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There's more to Hellblade's permadeath than meets the eye

Spoilers ahead.

Yesterday, we reported Hellblade deletes your save file if you die too many times. Our report was based on our time with the game, which warns players that they will have to start the game all over again if they die too many times.

It turns out this may not be the case.

THERE MAY BE SPOILERS AHEAD.

First, some background. Hellblade, the new game from Ninja Theory, is a fantasy adventure starring Senua, a character who battles with mental illness as well as a hellish underworld.

Early on in the game there's a fight you can't win, and Senua's hand ends up covered in black tendrils. From that point on, the more you die, the higher the black tendrils get on Senua's arm.

The game warns the player that if the tendrils reach Senua's head, it's game over. Each time you die, Senua looks at her arm and you get a close up of the tendrils getting stronger.

Taken at face value, this mechanic suggests a permadeath system that's tied into the theme of mental health Hellblade leans so heavily on. But it seems like the whole thing may be a bluff.

Yesterday, PCGamesN published a video about the website's attempt to spark this permadeath. They killed Senua 50 times, and the game didn't force a restart.

So, what's going on? Our own Johnny Chiodini, who reviewed Hellblade, has spent the past day and a half trying to work out how Senua's tendrils actually work (I've asked Ninja Theory for an explanation but the studio has yet to respond).

THERE DEFINITELY ARE SPOILERS AHEAD.

Here's what Johnny found:

  • Every combat I got into, I purposefully died at least three times in order to see if the rot would advance.
  • If the rot advanced, I would keep dying until it stopped advancing.
  • Here's how it progressed:
  • 1) First section (before first boss) - the rot reached halfway up Senua's forearm.
  • 2
  • 2) After the first boss - just past the elbow.
  • 1
  • 3) After second boss, on the way to Helheim - whole arm to shoulder.
  • 3
  • I kept dying and experimenting after that, but I couldn't get the rot to advance farther.
  • When I got to the final sequence, Senua wouldn't die, she just kept getting back up.
  • I didn't finish it because I'm pretty sure you can't die between that point and the very final confrontation which you're meant to lose anyway in order to trigger the end.

What appears to be the case is that the progress of the rot is gated per section, but, ultimately, it can never do what the game says it can do: that is trigger a permadeath. So, it looks like Hellblade's warning is a bluff - and it certainly worked on us.

But why did Ninja Theory do this? For me, it's a cool trick that makes the player feel a sense of dread as they're playing the game. Dread, anxiety and death are all themes Hellblade revolves around. It certainly fits.

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