Senua’s Saga – Hellblade II Review in Progress

Listen to the Voices.
Hellblade 2 review header

Senua’s Saga – Hellblade II has a huge weight of expectation behind it. The sequel to an independent darling, whose AAA visuals disguised its small studio roots, its developer, Ninja Theory, was subsequently bought by Microsoft during its early raft of studio acquisitions. And as the years have passed, Hellblade II has become one of Microsoft’s tentpole releases. The game used to announce the Xbox Series X, it’s then needed time to make good on both the original’s success and the sequel’s potential. Just like Senua, the game has had a tricky path to wend, but it’s found its way to release, with focus, willpower and sheer strength of spirit.

As with the original game, Hellblade II prompts you to play the game with headphones to ensure you can make the most of the title’s incredible binaural audio. It also warns you of the content you’re going to experience, with a startling rendition of psychosis, graphic violence and an array of different trauma once again at the centre of this folkloric adventure. As someone whose family member found the original game’s content disturbing, and potentially triggered a mental health episode, it’s a warning that’s well worth considering.

We rejoin Senua’s tale as she has willingly given herself up to the Northmen, hoping to be taken to their leader to root out the evil that destroyed her home, family and love. However, her plan never reaches fruition, instead leaving her shipwrecked on the shores of a brutal land; half-mad, half-drowned, she crawls back onto land in search of the men who led her to this place.

Hellblade 2 – Senua looks out across the Icelnadic landscape

Hellblade’s use of audio remains a trick that hasn’t been replicated, and here in the sequel, it’s an element that’s even stronger and more focused than before. Voices whisper in each ear, drifting in front and behind at times; sometimes feeling like an angel and a devil on each shoulder, at other points a storyteller or an antagonist. They’re comforting and vicious, condemning and cautious. They’re personal demons, and just as with the first game, you’re never sure what their true origin is. Are they internal or external, and what, exactly, is their purpose here?

While you continue to ask these questions, you can be certain that Hellblade II looks simply stunning on Xbox Series X. Once again, the team has made their game a showcase piece for Unreal Engine, and a big part of that is the motion capture and physical details of Senua herself. Her scarred features, her weariness, and her desperate strength are all depicted with an incredible level of fidelity. At times Hellblade II feels as much like an interactive animated movie as it does anything else.

One thing I had hoped for was more involved, or at least more precise combat, but so much of what is here feels scripted and prescribed rather than organic. There’s almost the illusion of control, but it seems as though Ninja Theory really want you to experience the tale they’ve weaved while punctuating it with bouts of hammering away at your controller’s buttons.

Ostensibly, all encounters can be beaten by dodging, parrying, or slowing time with your Focus, and once you’ve got the timing right they’re obstacles that you simply have to get through to move the story forward. It was my least favourite element of the original game, and it’s the same here.

Senua fights against an enemy warrior in sword combat

It’s also not fully explained, leaving you to search out your way forward via disparate button presses and pattern watching until you’ve learned what it wants from you. If you haven’t played the first game, or you don’t traditionally opt for action titles, Hellblade II is unnecessarily unforgiving, though that in itself feels like an obvious design decision to put you ill at ease, and under yet more pressure. Fortunately, the atmosphere, narrative and presentation are absolutely stellar, and it’s these elements that Ninja Theory have nailed their reputation on, rather than the combat mechanics – if you find the combat a struggle, there’s a choice between an adaptive difficulty, and the usual Easy, Medium and Hard.

Everything about Hellblade II feels authentic, from the region-specific voice actors to the depiction of stone circles, monuments and settlements. Even the weaves within Senua’s hair look as you’d expect them to for the era, and despite the fantastical and psychological elements, Hellblade II feels like a historical journey to a specific moment in time, capturing both the benign and the brutal reality of this Nordic people’s way of life.

Despite the earlier warnings, they don’t truly prepare you for the graphic scenes and intense emotional pressure that Hellblade II puts you under. There is death here – a lot of bloody, visceral death – and it’s difficult to express the effect that it has on you and your psyche. The impact of what you’re experiencing as Senua is clearly impactful, and both her damaged mind and your own become intertwined through the horror you’re experiencing together.

Hellblade 2 – close up on Senua's face while hiding

While Hellblade II weaves its tale, the same location-specific puzzles return from the first game. At various points you’ll reach a gate, with sigils that appear within it being replicated in the nearby landscape. You have to focus on each element of the sigil to unlock it.

These have been made more accessible than in the original, with glyphs hanging in the air, and the elements you need to line up daubed in bright red inks/blood, but the puzzles feel as though they’re simply there to slow you down, rather than adding too much further meaning, beyond the continuous protestations of the voices.

Just like its forbear, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is an oppressive, powerful and haunting example of the power of video games, and one that sets its own parameters for what a digital experience can be. It is a game that must be experienced, not least because, there’s nothing else quite like it.

We’re not quite ready to put a score on Hellblade II, but if you’re desperate to see a number, come back in the next couple days to see what we settle on.

Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.

1 Comment

  1. Watched some footage last night – visuals are jaw dropping – i thought Death Stranding environments were realistic looking but this is on another level. Gameplay just wouldn’t appeal to me though.

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