Hellblade is a tricky bag of thoughts and impressions. In today’s environment, mental health to many is a field of landmines, having scarcely been touched in the video game industry. There have been a few landmark titles, but Hellblade really raises the bar… or should I say down since our main Celtic heroine, Senua, needs to trek the decrepit waters of the Northmen to make her perilous passage into Helheim, the Norse equivalent of the underworld.
At the beginning of the game, we take control of Senua as she drifts down what can only be described as the most intimidating river since the battle against The Sorrow in Metal Gear Solid 3. Corpses lie on stakes, rotting bodies lay hung from above, and all the meanwhile, over half a dozen voices are telling Senua to turn back, there’s no hope. Having been a victim of abuse, isolation, and mental illness all her life, her only cling to sanity was her long deceased mother, and her true love Dillion, who was sacrificed by the Norse and whose soul rests for eternal damnation in Helheim. Having lost everything to what she describes as her darkness, she spits at her cursed nature and refuses to accept the circumstances of her life, taking sword in hand and going to the bowels of the underworld and bringing back her lost love.
Armed only with a single blade, stories from a man who managed to escape Helheim, Druth, and the multitudes of her own voices trying to both guide and hinder her, Senua enters the deathly realm of psychological horror and action-adventure where puzzles are aplenty, and battles come few. Although the majority of this game is a walking simulator, there are welcomed moments of vicious combat that involve perfect timing of dodges and parries against otherworldly and demonic creatures that serve Helya, the ruler of Helheim.
Do not let this affect your decision to play; I’m spoiling you now. Spoilers ahoy!
This is a bluff.
Back to puzzles – It’s not like Tetris rocks on a wall or anything like that. The world serves to trick and frighten you, deter you with each step you take, but Senua must push on and see the truth. There were moments where they scared me so much that I almost quit playing entirely. I am easily frightened, but having played Dead Space, Resident Evil, Until Dawn, Alien: Isolation, Outlast; I know the feeling of fear and how to isolate myself from the object to feel in control. I could not do that here.
There was a time where I was forced to traverse in near absolute darkness and nothing to follow but a glimmer of light and Dillion’s lost voice. There were also horrific blurs of monsters who I couldn’t fight sauntering in the shadows, grinding and screeching as I tried to sneak within grasping distances of them. All I could do to keep my wits is trust that the game would not hurt me, like accepting a roller coaster would not go off its tracks, and I pushed on. Add the fact that I had headphones on (which is a necessity, not a recommendation; absolutely, POSITIVELY put headphones in for the entirety of this game), I admitted later that I nearly peed myself in pure fear and adrenaline.