This week, Yahtzee reviews Hellblade.
Many games have attempted to simulate the experience of being insane; it's a tradition going all the way back to when Pac-Man used to ward off hallucinatory ghosts by downing fistfuls of pills. But none of the many video game depictions ring authentic to genuine mental illness; Eternal Darkness equated madness with thinking that you're sitting on your TV remote, Amnesia: The Dark Descent just made the screen go a bit wibbly-wobbly, and the less said about Crazy Taxi, the better.
But Ninja Theory are making a very serious effort to tastefully dramatize insanity with Hellblade (HRUUH) Senua's Sacrifice, a sort of equal parts hack-and-slash/walking simulator about a primitive warrior pulling a Dante's Inferno on Viking mythology. Apparently, Ninja Theory even got in touch with some actual mental health professionals to make their portrayal of psychosis all the more authentic, and hopefully, while they had them, also worked through the deep-seated issues that made them do what they did to Devil May Cry. Hellblade (HRUUH) Setsuna's Sellotape has also been referred to as an "independent AAA game", so already, the mental illness thing is coming across pretty well; they've got dissociative identity disorder down fucking pat.
Anyway, the game opens with Senua (who looks like an awkward high-school girl drew all over her face with a blue whiteboard marker and tried to wash it off in the septic tank) paddling her way to the entrance of the Viking afterlife in order to rescue her lover, who I think was murdered by Vikings, but it's doing the standard walking simulator "piece together the backstory through vague arty flashbacks" thing, so it's hard to tell, to say nothing of the "main character is two consent forms shy of a gang bang and might have imagined all this and is actually carrying around the skull of the local milkman" thing.
You know, it's just occurred to me: that what with this game trying to do a very serious portrayal of real issues that affect real people's lives, taking the piss out of it might make me look like a dick (which is ironic, I think, 'cos a dick is a thing that piss comes out of). But then I remembered, "Oh, yeah! I've got a mental illness! Phew! That means I'm fully within my rights to say that Senua's constant boggling at the camera makes her look like a fainting goat setting off a security light."
This very serious game about serious issues takes itself way too fucking seriously, and before you start clipping out that statement to make a hilarious dance mix out of it, obviously, I wasn't expecting custard pies and a laugh track. What I mean is, Hellblade (HRUUH) Selina Scott's attempted po-facedness is let down by the fact that the main character looks like a blue-tinged dork and apparently took acting lessons from The Scenery-Chewer's Guide to Milking It. It's like she's only got two settings: "urgent, deer-in-the-headlights, frightened whispering", and "furious, defiant, screaming with teeth clenched together like two piano keyboards in a sleeping bag". But let's put Senua herself to one side; after all, that's what the camera does. Bam! Masterful link!
The core gameplay uses a Resident Evil 4-style chase camera as we explore various deserted, not-specifically-mythic landscapes, looking for the fucking gameplay. There is combat; it just takes a while to find it. And incidentally, if anything's going to undermine the very serious message about mental illness more than me comparing the main character to various woodland creatures, it's a bog-standard and faintly-annoying hack-and-slash combat element that appears as if by magic every now and again before vanishing just as abruptly, like a sleeping car park security guard intermittently waking up and pretending to work when they think their supervisor's around.
So every now and again, you'll get locked in a room and gigantic, hunky Vikings will keep spawning in until Senua works out her issues on their hairy nutsacks, doing the usual Light Attack, Heavy Attack, Dodge, Block, Counter Calypso. And it does feel kind of token, like it was thrown in out of a sense that it had to be there for it to be a video game, or to justify characterizing Senua as a warrior when I think the premise would have worked perfectly well without that element. What does work pretty well is the whole mechanic where a door won't open until you find a rune in the nearby environment by standing in a specific spot and looking at, say, a tree, a fence post, and the post-mortem erection of a staggeringly well-endowed corpse, so that they line up into a rune shape. That's a very fitting gameplay mechanic for the theme, because that's basically a sign of paranoia: interpreting secret meanings and significance where none may truly exist, like when you hear a dog barking and take it as an instruction to gun down your neighbors, presumably given in a Scooby-Doo voice.
Narrative and gameplay work together, so aside from everything else, the combat element is tacitly associating mental health issues with kill-crazy violence, much the way I did just now, and isn't that kind of reductive? But I haven't even mentioned the other major gimmick of Hellblade (HRUUH) Sausage Sizzles, which it grandly informs you of right after the combat's introduced: if you die too many times throughout the course of the game, it'll delete your progress. Now, from a purely gameplay-focused perspective, this is, of course, the worst idea since Hitler's dad started taking fertility medicine, because it's effectively punishing the player for acquiring a normal learning curve. But from a narrative perspective, it makes a lot of sense, because it is the sort of thing that could potentially drive me completely up the wall.
And you have to admit, it's a ballsy fucking move, at least on the surface; in practice, don't be too put off by the prospect, because I died in the combat precisely once in the entire course of the game. You can instantly block or dodge anything they throw at you, and even if they knock you down, they all stand around swapping workout tips, waiting for you to mash the button that makes you stand up again. I died a bunch of other times and actually came worryingly close to the limit, but that was from a very annoying section where you have to run from light to light, because hanging around in the dark too long makes you die of, um... being extra insane, somehow, which is just as irritating a mechanic as it was when Metroid Prime 2 did it. I had no idea mental stability was solar-powered. But yeah, the combat's no threat at all. It's actually pretty boring, since every enemy has way too much health, and you've just got to slash them left and right for a while like you're greasing up a fireman's pole.
On the whole, I feel like Hellblade (HRUUH) Salty Sardines is trying a bit too hard, setting out with this notion of making some terribly worthy game about mental health and then undermining itself with overblown performances and a main character whose backstory is so cartoonishly fucked up that the biggest challenge of the game is finding something to identify with. And then there's the combat that feels like it's fully aware of its completely obligatory nature and has resolved to put in as little effort as possible until it gets fired. By itself, the mental health thing was a nice idea, the Norse mythology thing was a nice idea, the hack-and-slashy thing was a-- well, it might have killed an hour or two if I were bored, drunk, and paralyzed below the waist, and the permadeath thing was certainly a thing, but throwing all of those things in creates a game kind of at odds with itself. So, I guess it really does capture mental illness; all it needs is a Lexapro prescription and a tendency to vote third-party.
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