Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review

Hellblade 2 review
Written by Vince Abella

It would be an understatement to say that expectations have been high for Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. The original remains one of the most emotional, personal and unforgettable stories to grace video games, and holds up today in almost every department. Its sequel serves as the near-perfect successor to one of the most emotional games of the 2010s, and still turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. 


Ninja Theory certainly has the pressure on them, with Senua’s Saga being the Xbox title with the most eyes on it, given the recent closures of Tango Gameworks and Arkane Austin, and the constant focus of marketing on the technical achievements of the game. Those admittedly astounding achievements aside, there is a core good experience here, focused heavily on delivering an emotional story once again with depth and care towards its depiction of someone living with psychosis. Combat is improved and more focused than the original, though weirdly lacking some things, but is always wonderful to look at. It takes a different approach, focusing on Senua and the people around her, and as a result, provides a bigger scope with moments that certainly match the original’s biggest successes.


A Beautiful DreamA Beautiful Dream - Hellblade 2

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe Hellblade II’s visuals as simply outstanding. Proudly standing alongside Horizon Forbidden West and Alan Wake II as demonstrations that we have truly entered the next generation with visuals, environments are rendered beautifully in Hellblade II. A large chunk of some sections are shrouded in an eerie darkness that helps with the game’s psychological horror moments, with the dark lighting in such spaces being really remarkable. Contrasting this, the moments where you get to step out into the light are fantastic. Seeing the light wash down onto Senua in such beautiful lighting effects is truly a highlight, and getting to see all the environments is a visual treat.

There’s a solid amount of variety, with some moments that are very effectively trippy in the manner of Alan Wake II (more on that later again) with how stunning they are. Waves crash against Senua harshly, the rain pours down on her and her enemies, and she squeezes through some impressively claustrophobic spaces in moments. The game’s terrain is gorgeous and downright photorealistic. You could stop at virtually any point in the game, take a screenshot, and it would look like it was meticulously tinkered with in the game’s very impressive Photo Mode. 


The game’s cinematography and sense of spectacle certainly helps with this. You’d be hard pressed to say that the transitions from cutscene to gameplay aren’t some of the smoothest in the industry, and the fidelity still remains after the transition. Cutscenes are crafted with so much love that each one feels like it would belong in a major film release, with the ending shot in particular being so good that as I watched my friend finish the game, I saw him click on the Steam screenshot button multiple times. 

Animations are key to making each movement feel legitimate when making a game as realistic as this, and thankfully, the animations are amazing. Each movement has such a striking weight to it, with swings of Senua’s sword feeling desperate to match the character’s emotions. Some of the more unnatural characters have great movements too that make their presence unnerving. Unfortunately, there are a tiny bit fewer options for combat compared to the first with some removed options that were present in the first title that is a bit disappointing.

Hellblade II is easily one of the best, if not outright the best looking game out right now. The cinematic nature helps enhance the experience, with character models having so much detail in their designs that you can see the smallest nuances in their expressions, which are some of the best to date. This paired with the game’s impressive art direction helps solidify Hellblade II’s status as one of the most impressive games from a visual standpoint. 


Surrounded Sounds

Surrounded Sounds - Hellblade 2

The first game won numerous awards for its achievements in terms of audio design, and it is very easy to say that it should win some awards once again. Its spatial audio isn’t anything new due to the first game’s existence, but the sequel is nonetheless one of the best games to experience with headphones on. Voices in Senua’s head ring out from all possible directions, and at certain moments, their remarks can add to the feeling of being surrounded by different kinds of hell all at once.


Clashing with enemies is a brutal affair, and the sound design definitely helps each encounter feel as visceral and unrelenting as it does. The less human enemies demonstrate this perfectly, with their noises being unsettling, especially in a certain part of the game, but sometimes even elicit pity. When your blade impales an enemy, the impact is tangible with the way it goes through them. Ninja Theory once again uses the audio to create such an anxiety-inducing atmosphere to great effect, and headphones are absolutely mandatory to get the most out of the game.


Being able to step into Senua’s shoes and listen to what she does is integral to assisting the game’s immersion, and without some of the industry’s best audio design, the game simply wouldn’t have the impact that it does. The calm of the narrator clashing with the panicked exclamations of the voices really allow one to feel Senua’s inner struggles.


