FBT is the one sane thing in an insane world. That’s a first.
In 8th Century Britain, Senua, a female Pict warrior who suffers from psychosis, searches for the underworld goddess Hela to demand the return of her lover’s soul; being part puzzler, part hack n slash, part exploration of mental health, and an indie art game from the UK, publishers understandably bargepole’d it. Yet even with a digital-only release, Hellblade was hugely successful; its game-world and handling of psychosis were lauded, it featured on practically every top 20 of 2017 and was nominated for over 80 awards, winning 25 (five of which were BAFTAs). All of which makes me feel a bit churlish for disliking it …
Opening with a trigger warning about representations of Psychosis, Senua silently rows across a bleak river to reach Helheim; but Senua isn’t alone. There’s the Darkness, an entity that constantly berates her; her inner Narrator, and the ‘Furies’ – voices that observe and comment on her. It’s pretty crowded in Senua’s head, and the worlds of Norse Legend we fight through are in her mind too; we’re in her reality, where nothing can be trusted or relied on – even her own mind is against her.
One of the most acclaimed elements of Hellblade was its portrayal of Psychosis. The Furies create an ever-changing state of mind, encouraging and taunting, advising and lying, chatting about Senua as if she’s not there; it’s disorientating but they have to be listened to - there’s no map or mission marker, you decide when to act on their advice. Meanwhile the Darkness tries to convince us it’s all her fault, that she should give up. The only lightness comes from her beloved, Dillion who she imagines relating the history of the Pict, the Norsemen’s invasion, his torture and death, and their love story. It’s horrible being in Senua’s head, trying to focus while enduring mockery, criticism and reminders of her brutal life.
And it’s not just the voices that distract you; Hellblade is visually spectacular. The representation of Britain’s desolation post-the Norsemen’s sacking is bleak and beautiful, but covering it is Senua’s wild interpretation; a twisted, untrustworthy alternative reality where just looking at things from a different angle creates problems. Just trying to move forward is a struggle. Unfortunately, in more ways than one.
For the first few hours, this is the best game I’ve ever played. Senua’s reality compounded by her loss creates a searing experience. But then, it starts to grate. Soon, it becomes repetitive and once you’ve experienced everything you’re going to, you notice most of what we’re doing has been done before.
Take the Furies for example. Initially disorientating, their constant chatter eventually irritates to the point you want to turn the sound off. I get that people with schizophrenia have to navigate this daily, but it starts to sound like you’ve got Loose Women on in the background; I’m not glibly dismissing the experience, but the key difference is I’m in control, so the Furies are no different from any other NPC chirping in your ear, giving clues and missions; they’re just in your head instead of on a radio. You’ll hear ‘what’s that’ or ‘she missed it!’ and you think ‘that wasn’t psychosis, that was a hint’. The rest is just white noise. It feels manipulative - not in the way that schizophrenia might be, but typical gaming head-messing.
And then there’s the knowledge that we’re not really travelling through Hell as Senua believes, we’re witnessing her psychosis; but we never contextualise it, never step out and appreciate her struggle, it becomes the standard fantasy game we’ve played before. When she’s attacked by a raven-man-monster it’s just another mini-boss to us. Because we never leave her reality, we are in hell, we are fighting demons, Dillion can be saved. That makes it a standard fantasy hack n slash.
Make that a basic Hack n Slash. At first, it’s amazing. They’re huge and terrifying and Senua only has a sword – but to fight through, it’s a pain in the head. Opponents will often go off-screen or the 3rd person view will completely obscure everything and while the Furies might yell “look out behind”, there’s times where Senua doesn’t respond to commands or they don’t react to a hit. It’s Hack n Slash from the arcade era, a button-mashing good luck fight which gets infuriatingly haphazard in the final levels where one mistimed hit puts her down.
And they’re always identical, and go on for days. One appears, you beat it. Then two more, then three more, then a larger foe supported by two more standards, then another three. And if you get offed, it’s … Right. Back. To. The. Start. There’s no tactics, no weak points, just mashing. And there’s only ever the standard sword guy, armoured brute, axe berserker.
And then there’s the puzzles. The first land I entered, the Valravn’s trickster domain was extraordinary. Senua would walk past something and suddenly a bridge formed, or a pathway became blocked and I was thinking ‘I can’t trust my reality, is it really there or not?’ But after a few puzzles I realised this is the same tricks we’ve played over and over. Prey (2006) introduced reality-altering gateways you could see through to solve puzzles and that’s all this is – I went through archways to find routes like a plant-based Portal. It pulls you out of Senua’s head when you realise it’s simply a logic puzzle dressed up with ‘oh, people with psychosis see things differently’ – no, I’ve seen this mechanic in a dozen games, her illness has nothing to do with this.
The biggest manipulation is the moment you realise Senua’s psychosis is a superpower. She can ‘focus’ like Detective Mode or The Sight, as if her ‘curse’ is a blessing that provides her an edge. And during fights, a successful block charges her illness allowing you to go into Bullet-time. I have no issue with her learning to recognise her psychosis or work with it, but it feels cynical, like Hollywood portraying Asperger’s as some form of hyper-intelligence. And if she gains an awareness or control of it, this entire fantasy should break down.
But, a true betrayal for me -and this is no spoiler- is that since this is all in her head, she never actually dies. Instead, you’re kicked back to a checkpoint but the 'curse' becomes stronger; if the fantasy overpowers her, you’re warned it'll result in a perma-death. But, it never actually happens. The devs argued it as an example of Psychosis forced on the player, that we experience true fear, but I’m calling bullshit on that. It doesn't merge game experience with real experience, it causes you to google it and discover it's bollocks. I think they removed the curses' progression ‘cos no one is going to restart this slog.
It would have been awesome to simply play as an 8th century Pict Warrior facing the Norsemen – there's few solid games set in this era, and we’ll have to wait for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to get it done. I appreciate what Hellblade is trying to explore, but it’s muddled on what it’s trying to achieve – we know she is doomed to fail and we fear for Senua the closer she gets to the terrifying Hel, but its contentious ending triggered many a discussion; to me it’s a cop-out and a gross generalisation of managing mental illness.
Maybe I’m just not getting it. I so wanted to, and I know I’m in the minority here - it's universally acclaimed and it is striking, beautiful and haunting - it is a brilliant game, there's so much about Hellblade I loved, and there’s no denying that the loneliness and confusion Senua suffers is brilliantly portrayed; the moments where we see her happy, lost in her memories of Dillion are heart-shredding, especially when it's cruelly ruined by her Furies; and the world is breathtaking and terrifying. But, for me at least, this is just a regular fantasy hack n slash with a trigger warning.