Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In which I resist the urge to be mean

I want to tear into the bad parts of Hellblade and there are many to choose from. Without spoiling anything (saving that for this week's podcast) I will say that the ending is quite confusing. It is not clear is Senua is successful, if she is even alive, or if the whole game was just an extension of her psychosis. The environmental rune puzzles never get any better, the combat never gets any deeper, and closing the game out on a fight you are supposed to lose is borderline virtual blue balling.

Mild spoilers there, I suppose.

But that little bit of vitriol and my obscene tweet to Ninja Theory are all that I am going to offer up. For now. I finished the game last night and watched their short 'making of' video and I am not going to forgive the bad parts but I may just be able to give them a pass. Points for trying, I suppose.

Ninja Theory's entire point in Hellblade is demonstrating the impossible to the average player: what is it like to hear voices and see things and not be able to distinguish what is real from what is not? Videogames are the perfect medium for this. Full disclosure, I have no idea what it is like to deal with mental illness but, at least according the people who suffer from said afflictions that were consulted on the game, Hellblade approximates it better than any other attempt.

The player is not supposed to know what is actually happening and what is in Senua's head. The stupid rune puzzles, and the voices in Senua's mind agree about how stupid they are, are Senua looking for meaning and patterns in places where there are none. The world itself breaking into pieces is Senua's perception splintering. It worked. If only the game itself were better.

There is no balance between puzzle solving and fighting. Each occur in large chunks when moving back and forth between the two would have made them slightly less boring. The last third of the game was one long gauntlet that would have benefited from a break and the middle third was Senua moving through interesting environments doing absolutely nothing.

I do not trust Ninja Theory to make a complete good game anymore. Hellblade may prove more entertaining to talk about than it was to play. That is not meant as a compliment.

If forced to pick a bright spot I would like to highlight Senua herself. Her animations both in combat and simply moving are very well done. The way she sidesteps when the camera is turned 90 degrees from the way she is moving and her flourishes when switching from dodging to attacking are very well done. They remind me of the best parts of Enslaved, DmC and Heavenly Sword. As Senua recedes further from reality she becomes more feral, growling at enemies, portraying rage just this side of Kratos smashing in Zeus' head.

The player is not supposed to like Senua, and I didn't, but the performance is convincing. She is a pict, a member of a group so savage that even the Romans didn't want to deal with them, instead building a wall to keep them the fuck out.

I am glad that I played Hellblade but I did not enjoy enough of the game to recommend it, at least not at its current price. I hope that it sparks conversation, which may have been Ninja Theory's intent all along.

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