This blog entry contains spoilers. While it's not intended as a full game review specific events within the story are mentioned.
"This place, it reminds her of the isolating suffocating darkness she lived through as a young girl. Imprisoned in her room at night, the faces in the dark, coming through the walls. She once thought everyone could see them. I mean, that's what children say all the time isn't it? That there are monsters in the dark. By the time she realised that only she could see them, her father, Zynbel, could see the monster in her." - This quote taken from the game reminded of my own childhood particularly the line "She once thought everyone could see them."
Hellblade is a very unusual game and is nothing like I expected it to be. Initially I thought it to be a sequel of Heavenly Sword due to its title, the likeness of the main character, and the company Ninja Theory that made both games. I was totally wrong in that assumption but from what people have been saying online I'm not the only one who believed that.
Upon starting the game there are references to mental illness, even stating the names of mental illness advisers during the opening credits. I did feel this was a little odd and wondered if Ninja Theory were just covering their backs due to mental illness being part of the story. In fact during the opening of the game and the initial levels there isn't much related to mental illness at all and it simply plays as a conventional sword fight hack-and-slash type game. Parts of the game play as a puzzler where runes have to be found to decode the patterns upon doors. Senua also appears to talk to herself a lot, albeit within her head, but no more so than Gollum from Lord Of The Rings. In fact I even stopped playing for a while as the game didn't intrigue me in terms of the story or the playability. I wanted to explore but there was nothing to find only the symbols to open the obligatory locked door.
There were also some game bugs, and a number of typos and word changes within the game's subtitles. These weren't particularly annoying but I tend to notice things like that. Luckily the much talked about game breaking bug was patched before I reached the part of the game that was effected by it.
However, after the two initial areas of the game, it appears to change in the way it plays and the solutions to the door puzzles become more elaborate. It's subtle at first but before long it becomes apparent that Senua's internal voices have personalities of their own sometimes wishing to help her and sometimes being downright spiteful and laughing at her misfortune. They even discuss what would happen to them if Senua died. They would die too. At one point Senua turns her head and replies verbally to something they said. This reaches its climax when they take on a form of their own and talk to her face to face begging her to not proceed. I had tears in my eyes, it's a powerful scene.
Many games have strange weird monsters but the more progress made through this game the more it becomes clear that everything may be in Senua's imagination. Later in the game a flashback scene involving her mother reveals what caused Senua's mental trauma to begin with, but that may have tipped the balance of an already disturbed mind.
The ending is a little open ended and open to interpretation. I like to think she was re-enacting her memories during a vision quest and was never really in any physical danger. But she was bloody and still had the burn of rot upon her arm so I may be wrong.
Luckily I've never experienced audible hallucinations and while I've seen a lot of frightening things over the years they have all been totally silent. But I do identify with the notion of hallucinations having personalities of their own even to the extent of them feeling fear. This game is really spot on with how they managed to tell the story of a traumatised woman dealing with her delusions. It's not something that film and TV appear to deal with properly. The genre of a game is much more personal with the player experiencing what the main character is going through, seeing through their eyes, experiencing what they are going through.
There's a stigma that surrounds mental illness with people not wishing to talk about it hoping that it will go away. Then there are people who will wear a label of mental illness like a badge with a self diagnosed illness they read about online being their flavour of the month. In many ways it's a double edged sword.
I enjoyed this game, not the sword fighting so much, but the story itself. I'll likely play it again in the coming months.
Senua gets caught in the pouring rain.