Rarely in life can we subjectively experience something that transports us into another world, allowing us to see life through the eyes of another and genuinely feel love for that individual. Movies, books, and games that attempt to do this are easy to find, but often will fail in their mission due to some lack of narrative flow, character depth, world-building, etc. During the blue moon that a certain medium does end up accomplishing this, however, lives are changed.
After playing this game, I looked up the reviews on YouTube and clicked on the first one I found: Jake Baldino’s review for GameRanx. After the first few seconds, however, it seemed as though there were more disclaimers about why you should excuse certain elements than reasons as to why you should celebrate them; one disclaimer was the length of the game being “too short.” While I understand the desire for squeezing 60+ hours out of a $60 investment, I think it’s far more important the quality of gameplay than the quantity of game length. For me, every haunting frame of each unforgettable moment made up some of the most awe-inspiring six hours of gameplay I’ve experienced in a long time.
If you follow this little blog, you’ll know that I usually group my reviews into themes or series. If I played/watched them within the same week, I’ll review them together. If they’re in the same series, I’ll make some sort of analytical retrospective. Only twice in the last year or more have I written a review for a single entry: Hollow Knight, and now this. If that doesn’t express just how much I respect and enjoy this game, then I’m not sure what else I could say. But, allow me to try.
Within the first minutes of exposition, the narrative makes a few things clear: your experience through the character of Senua will be psychologically challenging, emotionally draining, and visually stunning. Even the time spent just watching her travel and converse was enthralling; the opening minutes are just a long cutscene, a pattern that will persist throughout the most important moments of the plot. You’ll spend a lot of time just watching, but that doesn’t detract from how great of a gaming experience you’ll be offered.
Not even the superb opening could prepare me for what was to come, though, as each of those three prophecies (psychologically challenging, emotionally draining, and visually stunning) was fulfilled to the absolute extreme. While there were challenging puzzles, the psychological aspects I’m more referring to revolve around Senua’s psychosis; the indirect conversations she has with these voices plaguing her mind constantly berate and persecute not only her but you as well. Your every move is subject to scrutiny from a mob of disdainful cynics, your struggles are mocked and your insecurities are boldened. While Senua is, of course, the target of these intellectual attacks, your bond with her becomes so strong that it will become difficult to tell just where your control ends and her will begins.
Admittedly, there was a bit of hyperbole in the former paragraph, but there was no dishonesty. The connection I built with Senua was remarkable, and far outweighs the bond I’ve built with most other game protagonists within the last few months. When she feels pain, I felt it too. Since this game was largely about her titular sacrifice(s), most of the plot points in her arc became quite emotionally draining. From drifting through a sea of flesh-hungry corpses, stumbling in demon-infested darkness, and fighting Gods in order to confront Hela the Goddess of Death, the emotional trauma builds upon itself tenfold as the story progresses into an ending that will make you feel every bit relieved as broken.
Those moments, and each one leading up to it, are nothing if not breathtaking. From the design programmed in, to the detail painted on to the areas you’ll explore, hours can be poured into simple appreciation. Of the dozens of moments that come to mind, the one that most impressed me was around the halfway mark after reassembling a broken sword. Unsheathing the weapon from an ancient tree allows you to venture into a river of blood, surrounded by corpses that pile on top of each other, all reaching out for the life Senua travels with.
Moments later, you’re ambushed by demons of Hel that you’re now able to take down with mere swings as opposed to the previous hacking and slashing that you were forced to do. Nearly drowning in blood, suffocated by clamoring corpses, attacked by legions of demons, and lost in an unknown world, yet the solace that this new blade offers is one that holds all of Senua’s fear at bay. It is in this moment that I felt the story transformed from a fish-out-of-water tale into a pure Heroine’s Journey – one rooted in tragedy, yes, but striving for epic resolution all the same.
Now, if I may drop all pretense and write like a normal person…I played the new God of War last July and then found out about this game around November. Needless to say, my appreciation of GoW piqued my interest in Hellblade but the GoW similarities don’t go far past assumptions. Sure, they’re both tales of Norse Mythology revolving around a character that doesn’t really belong there but is on a mission to bring peace to him/herself after losing a loved one, shot in a single-take style and with a rather gritty aesthetic… but it’s the thematic elements that separate them most notably.
For one, I’d say that Hellblade is more graceful and poetic albeit undeniably rougher around the edges; the roughness does not come from production value, developer skill, or game design, though, but the aforementioned theme. Psychosis, failure, defeat, death, and devastation are the driving forces of this game, and in that darkness, there is so much beauty to relish in. God of War is less of a metaphorical redemption tale and more of a literal one, as Kratos joins the Pantheon of Norse Gods after spending nearly all of his life as a Greek Warrior, and then the Greek God of War. Hellblade is about coming to terms, making peace, and moving forward with the past unable to be altered.
All in all, the game offers countless avenues for satisfaction not only in narrative or character but visuals and gameplay as well. From the story that will rip your heart from your chest to the dopamine rush every time you take down a fierce opponent, Hellblade is a gaming experience truly unlike anything I’ve ever played (yes, including God of War). Senua has easily become one of my favorite characters in any medium and I simply cannot wait to dive back into the world and tell her story all over again. If you’re on the fence about this game, jump into the comments. I may just be in a mood to buy it for you so that you can fall in love with it just like I have.
I’m going to give this game an emphatic 10/10. It’s disturbing, sensational, crushing, and unforgettable. I only wish that I had found out about it sooner.
As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon!