They say the hardest battles are fought in the mind. Hellblade has Celtic warrior Senua deal with her inner demons as she travels to the depths of hell to try and save her boyfriend’s lost soul. Hellblade is an action hack and slash game with psychological horror elements and was released on the PlayStation 4. This game has an impressive amount of control options available for disabled gamers with fine motor skill impairments including customizable controls and difficulty modes. However, sound is very important in Hellblade so deaf players may have more obstacles to deal with as they play the game.
Hellblade has customizable controls available which include being able to modify the symbol buttons and the left trigger buttons. The options menu even categorizes the controls, separating them by two convenient types: general controls and combat controls. Unfortunately, Hellblade is not technically fully customizable. The interact button and the right trigger can’t be altered in the options menu. I can slightly understand why being able to change the interact button could cause complications in other menus, but locking the right trigger button seems like a strange choice. The right trigger button is used for something called “Focus”, which allows you to zoom in on certain objects and is used later in the game as a supernatural ability that exposes enemies’ weaknesses. By the halfway point of the game this button becomes very important in winning battles, so being able to customize it would’ve been helpful. Still most of the other buttons are customizable including the run feature, which is the left trigger. The options menu in Hellblade also allows you to toggle the run button so you don’t have to hold it down. You move the main character with the left control stick and aim the camera with the right control stick. It would’ve been nice if the camera followed you as you moved, but during combat the camera does automatically lock on to the nearest enemy which makes things easier. I definitely recommend disabled gamers with fine motor skill impairments choose easy mode because combat can be pretty harsh at times.
One good thing I noticed was that the game saves frequently and checkpoints are plentiful, so you won’t have to travel too far back if you get killed. There are three difficulty modes to choose from in Hellblade: easy, normal, and hard mode. Technically there’s another difficulty mode you can choose called “Auto” which chooses the difficulty for you depending on how well you’re proceeding in the game. The combat moves consist of dodge, block, heavy attack, light attack, and melee attack. Utilizing all of these moves is required in order to defeat enemies, although I rarely had to press the block button. I found that once I got a good rhythm down with the combat (Dodge, Attack, Attack, Dodge) things became more manageable. Where I think some disabled gamers will have trouble is when there are more than two enemies onscreen at once. You’ll sometimes be fighting waves of enemies with no end in sight and things can quickly become overwhelming. The “Focus” button helps greatly because it also slows down time for a few brief moments. Something else that I think is important to mention is that Hellblade threatens a sort of perma–death if you die too often. The main character Senua is cursed with something called “the dark rot” which grows higher the more time she dies. If the darkness reaches her head then you have to start the whole game over again. The interesting thing is I can’t find any source that corroborates this claim and I know that I died at least 30 times without having to start over. The brilliant thing about Hellblade is that it is constantly messing with your head, so even this warning of starting over could just be something used to scare you. The game is about half puzzles and half combat. Some puzzles involve figuring out illusions, though most are simply just about finding the right ancient symbol that will unlock the next gate. They are fairly simple and don’t take much physical effort. Most puzzles don’t require quick movement, except for a few puzzles near the end of the game that are unfortunately timed. Overall, I believe disabled gamers with fine motor skill impairments will manage with the selection of customizable controls and difficulty modes.
There are subtitles available in Hellblade that you can turn off and on. Sadly, they are not always consistent, especially when it comes to the many incessant voices you hear. Senua has a form of psychosis and hears many different voices in her head. The voices are not always helpful either. They can mislead you and during gameplay the voices can sometimes get you killed if you follow their instructions. Deaf players will have no choice but to experience the game differently. There’s no way around it because sound is so important in Hellblade. Beating the game is still doable, they just won’t get to fully take in the atmosphere. The subtitles should allow deaf players to understand what’s happening in the story and at the very least they’ll be able to know when one of the voices is talking. Also, Hellblade offers the option to raise and lower individual sound levels for the hearing impaired. These sound levels include: music, effects, and voices.
On the visual side of things Hellblade is a very dark game, but there is a brightness feature you can change in the options menu. There’s even an entire level that puts you in complete darkness, forcing you to use sound to find your way. Thankfully, by turning on the subtitles you can also escape this level by following the narrator’s instructions. Turning up the brightness is recommended for disabled gamers with visual impairments. When using the “Focus” ability the screen can get a little cluttered with debris and magical symbols. It shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance, but it might be something to note for certain players. Distinguishing color is rarely important in Hellblade so colorblind players should be okay. However, there is one instance in the last half of the game worth mentioning. Without spoiling too much of the story, there’s one puzzle that involves you running away from an unknown enemy that is glowing orange-ish red and in order to escape you have to follow an entity that’s glowing blue. Now it is entirely possible for colorblind players to figure out the puzzle using contextual clues, but they may have a harder time.
Hellblade is a great game that has disturbing imagery and amazing sound design. The developers put a lot of effort in researching mental illness so that playing the game helps you understand the trauma and confusion that comes along with that. The combat was really enjoyable and disabled gamers with fine motor skill impairments will have an easier time because of the customizable controls. Deaf players should still be able to finish the game, but I don’t think they will be able to experience everything Hellblade has to offer.
Overall Rating: Thoroughly Accessible
Visual Rating: Thoroughly Accessible
Fine-Motor Rating: Barrier Free
Auditory Rating: Partially Accessible
Released For: PS4, PC
ESRB Rating: M