I played Hellblade again this past Tuesday and it was a wild experience. I reached the dead tree with the sword, and got all 4 shards last session. I had to do one larger area with four smaller levels placed throughout. I ended my session once I entered Hell.
Going into my first shard level, I was expecting levels around the same length as Valravn and Surt. They ended up being much much shorter than I expected; however, their intensity was very different. I appreciated the even blend of very dangerous levels, and puzzle levels. While none of the shard levels had actual combat, there were two that used horror elements to create a tense ~20 minute session. But there was one shard level that was my favorite.
The Burial Mound
My shard journey began with the burial mound. You begin outside of the burial mound, looking down a pitch black hallway that leads inside. The voices emphasize that you will need the light, and as you step inside you hear a menacing growl. Throughout the level, you hear a mixture of the voices, Dillion’s voice, and a monstrous growl. This blend of audio queues makes the experience very tense. Through the whole level I was convinced that Senua was being led to her doom by a creature that could mimic voices (like Dillions’ –her lover). I’m already someone who is afraid of dark doorways, so when it’s a pitch black hallway that winds and has dead ends, and you believe there is a monster inside, it builds up strong tension that holds for majority of the experience.
I swore at times the hallways were getting rearranged. Areas of the hallways where it forked into different directions looked identical to ones I had seen earlier in the maze; this combined with the lack of light made it a convincing illusion that I was walking in circles. There were braziers where you could light the surrounding area, which provided some relief from tension. The light felt like a safe place to be amidst the dark maze. Another neat mechanic was the removal of running in that level. You could only walk–whereas in the other levels you could also run. This was definitely intentional, because it made the player feel more vulnerable. Not being able to quickly exit a room made me feel more on edge, because I still thought there was a monster wandering in the maze with me.
The level ends once you reach the source of the sound, and you earn an achievement called ‘Facing your Fears’. I definitely felt like I was facing some of mine during that level, which made me feel accomplished afterwards. But I found it odd that there was no final evil–no monster– at the source of the noise. Senua just follows the noise and then wakes up back in the parent-level by the tree. I think the burial mound shard level is a great example of elements of horror that successfully frighten the player by using the player’s imagination to build tension.
The final shard level I did had darkness as an element as well, with everything being dark–making Senua (the player) rely on their other senses to navigate the level and avoid monsters. It was an intense level that felt very very reminiscent of horror games such as Outlast. I thought it was another strong level of stress that I’m glad I didn’t play right after the burial mound level, because that would have been too much stress back to back.
Overall, I enjoyed the shard levels! I just hadn’t expected them to be the way they were. Hellblade is definitely a dark game but the levels always felt a little more action-oriented than horror. But the burial mound and sensory shard levels proved to me that you can balance both in an effective way. Based on the amount of runes I have left I believe I’ll be able to finish the game in the next session, but I may need 2 more sessions depending on how long the levels are.