From its opening scene, which calls to mind the journey up a foreboding river in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” I was struck by the game’s production values. As Senua paddles her way through a fog-laden landscape in a dugout tree trunk, the narrator, voiced by Chipo Chung, introduces us to the Celtic warrior and the other voices Senua hears. Chung’s mellifluous narration is as mesmerizing as any I’ve heard in a video game — fully on par with the voice work of Linda Hunt in the “God of War” series and Logan Cunningham in “Bastion” and “Transistor.” When Chung says, “This is a journey deep into darkness. There will be no more stories after this one,” she imbues the lines with a pathos that would come across as silly if voiced by a less-skilled actor.
And then there is Senua herself, played Ninja Theory’s video editor Melina Juergens. Juergens’s performance feels proportionally unbridled. When Senua can no longer bear the voices swirling around her, mocking and hectoring her, she looks unflatteringly discombobulated. When she falters in a fight and struggles to regain her footing she appears as though she is summoning every last iota of strength to defend herself. Her displays of anguish, of which there are plenty, are operatic without being cloying.
Although the Cambridge-based, U.K. studio Ninja Theory is a relatively small in comparison to many of the blockbuster specialists in the industry, with “Hellblade,” they and their technology partners are paving the way for lower-cost motion capture technology. This technology allows actors to have their digital likenesses integrated into a game’s graphics engine in real-time. (An actor can have a different face and body altogether in-game, while retaining the expressive nuances that they bring to the table.) Because the developers don’t have to wait for long periods to see how an actor’s performance meshes with their game world, as has been the case for most of the industry since the advent of motion-capture technology, the cutscenes feel more organic than in most games that leverage the physical traits of human actors. (Here, I can’t help but think of the “Call of Duty” games.)
In terms of gameplay, “Hellblade” sticks to the old combat and puzzle-solving formula. Yet, what saves these elements from being wholly conventional is how they affect and illuminate Senua’s mental state. Fail in battle or in overcoming environmental challenges too many times and a flesh-rotting disease will gradually spread up her arm to her head resulting in permadeath whereby the player’s save file is deleted. (If you’re unwary of courting such risks, you could always upload your save file to the cloud if you’re playing on PS4, or download it to a USB stick if you’re running the game on PC. Though obviously you’d miss that frisson that comes from negotiating higher stakes.) As for the puzzles, they serve not only as palate cleansers between action sequences, but also to underscore Senua’s determination to find secret correspondences in her surroundings via her own unique way of looking at things.
Speaking of visuals, on the whole the game looks stunning. However, there are cracks that appear intermittently that can somewhat mar the illusion. Aside from the occasional pop-in graphics that I noticed on the standard PS4, I noticed that when you swivel the camera in front of Senua while she is standing still, she swivels her head back and forth like a marionette. Moreover, close to the end of the game, I believe I committed a game-breaking error. There is a part where you need a torch to solve a certain puzzle, which I foolishly left behind after Senua dropped it in battle. After making my way to the puzzle and having the game autosave behind me, I could not return to where I dropped it. I’m not sure if the developers meant to illustrate another cruel trick that Senua’s mind played on her, but with nothing in her hand she held her arm aloft while a faint trail of smoke flickered in the air. Even if this was a fluke, I like to imagine the game found an exquisite way to troll me that was consistent with its overall evocation of heartbreak.
In any case, few mainstream video games have tried, let alone achieved, anything close to the emotional intensity that courses through this game.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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