Let’s clear the air first without dancing around the facts: Hellblade is an absolutely terrifying video game. A project that boldly breaks the mold from games you’re used to seeing from developer Ninja Theory, Hellblade shines the most when making you feel perpetually helpless throughout it’s 10-hour story; and helpless you will feel…for the entirety of its’ 10-hour story.
Nightmarish demons, hellish landscapes, and peculiar voices populate the road ahead of Senua as psychotic manifestations of her reality and mind. Ninja Theory, almost too effectively, uses 3D sound to amplify the visual and audio elements of the game, ultimately transporting you into countless scenarios of gut-wrenching discomfort and paranoia. Voices and whispers are the first things you hear as the game begins.
“You’re safe with me,” the voice says. “I’ll be right here.” We’re given no reason to take comfort in these words, nor are we given any reason to question them.
“He knows she’s getting closer,” whispers a second voice. Shortly after a third voice whispers. If you’re wearing headphones—which you absolutely should be—you can almost feel the faint breath on your ear from these whispers. Are they trying to help me? Who is “he?” Is this a dream?
Soon the whispers begin to blur together, the original voice that lent a potential sense of comfort lost in a verbal battle with another for my attention. I began walking through a swamp. First knee-deep then slowly it surpassed my waist. The voices started to intensify, remaining swirled into one another. They began to yell and scream. A deep devilish laugh then mixed in from an unknown creature of some kind — something pretty terrible most likely.
I removed my headphones and put the controller down, desperately in need to remove myself from the chaos for a minute or two. I haven’t yet fought a single enemy, though I felt like I just got punched square in the face. My hands were sweating. I heard the voices lingering even after taking off my headphones, vaguely worried they would now follow me everywhere I went.
Hellblade uses what developers explain as Binaural Audio. This is a method of capturing sound by positioning two microphones in such a way that you hear the sound as if the person were right next to you. This is where headphones come in. Binaural audio offers a fully immersive 3D sound experience, but this experience is severely diluted if paired with traditional tv or pc speakers.
This type of audio gives the whispers throughout the game a terrifying sense of space. One moment you feel whispers in your right ear, the next they could be coming from directly behind you. You feel it, and it’s extremely terrifying.
There’s a moment in a later section of the game not far from the 3rd boss. A whisper is heard subtly in your right ear telling you to go left, then a second voice in your left ear telling you not to listen, “It’s a trap, go right.”
As I inched slowly left the voices begin to speak over one another, louder and louder. The most frustrating (and terrifying) part of these voices is that you never really establish trust with any of them. Eventually, in some instances, they will all end up being untrustworthy. I decide to go left after a few minutes of indecisiveness as my tolerance for the ongoing whisper-war was growing thin and the chatter suddenly stops. I cannot recall being so frightened by a decision in a video game like this before. This wasn’t a boss fight or enemy ambush. Not a moment of hiding from something terrifying chasing you. This was the decision to go right or left at a fork in the road, and it held more weight than I ever could have expected.
Don’t get me wrong, the combat and boss fights throughout the game were fun; even though some of the puzzles were kind of lame. The fights themselves added difficulty but were elevated by the constant tension and doubt provided by the whispers. Towards the very end of the game, surrounded by enemies, I’m told by a whisper that things will get better, and I’ll get through this. Interrupting, a second voice tells me I’m going to die here.