Unrelenting Brutality

Unrelenting Brutality - Hellblade 2

One of the first game’s most widely criticized points was its combat and puzzles. The sequel certainly improves on some aspects, with combat that is far more direct thanks to its shift in focus to duels. Its puzzles are still simple, but they are visually interesting to explore, and rely on engaging with the environment in ways similar to Alan Wake II to shape reality. They aren’t the most intellectually challenging, but they certainly do provide players with enjoyable enough downtime exploring the gorgeous environments.


Some of them do provide an interesting challenge, and require players to truly explore and look at their surroundings. It is admittedly simple, but it isn’t outright terrible, and the presentation of the environmental puzzles is enough to make them worth going through. 


The combat feels far better and less chaotic than the first, though some aspects are unfortunately missing. The lack of a kick does limit your options to simply parrying and dodging, but the enemy variety is surprisingly solid. Each new area increases in difficulty, with more and more waves of foes to fight. A particular segment towards the end that sent a large amount of enemies after me balanced the spectacle with action and storytelling so well that I was floored by how it was pulling it off.


Careful Characterization

Careful Characterization - Hellblade 2

One of the most important aspects to Hellblade is its story. The first one remains one of the most engaging, captivating and harrowing stories ever told in a video game. While the sequel is seemingly less personal, beneath the surface lies a story about trust, community and overcoming trauma.


The most interesting aspect of Senua’s Saga is that it is no longer hers alone. The new characters present allow for Senua to engage with herself in a way that she wasn’t able to in the first game. Hellblade’s unreliable narrator perspective still applies thankfully as there is no pure confirmation that anything was truly real or truly fake in the first save for Senua’s past, and the sequel still keeps it up. 


Despite the new cast being able to see what Senua does, her psychosis still plays a major part when she’s alone, and even when with others, she is still affected by their voices. But building off of the ending of the first game, Senua is far more capable of making her own choices. There is still an air of mystery with regards to the events that transpire when she’s on her own, and even now these new characters could represent something to Senua. 


Fortunately, these new characters are all engaging in their own right. All of them are well-defined with strong characterization work behind them. Each one’s motive and reasoning for the way that they are is believable, and it is easy to pick out a favorite despite the short amount of time we spend with them, but the spotlight is still firmly on Senua. Everyone is played well, but Melina Juergens shows off once again how talented she is as a performer. While she doesn’t go through as much emotional turmoil as she did in the first game, her performance is layered here, with mistrust in her words and a primal rage in her battle screams. Senua wouldn’t quite be Senua without Juergens playing her, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if we saw her performance nominated again this year.


With all of that, Hellblade II’s narrative is more focused on Senua and how she heals from the trauma she experienced both in the past, and in the first game. It’s perfect as a second step in her saga, as it goes deeper into how she reconciles with her past. Each major boss has a significant emotional weight to it, and seeing how Senua deals with the big obstacles in her way is striking in its empathy for its characters. 


It’s very clear that, while better, Senua is still recovering from everything, and it’s the right choice for the team to make. Understanding that it can take a long time to heal from such a dark place is vital, and the presence of people around Senua that she cares for provides both comfort thanks to their presence, and fear over potentially losing them. Hellblade II’s story is a dark, brutal and unforgiving one, but it is also filled with hope for a future past pain and suffering.


Extra Content

Extra Content

Hellblade II also comes with a lot of content that allows for there to be more content than what it initially looks like. With the end of the game comes a New Game Plus mode that allows for one to see the story through a new, interesting light, with another that requires a good amount of exploration for all of the lore bits that serve as the game’s collectibles (that were in the previous game as well). A recap of the first game also provides context for new players, with an additional feature with behind-the-scenes explanations for the game’s story.


There’s a very good amount of accessibility options for people, and the difficulty includes a dynamic one to go well with your capabilities. There’s also different actions one can take to make playing the game easier both from visual and gameplay perspectives. It’s also worth noting that the game has absolutely no HUD, which keeps up the immersion and realism.


VerdictVerdict - Hellblade 2

Hellblade II is not the most mechanically complex title, but it very easy to look past that for what it does successfully. What it is trying to be is an immersive, beautiful, emotional story about a woman finding her place in the world, and at that, it more than succeeds. Its gorgeous graphics, powerful writing and performances, and even some neat puzzles and combat allow it to stand out as one of the year’s most engaging titles.



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Vince Abella

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