Home Game Reviews Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II: A Visual Feast Shackled by Past Success

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II: A Visual Feast Shackled by Past Success

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Revkew

166
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II - Is it still a game? Or a movie...
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II - Is it still a game? Or a movie...

Title: Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Released: May 21, 2024
Platforms Available: Xbox Series X|S, PC Game
Platform Reviewed: Xbox Series X|S
Article Reading Time: 11 minutes

Sequel Expectations: A Titan Among Titles

Hellblade II is in a difficult situation; it is currently in the unflattering role of a significant and reasonably expected title, belonging to the list of the biggest exclusives of Microsoft Studios. Meanwhile, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is anything but an enticing title for the hungry hordes of gamers, attracting more Game Pass subscribers or breaking sales records. In fact, I think that the inclusion of Game Pass is why many players won’t even make it past the game’s introduction.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II- Iceland forms an amazing backdrop for the game
Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II- Iceland forms an amazing backdrop for the game

Stepping into Senua’s Shoes: A Familiar Journey

If I wanted to save myself the trouble, I’d refer you to someone’s seven-year-old review of the first game – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, adding that the new game is as similar to it as an egg is to an egg. It wouldn’t be entirely fair, though. Hellblade II does, after all, have considerably more production values, panache, and a few ideas of its own. However, I was almost surprised that after all these years, I was once again graduating to a relatively small, quasi-independent interactive experience (I hesitate to use the term game; I’ll explain later) trying to win with the same tropes for the second time.

There would be nothing so unique about that, by the way; a series like Assassin’s Creed could tell you how much “success” can be achieved by recycling the groundwork laid. It’s just that when the first interactive moment in Hellblade II is once again that botched search for broken ornaments in the environment, the appetite for playing drops. To do a little recap: Senua is a warrior who has inherited several unpleasant mental illnesses from her mother. These manifest themselves primarily in the virtually never-silent voices in her head and frequent hallucinations that make you unsure if the supernatural moments on screen are actually happening or just a figment of the heroine’s mind. Senua’s life is full of trauma, the foundations of which were laid by her authoritarian father and then completed by the brutal death of her beloved Dillion at the hands of the Northmen and a pilgrimage to the depths of Hel to petition the local grim monarch to revive her beloved (whose head she carried in a sack behind her waist the whole time).

Senua is again in a very uncomfortable situation at the beginning of the sequel. We meet her in the middle of a storm on a slave ship that is taking her, chained, to Iceland. Fortunately, she manages to escape, but she can tack another harrowing experience onto her already long list of traumas and more guilt for failing to protect those who relied on her. Soon enough, however, she will get her chance to make amends, for 9th century Iceland is plagued by a multitude of problems, aggressive draugr, and destructive giants.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II - The environment is processed in maximum details
Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II – The environment is processed in maximum details

Combat and Conundrums: Gameplay Dynamics

But if you suspected that the second installment had suddenly turned into a mythical God of War-like action epic where you’d face powerful enemies with the help of nimble reflexes, forget it. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is first and foremost, an atmospheric romp with the occasional logic puzzle or duel. The saddest thing for me was discovering that it doesn’t particularly excel in any of these aspects.

But good grief. The fights already felt a bit redundant in the first installment. After Ninja Theory’s action chops like the old Heavenly Sword or their own take on the Devil May Cry series, they were simply meant to show that Senua’s journey involves a real fight for her life in addition to her inner demons. And even though the developers promised that they had significantly improved the combat for the new installment, it’s still tough to classify Hellblade II in the “action-adventure” genre. Even though you have both fast and heavy attacks, parrying, and feints at your disposal, the action gave me a strange impression throughout, as if it was actually just another kind of puzzle…

The fights are strangely static and strictly scripted, and even in the meatier scenes, you’ll never have to deal with multiple opponents simultaneously. The game locks you into a clash with a single foe each time, whose defenses need to be thrown off, and, if necessary, a special mirror that can slow down time can be used to shower that poor guy with a barrage of blows he can’t breathe. The battles are completely trivial, practically impossible to die in on medium difficulty and unfortunately, paradoxically, have little effect on gameplay. Again, it’s really just a demonstration of fighting for life, but without the threat. I often felt that the authors created them just to give the players at least some action. By the way, remember that “gameplay” trailer showing the fight with the giant on the beach? Well, that’s a pure script where you can just run forward and occasionally press a button to have Senua throw a spear without aiming. If it were a non-interactive movie, nothing would happen. And this is unfortunately true for much of Hellblade II.

Another key interactive element is the puzzles. Ninja Theory came up with several pretty good ideas in the second installment. The puzzles are often linked to the transformations of the surrounding world; the aforementioned search for symbols in the environment is repeated only a few times. Unfortunately, the puzzles are also relatively trivial, as if the authors were afraid that somehow they would spoil the pace for the players, and so the solution in all cases is evident at first glance. It’s a shame because even though the puzzles aren’t very well thought out, with a bit of care and more demands on the player, something resembling an actual game could have been made out of the original idea.

