(Warning - probable Hellblade spoilers.)
I lay on the ground, eyes dimming as blood pools around me. A giant raven-beast
tears viciously at my flesh and the ever-whispering voices in my head grow quiet, and then
Nauseous, and a little weak, I prepare myself to restart the level. I did something wrong, failed,
or missed something. No! Finding new courage, Senua gets up, fights back and faces down the
terrible Valravn in a brutal fight to the death.
Rolling desperately to avoid beak and sickle, thrusting, parrying and listening to the voices
echo warnings, she fights. The creature turns to smoke, moves with terrifying speed across the
arena and deals devastating damage when blows land. She has a rusted sword and a mirror of
light to stun and slow the beast.
Finally, it is done. The beast is slain, and Senua can continue with her quest. My hands are shaking, my ears are ringing, but it is done.
I haven't been this absorbed by a game in a long time. Hellblade drags you kicking and screaming into its nightmare world and forces you to pay attention. Not just to the tricksy line of sight/perspective puzzles, but to everything that surrounds you.
There is no HUD. Want to know how much health you have left? Pay attention to how fast Senua gets up from a heavy blow. Want to know how close you are to defeating a particular enemy? Look at the ragged wounds across their flesh. Look at the way they hold themselves. Is there an enemy behind you waiting to drive a blade into your back or crush your skull with a mace? Listen to the voices.
Listen to the voices. These chattering Furies are with you throughout the game, casting doubt on Senua's actions, commenting on her impending doom, laughing at her folly. It would be so easy to dismiss them, reduce them to background noise, but when she needs them, they are there. They serve as a combat warning system - as you can only focus on one enemy at a time, it's imperative you know what's happening behind you, and Senua's curse becomes her blessing as they tell you to dodge at just the right moment or give words of encouragement to get Senua back on her feet after a staggering blow.
Of course, the audio plays tricks as well. In a world where nothing is as it seems it would be unwise to take everything you hear as real. Above all, the audio serves to keep you unsettled, on edge and fully attentive to your surroundings and keeps the atmosphere alive, and the dread mounting. Like my favourite horror movie (The Ring) - the lack of a real score makes the audio impact so much more powerful - horror, enemies and difficult situations are not telegraphed by background music.
There are so many other little touches that make Hellblade the astonishingly immersive game that it is. Senua's movement (excellently captured by Melina Juergens) changes subtly from scared little girl to confident warrior and back as the game progresses. In brief moments of light and wonder you can see the girl that Senua would have been had she not lost everything that was dear to her. The way she holds her shoulders as she strides towards a battle that she knows she can win makes you believe in her. The way she collapses to her knees to beg before the gods makes you weep for her.
Graphically the game is phenomenal, especially when it comes to the actors involved - facial expressions are incredible and credible at the same time. Knowing that this has been done on an AA budget makes it all the more special that the game looks as good as it does.
In terms of gameplay, Hellblade has been described to me as a "walking sim with stuff to do" and I'm not inclined to disagree too much with that. The path is mostly linear, broken up by puzzles and combat. Combat is mostly excellent - I was happy to forgo the parry and kick buttons and stick to a tried and tested dodge-slash-dodge mechanic. While it sounds simple, Hellblade does a remarkable job of keeping the tension high - from the first enemy that you face down one-on-one, to the hideous bosses you have to fight, to the end game desperation of fighting way too many enemies in way too small a space. Moves are brutal, and every fight feels desperate - close quarters, down and dirty, sweat and blood and the ringing of steel on steel.
In short, Hellblade is an experience that no-one should miss. It's harrowing, it's dark, and on more than one occasion I had to stop my hands shaking after a fight. Get it, get some good headphones and turn off the lights - I guarantee you will not be the same by the time you finish it.