I had such high hopes for this game. Such high hopes. Here’s a game that not only aims to portray mental illness in a protagonist that’s not a horrible, homicidal stereotype, but puts the time and effort into researching how to do it right. They worked with people that live with psychosis as well as doctors to get Senua’s character right. And man did they get it right. In my humble opinion, they got it exactly right, from the hallucinations to the changing environments, to the photo filters in photo mode. Every aspect of Hellblade speaks so well to this mentally ill hero you’re in control of.
But… My humble opinion is largely based on having my review partner stand beside the TV and interpret the many voices Senua hears, because Ninja Theory didn’t bother to caption them. They got the voices spot on, the confusion of there being 4 people talking to you at once, the conflicting things they’re saying to you, some helpful, some not. But they only captioned one of the several voices, and even then, only captioned it here and there. Now before you say it would be impossible to display the voices of psychosis in any logical manner on screen, think about Heavy Rain and the dialogue choices in that game.
Had they approached captioning Senua’s voices in this way, it would have been a story-appropriate way to display the nonsensical and disorganized voices Senua hears. Yes, that would make for a lot of text on the screen at one time, but that’s why being able to toggle captions on and off exists. If you don’t like it, turn it off. And it really wouldn’t be any different from having six different voices all speaking at once. Instead they chose to not caption them, forcing deaf players to miss out on the entire premise of Senua. For me, that ruined the game because I’m not playing something even close to the game as it was meant to be experienced.
In one instance, upon first gaining control of Senua, you approach this pillar and obviously it does something. There is nothing other than the non-captioned voice providing instructions. Do you need to interact with it? Is it telling some of the story but not captioned as well? In what manner should you interact with it? Well hearing players are told this as soon as they approach it. The voice in Senua’s head tells her to focus on it. There’s a “focus” button! Mystery solved! How in the hell did someone not see fit to provide captioning for basic game instructions?
Then there’s the all too common problem of the dialogue that is captioned being impossible to actually read at times. The artwork in this game is stunning and very realistic. But that also means there’s a lot of contrast and bright lighting and backgrounds. With the text being small and impossible to resize, as well as white, when it’s displayed in a bright scene, you can’t read it. So once again, deaf players are missing out on the story. And as lovely as this game is, without the story, to me, Hellblade feels like a walking simulator with some fighting and puzzles here and there.
All of this is such a shame because what Hellblade gets right, it gets really right (Although I’d argue that it’s done so well because it was planned to help the average player and not the afterthought that is accessibility. Assisting non-disabled players deserves a lot of effort and planning, whereas taking a minute to even consider “Hey, what if there are people with disabilities that want to play our game? How can we make that possible?” 9 times out of 10, seems like something devs did because they were forced to.)
Minor spoilers for the first puzzle you’ll encounter below
The visual cues in Hellblade are spot on. When presented with a glyph puzzle, the glyphs you need to find are lightly displayed on screen and when you’re in the vicinity of the thing you need to find, the tiny red glyphs start to float around the screen. When you have the shape in sight, those floating glyphs turn white.
Lighting changes and film grain are used masterfully here to indicate that you’re about to have to fight. When approaching a fight area, the screen gets very grainy and dark. When the fight is over, the grain disappears and the sun comes back out. The different lighting and effects used to evoke different feelings in Hellblade is one of the best things about it because it fits with the theme of psychosis so very well.
Other visual cues are equally well done and fit very well with the story, as seen in the two images above. The very subtle overlay of the face in the waterfall nudges you to focus on it. Do do and you get some story. And the ring of light in the top image clearly indicates that you need to do something with that gate.
Lastly, and this isn’t entirely related to deaf accessibility, but since hearing is necessary to play Hellblade it’s somewhat related as the game is markedly harder for deaf players, it’s kind of related, we need to discuss the Rot.
Players are told that each time they fail/die, rot spreads farther and farther up Senua’s arm, and when it reaches her head, game over. Not only is your game over, but your save file is supposedly deleted and you have to start all over. Now I’ve read a couple pieces debating the truth of this forced reset but I’m operating on the idea that it is in fact a thing until I learn otherwise.
I mentioned in my last piece that I’ve had a couple strokes and video games are my rehabilitation method of choice. Now of course I don’t expect every game ever made to coddle me and allow me to slowly progress at my own pace, being as awful as I want to be. What I DO expect is to be able to play and finish a game, even if it takes me forever. I’m 9% through the story and because my reflexes aren’t great and often times I forget which button I need to hit in a fight, the rot is already more than half way up my arm. At this rate, I’m never going to be able to finish this game I paid for because I’m going to continue to be punished for not being good enough, when all I want is to be able to enjoy the damn game. Had I heard about this rot forced save game deleting, I honestly wouldn’t have even bought the game because I just can’t get on board with the attitude of needing to be “good enough” at games to be deserving of playing them. I’m not good. I’m not going to be good because my brain works a little slower than the average player. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to start and finish a game that I purchased. And I know I’m not the only player dealing with that. The very notion that this game was made only to be enjoyed by those that are deemed good enough is incredibly off-putting. If this rot induced save game deleting is actually a thing, it needs to be able to be toggled on or off or people need some refunds.
Hellblade really felt like it was going to be my game. Finally, a game that recreates mental illness as I experience it and it’s not something that’s shamed over and over again in the story. The disappointment of having turned it on the first time and realizing that nope, I don’t get to enjoy the game, or even experience half of the story, was tremendous and I’ve never been more disappointed in or let down by a game.
As visually stunning as the game is, and as incredible as I’m told the story is for those who can hear it, right now I have to say don’t waste your money on this one until Ninja Theory fixes all the glaring accessibility issues.