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Hellblade preview

Available on PS4 (tested) and PC
Hellblade release date: TBC 2016

If Hellblade slipped under your radar, that’s totally understandable. Originally announced back at Gamescom 2014, word on Hellblade has been deadly quiet for the best part of a year. But now developer Ninja Theory has confirmed that it’s taking the title into full development with a release scheduled for some time next year.

It’s a unique title in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s aiming to be a AAA game on an indie budget, and made by an indie-sized team. The team is only 15 members strong, but Ninja Theory is aiming big creatively.

Secondly Hellblade is a game that’s centred around a theme of mental illness. Ninja Theory believes a game exploring mental illness is long overdue, especially as the majority of us don’t really know how to talk about such illnesses, whether that’s depression, schizophrenia or otherwise.

And Ninja Theory is preparing itself to treat the subject with respect, especially as the Hellblade team is working with Paul Fletcher, a professor of Health Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, and the game is supported by global mental-health foundation Wellcome Trust.

The game follows a girl by the name of Senua, who is a Celtic warrior. You’ll follow her descent into hell, which is the manifestation of her mental illness.

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My hands-on demo starts with Senua hunched over on the floor, talking to what looks like a head in a hessian sack. But she’s not just talking to herself, she’s struggling with the demons in her mind that present themselves as voices in her ear.

She becomes overcome by the voices, believing that she is being possessed by a dark spirit that withers her arm to a black shadow of its former self.

There’s one particular voice, though, an older male voice, that’s very manipulative of Senua’s emotions, while a younger female voice is the cautionary one. It’s the male voice that spawns the Dark Souls 3-esque demons, though, which Senua must face.

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The combat, rather strangely, sees you face enemies one by one. To defeat them you must dodge their sword attacks using blocks and dodges, striking them in the side when the small window opens.

Its aim is to deliver brutal, uncompromising combat. But in this game, the one-on-one format feels awkward and laboured. Hopefully this isn’t the final combat system and Ninja Theory will hone this melee fighting.

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Although I didn’t get much sense of the story of Hellblade during my demo, it seems Senua is looking for her mother — or at least her mother’s ghost. This is what keeps Senua pushing onwards in Hellblade. She looks for signs that show where she’s meant to go, including reading the runes and using her senses to find hidden messages.

This needs a little more signposting before the final game is released, though, as initially it’s not clear where you’re meant to go, or what you’re meant to do to find these signs.

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Although this is a raw, early demo of Hellblade, the graphics are already very impressive, which just shows how stunning it should be by launch.

It’s also incredibly powerful. When the male voice starts to put down Senua, the scenery changes around her, the sky full of pathetic fallacy and the entire gameworld seemingly collapsing around her.

Early Verdict

The sensitivity with which Ninja Theory is treating the subject of Hellblade should make for a powerful and educational game. It already looks amazing, even if some of the mechanics need a little work.

Senua is a strong protagonist too, and it’s refreshing to see another female lead pushing the boundaries of gaming.

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