Ever since Hellblade was the cover story for Game Informer Magazine forever ago, I have been anxiously awaiting this game! After beating games with strong female leads (such as Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last of Us), I was curious to see where this one was headed. Now, from the trailer alone it looks like a Dark Souls type of game, a hack and slash adventure. I couldn't have been more wrong, and honestly, I was glad. Instead of a hack and slash gorefest, I ended up with one of the most emotional stories I've ever experienced in a video game, next to The Last of Us.
Without spoilers, in the basic plot of HellBlade, you play as Senua, a Celtic warrior on a mission into the depths of the Norse underworld in search of the soul of her deceased love, Dillion. She carries his skull with her as she travels, and believes that if she travels to these dark depths of hell, she will be able to free Dillion's soul from the evil Norse Goddess of the Underworld, Hella.
During Senua's travels, she's fighting her inner demons. She suffers from depression, psychosis, and anxiety due to past trauma, and has voices in her head telling her she's not going to survive. They tell her to turn back, and most of the time, misguide her on what WRONG thing to do during a boss battle. Senua must survive difficult puzzles involving Celtic Runes, and horrible, evil, underworld creatures who block her path to where Hella resides in Helheim.
Upon starting up the game, it was recommended to use noise-canceling headphones to get the full effect of Senua's psychosis. It also warns you that the developers did their research on mental illness, so the game may indeed be a bit distressing to some players. As the game kicks off, we see Senua rowing in a canoe to begin her journey to Helheim. Voices surround you as you're watching. Warning her that this is a bad idea, that she needs to turn back. Honestly, right from the get-go, this creeped me out. I had to keep looking outside or behind me to make sure no one was around, to make sure I wasn't going crazy, and to make sure it was the game, not me. This made me realize I was in for one hell of a game.
Stepping out of the canoe, I was expecting a tutorial to begin, like in almost every other game out there. Nope. I was on my own from here on out.
The graphics in this game are breathtakingly beautiful. They can be distracting at times, and I couldn't stop taking screenshots to show my social media friends how beautiful this game is. I wanted to provide evidence that an independent company is about to kick everyone else's asses.
So here I was expecting a Dark Souls type of hack and slash, but it was the complete opposite. Yes, there's combat, and it's absolutely fantastic (yet difficult at first because there's absolutely NO tutorial, which I loved...those get a bit tedious at times). The bosses are tough, the combat zones are tough and almost as frustrating as Dark Souls. But hey, where's the fun in an easy game? As I pushed on, puzzles kept popping up forcing me to deal with ancient Celtic Runes. Being a huge fan of puzzles in video games, this was another major plus, and thankfully there were no enemies to constantly get in your way as you're trying to figure these out. At first, they were tedious, but once you get the hang of it and figure out each Rune puzzle, you have this great sense of accomplishment. Though, the voices still torment you with every step you take.
The soundtrack is another amazing addition to an already unbelievable game. Viking war chants are played during battle scenes, there's creepy music throughout, and the song they chose for the final boss fight is hands down the perfect backing soundtrack I've ever heard as I played a game.
The important part of Hellblade is not only the fact that the developers clearly did extensive research on Norse and Celtic Mythology but the way they tackle mental illness. You feel for Senua as she slowly dives into complete madness. You're with her the whole way, going insane and feeling anxious yourself. A lot of people just shut down those with mental illness, especially psychosis. This game is important because it shows the real horrors behind it. How it affects one's self. The voices in Senua's head constantly tell her she's not good enough, that she needs to just give up. It's all what an individual with mental illness goes through. Working closely with doctors as well as folks who suffer from psychosis as well, gave the game a more authentic look into mental illness than any documentary ever could. You feel every single bit of it, and I applaud the creators at Ninja Theory for tackling a tough subject and turning it into one of the most beautiful, emotional, heartbreaking video games ever.
I'm not ashamed to admit I cried a few times, was terrified at others, and after beating this game it left me with a whole new outlook on the subject matter. It also left me wanting to read every book I can on Norse and Celtic history, SO very very interesting.
If you love a game that's more than just shoot 'em up or hack and slash gameplay and love a fantastic story, this game is a must play! The final boss fight is officially my all-time favorite boss fight in any game, ever. It's visually stunning, the music is brilliant, and the battles are off the wall. The ending leaves you satisfied, not disappointed. It doesn't just end like some games out there (*cough cough* skyrim), it ends on a beautiful note.
In ways, it did remind me of my all-time favorite Gamecube game, Eternal Darkness (if you played that one, and remember the usage of the Runes as well as your sanity meter, you'll be extremely pleased with Hellblade), and does have many hints of Dark Souls. But, it's a completely different and unique gaming experience, that I believe everyone needs to play. Hellblade is a horror game, no doubt about it.
One last thing I would like to mention is the perma death rumor. After your first combat battle, Senua has a vision that she turns to rot, and the screen warns you that if you die too many times, your save file will be deleted and you will be forced to start all over again no matter how far into the game you are. I immediately freaked out, and EVERY combat battle gave me extreme anxiety. Whether this is true or not, I don't know, but I wasn't going to find out, so I played my absolute best, and thankfully did indeed beat it.
Hellblade is available now on PS4, Xbox one and PC $29.99 (digital only!) and well worth every penny.