.

Mind’s eye

Vis­ual dis­tor­tions and trick­ery – which heighten in mo­ments of stress or con­flict – give the world a dis­ori­ent­ing feel, but it’s the out­stand­ing au­dio work that re­ally en­velops you in Senua’s con­scious­ness. Head­phones are a ne­ces­sity thanks to the clever use of bin­au­ral sound, which sim­u­lates the ef­fect of sounds re­ver­ber­at­ing around in­side your head. From the be­gin­ning, there are voices whis­per­ing in your ears, chid­ing and ques­tion­ing your ev­ery move, but con­flict­ingly also of­fer­ing advice. One might nudge you for­wards, while another – in the op­po­site ear – urges cau­tion. The nar­ra­tor sits along­side these voices too, though she is static, re­main­ing in one ear, and the sen­sa­tion that’s she’s ac­tu­ally be­side you, mut­ter­ing into your ear,

“You ex­pe­ri­ence senua’s an­guish and her pain, fear­ing that, rather than her”

never sub­sides. It’s yet another el­e­ment de­signed to make you feel con­sis­tently on-edge, and it works.

This cock­tail of op­pres­sive themes and tech­niques could eas­ily make for an over­whelm­ingly dispir­it­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but the one el­e­ment of cathar­sis comes from the com­bat, for which Ninja The­ory is famed. At mo­ments where Senua is most dis­tressed, ephemeral en­e­mies ap­pear in clouds of smoke, some tak­ing the form of Vik­ing war­riors while others take more de­monic shape. It’s a slow-paced sys­tem with heavy crunch­ing blows be­ing dealt and de­liv­ered by both sides. Con­trol­ling space is vi­tal to avoid be­com­ing sur­rounded by en­e­mies, but in gen­eral these sec­tions aren’t par­tic­u­larly challenging and are a chance to blow off some steam.

Boss fights are more gru­elling, grand show­pieces of terror that play with the sim­ple rules of com­bat in clever ways we’d be re­miss to spoil here. It might seem in­con­gru­ous for a game about men­tal health to switch into ac­tion-RPG com­bat and boss bat­tles pe­ri­od­i­cally, but it cre­ates the sense of Senua fight­ing back, of be­ing more than just a vic­tim. That her time-slow­ing superpower is dubbed ‘fo­cus’ is no co­in­ci­dence: her op­po­nents, crea­tures of mythol­ogy, are not phys­i­cal, but her own in­ner demons.

In gen­eral, Senua is de­cid­edly hu­man, beau­ti­fully acted and mo­tion-cap­tured, with a char­ac­ter arc and plot that gives her depth, rather than just be­ing a ves­sel to ex­plore men­tal health. Sim­i­larly, her lover Druth, who ap­pears in vi­sions, is con­vinc­ingly por­trayed through the use of live-ac­tion footage spliced into the game. This use of real footage hints at the idea that the en­tire game world ex­ists in Senua’s mind, but ei­ther way, both per­form­ers look and sound fan­tas­tic.

Norse power

If the char­ac­ters look im­pres­sive, the en­vi­ron­ments are pos­i­tively awe-in­duc­ing. The lack of HUD helps (see ‘Look­ing Un­der The HUD’), and the won­der­ful level of va­ri­ety ex­tracted from the Norse/Celtic theme gives each area a dis­tinct feel. Ver­dant green­ery gives way to arid, fire-scorched lands, then dank, rainy tem­ples cast in dour blues. Dark­ness is a con­sis­tent mo­tif, but it’s the mo­ments of light and beauty that con­tex­tu­alise the more murky sec­tions.

The puz­zles fol­low this theme of look­ing for clar­ity in the dark­ness, of­ten de­pend­ing on spa­tial aware­ness for their so­lu­tions. The realm of Val­ravn, God Of Il­lu­sions, for ex­am­ple, has you us­ing en­vi­ron­ment-al­ter­ing gate­ways to align sym­bols and progress, while Sutr, God Of Fire, forces you to re­trace your steps at speed through en­vi­ron­ments af­ter they’ve been set ablaze.

What’s most im­pres­sive about the puz­zling, and all the other el­e­ments of Hell­blade, is that they con­trib­ute to­wards creating a co­he­sive whole. In re­cent years, we’ve come to ac­cept that tra­di­tional gam­ing com­po­nents like puz­zles and com­bat are in­com­pat­i­ble with the deep en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling that so-called walk­ing sim­u­la­tors pro­vide. Hell­blade is a con­fi­dent re­but­tal of that as­ser­tion, show­ing that when care­fully crafted, a deeply mean­ing­ful nar­ra­tive can work along­side con­ven­tional gam­ing prin­ci­ples. To com­bine both types of game with the ad­di­tional pres­sures of tack­ling a sen­si­tive and highly emo­tive sub­ject is a chal­lenge that many devel­op­ers would have un­der­stand­ably shied away from, and plau­dits to Ninja The­ory for even dar­ing at­tempt it. To de­liver it all with such aplomb, though, is a frankly re­mark­able feat, and has re­sulted in one of this gen­er­a­tion’s most un­for­get­table and evo­lu­tion­ary games.

Ru­nic iconog­ra­phy runs through­out Hell­blade. Find the sym­bols in the en­vi­ron­ment to un­lock this gate.

These runes act like au­dio logs de­liv­er­ing tales of gods and mythol­ogy from your lost lover, Druth.

A lone op­po­nent is no trou­ble, but against a group crowd con­trol tac­tics are vi­tal.

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