Dis­ap­point­ing dark-ages odyssey isn’t sharp enough

PlayStation Official Magazine (UK) - - CONTENTS - @ben­tyrer

Re­al­ity bites, and il­lu­sion strikes back, in this psy­cho­log­i­cal ad­ven­ture through Vik­ing hell.

When was the last time you ques­tioned what you’re see­ing? Be­cause for all its faults, Hell­blade can con­jure mo­ments where re­al­ity feels like a loose con­cept. Per­spec­tive is the key to this frus­trat­ing Norse ad­ven­ture, whether it’s try­ing to un­der­stand the frag­mented psy­che of the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter or just fig­ur­ing out which hulk­ing Vik­ing war­rior is club­bing you from be­hind. At the cen­tre of the story is Senua, who is on a jour­ney into the mytho­log­i­cal Norse land of Hel­heim, strug­gling to save the soul of her beloved. It’s a sim­ple set-up made fas­ci­nat­ing by the por­trayal of her psy­chosis. In both ob­vi­ous and sub­tle ways, we’re shown how the con­di­tion af­fects the war­rior, from the voices she hears in her head to the way she views the world.


For the first few hours, in­hab­it­ing Senua’s mind is a suc­cess­fully dis­con­cert­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. What could have been a rel­a­tively sim­ple jour­ney through an im­pos­ing land­scape be­comes ar­du­ous and ap­pro­pri­ately daunt­ing, as voices chat­ter away con­stantly. Some ad­vise, oth­ers chas­tise, but all put you on edge as they whis­per omi­nously. They cer­tainly help bring an un­usual (and re­spect­ful) flavour to the more stan­dard el­e­ments that make up the ac­tion.

These in­clude puz­zle solving, which takes up the bulk of your at­ten­tion. Putting the fo­cus on find­ing hid­den sym­bols to open locked doors, they play like a sim­pler ver­sion of Bat­man’s Rid­dler per­spec­tive puz­zles. Some­times you’ll

need to find a shadow on a wall, and at other points you’ll need to line up the en­vi­ron­ment.

While a few later stages add in­ter­est­ing wrin­kles to the process (a per­sonal favourite sees you dip in and out of dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same area), it’s a ba­sic con­cept that has you search­ing for mean­ing in the world around you. As a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of psy­chosis it works, but as a puz­zle me­chanic it’s in­con­sis­tent. Some­times it’s too sim­ple to be sat­is­fy­ing, leav­ing you feel­ing like you’re do­ing busy work for the sake of it and at other times it’s a lit­tle too ob­tuse, as you wan­der around an en­vi­ron­ment un­til you stum­ble onto what you’re meant to find.


The other main el­e­ment is fight­ing the Norse­men who pop­u­late Hel­heim. Con­sid­er­ing the pedi­gree Ninja The­ory has for com­bat, it’s sur­pris­ing how spar­ingly it’s used in the early stages. A pared-down sys­tem which puts the fo­cus on timing, there’s a mean heft to du­els as you chip away against im­pos­ing war­riors. Note the use of the world ‘duel’ there. When fight­ing one-onone, this sys­tem sings, but the more en­e­mies you tackle, the more the flaws in it rise to the surface, as it be­comes hard to keep track of who you’re meant to be fight­ing.

While the un­set­tling power of Senua’s voices ini­tially glosses over any flaws, they lose that dis­qui­et­ing qual­ity when you re­alise they’re also a crutch to aid you. To im­merse you in the jour­ney, Ninja The­ory’s done away with any on-screen in­for­ma­tion and tu­to­ri­als. To help com­mu­ni­cate con­cepts, the voices pick up some of the slack. They’ll draw your at­ten­tion to shad­ows that might solve a puz­zle or en­e­mies that are about to at­tack you through­out. The ten­sion they cre­ate dis­solves to in­dif­fer­ence as you try to parse what’s use­ful and what isn’t.

While the de­pic­tion of psy­chosis is ad­mirable, con­sid­er­ate, and well-han­dled, (if slightly flawed) there’s no doubt­ing this is a tech­ni­cal tri­umph. From the re­al­is­tic de­tails on Senua, where you can see the paint crack­ing on her skin, to the mo­tion cap­ture that al­lows ac­tor Melina Juer­gens’ powerhouse per­for­mance to shine, this proves a small stu­dio can cap­ture the look of a AAA blockbuster.

Plus, it’s backed up with ap­peal­ingly grim and grotty art de­sign. Whether it’s a burn­ing tree with bod­ies hung from the branches or a par­tic­u­larly gnarly-look­ing corpse, there are images that’ll stick with you long af­ter the cred­its roll.

The main prob­lem stems from the fact that all the beau­ti­ful de­sign is in ser­vice of an in­con­sis­tent ad­ven­ture. The intrigue and dis­tinc­tive­ness help make up for the flaws in the first two acts, but not in the third. The later stages suf­fer from the way the dif­fi­culty es­ca­lates in in­creas­ingly frus­trat­ing ways.


The level de­sign’s oc­ca­sional ob­tuse­ness be­comes more of a prob­lem as ar­eas you are meant to find be­come harder to spot. The story suf­fers as disjointed el­e­ments are added to Senua’s back­story, mud­dy­ing it and re­duc­ing the emo­tional im­pact. Com­bat takes a ter­ri­ble turn into crowd con­trol. Early fights test you by pit­ting you against one or two en­e­mies, but by the end you’re fight­ing in cramped spa­ces against over­whelm­ing waves of them. It’s a sad slog, and it stings that it could have been so much more.


There’s a com­mon fac­tor in these prob­lems, and it’s the fact Ninja The­ory just keeps chuck­ing more at you. There’s enough va­ri­ety in the key sys­tems early on, but that dis­ap­pears for the sec­ond half’s mad­den­ing puz­zling and numb­ing crowd com­bat. Add on the scat­tered story pieces that strug­gle to co­a­lesce and there’s a bloat to these im­por­tant as­pects that even­tu­ally wears you out.

Maybe that’s why Hell­blade is much eas­ier to ap­pre­ci­ate than it is to play. From the unique de­vel­op­ment process that’s brought a higher pro­duc­tion value to in­die games to tack­ling themes that most forms of me­dia seem to avoid, its suc­cess would send a wel­come mes­sage. But the good­will gen­er­ated by cer­tain ar­eas isn’t enough to com­pen­sate for the stretches that dis­ap­point. While there are mo­ments that achieve what Ninja The­ory set out to do, they’re few enough that it’s hard to rec­om­mend Hell­blade with­out se­ri­ous caveats.


For all its good in­ten­tions and mo­ments of skin-crawl­ing ten­sion, the ar­eas it im­presses in aren’t as im­por­tant as the ones it doesn’t. Ul­ti­mately, it leaves you hol­low. Ben Tyrer


Right We’re not en­tirely con­vinced this isn’t a heavy me­tal al­bum cover.

Left Dan­gling bod­ies are a visual mo­tif through­out Senua’s hellish jour­ney.

Above Large bosses, like The Beast here, re­quire more con­cen­tra­tion to de­feat.

Right Senua’s visions are nat­u­rally wo­ven into the story in an un­ob­tru­sive fash­ion.

Above We can’t ar­gue this isn’t a vis­ually ar­rest­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

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