And now to the central, most important aspect, the “atmospheric walking simulator” as I boldly call it. I can’t think of a more accurate term, however, because it’s the walking you’ll spend most of your game time doing. I don’t blame the authors because they created a wonderful environment for Hellblade II, and logically, they want you to enjoy literally every stone. The problem for me, however, comes when you spend long minutes enjoying it, during which nothing extraordinary happens, and the game sometimes gives the impression of a mere demonstration of the potential of Unreal Engine 5.

Navigating the Mental Maze: Psychological Depth and Complexity

You might argue that Hellblade II is, after all, a psychological thriller, a journey into the depths of a lost mind, scattered into a thousand pieces and only temporarily patched back together. But here I see the last and, frankly, probably the biggest problem with the new game. This ace-up of the sleeve, which the authors put on the table with such success seven years ago, just doesn’t cut it anymore. I may sound cynical now, and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone who struggles with mental health issues in real life. From my perspective, the trouble with Hellblade II is that it plays that card all the way, but it needs to be better.

Maybe I’m actually kind of insensitive to the game. Still, even within such a short, multi-hour experience (it’ll take you around 6-8 hours), I found myself repeatedly rolling my eyes toward the ceiling and saying to myself, “Yes, Senua, yes, Ninja Theory, I GET IT. You’re in trouble. You’ve been traumatized; your life is one big mess. But I don’t need to hear about it every step of the way…” It’s certainly commendable that Ninja Theory has once again brought up the subject of mental health, which is not overly represented in games, and that they’ve brought in some experts to address this issue, trying to portray mental health issues respectfully and as faithfully as possible. But, again, very cynically speaking, to that extent, it’s really not interesting but rather annoying…

Because of this, Senua is ultimately a completely flat character despite the many voices in her head. Instead of deepening her motivations or giving greater depth to the trio of characters that gradually accompany her on her journey, the writers’ work often makes it seem like Senua, without her problems, is an empty vessel. And that’s a great shame. Because in the finale, the oppressive and sad motif that was so original and worked so well in the first volume becomes an eight-hour snuff film in which the writers drill into your head, “Hey, how bad is it when there’s something wrong with you?” After a while, any urgency must inevitably wear off, especially when the voices in your head, however masterfully dubbed, are basically saying the same thing over and over again, like Ralph Ineson’s very harsh voice as Shadow, who constantly haunts Senua and mocks all her efforts.

The Art of Atmosphere: Audiovisual Mastery

Ultimately, the game’s biggest calling card is its audiovisual treatment across both platforms (PC and Xbox Series S/X) where it is currently available. I played Hellblade II on the Xbox Series X. The console version is locked at 30 FPS, and as much as I initially approached this fact with displeasure, I eventually found that it’s not such an abysmal problem in this game’s case, and my biggest aversion to such a low frame rate, stemming from the jerky horizontal camera movement when rotating, is still manifested here to a somewhat tolerable degree. At the same time, the game looks absolutely gorgeous, even on a console. Hellblade enchants with beautiful and detailed environments (albeit strictly linear; at most, you can find a hidden detour behind which lies one of two types of collectibles), superbly crafted character models, and often utterly disarming lighting of individual scenes.

Even for nitpickers like me, there’s not much to criticize here, except perhaps that sometimes the sea waves don’t behave quite realistically or that the flames of the fire could flicker a little more smoothly at certain moments. Still, those are extreme details I only notice because the rest is so gorgeous. My biggest criticism in terms of graphics is directed at the cinematic bars, which take up a significant portion of the screen and remind the player repeatedly at every moment that this could have been a movie. On the one hand, I understand that this is a way to save performance, and of course, I don’t take away from the authors the ability to express themselves creatively, but I really wish we could get the option to play in real fullscreen as those bars are not pleasant, especially for a game on such a high audiovisual level, and you constantly feel that you are being robbed of this ornate aspect of the game, which is a great shame.

Melina Juergens, of course, is suitably acceptable in the central role, and her “list” of facial expressions is vibrant. The stark contrast between the beautiful, sun-drenched countryside and the eerie, desolate forests, dirt, overgrown settlements, and grey coastlines works brilliantly. Once again, the developers took great care with the sound design, so you’ll definitely want to play Hellblade II with headphones to enjoy the voices in your head to the fullest. You can also enjoy them with localised subtitles. The folk group Heilung provides the musical accompaniment, whose signature is audible in all the vibrating guttural screams. Still, the music is generally subdued, and you’ll only notice it occasionally.


Senua’s Conclusion

The preceding text may make you believe I suffered through my time with Hellblade II. That’s not the case; I sadly don’t walk away as pleased as I did with the first installment, and I don’t really count on remembering anything after a while like I do remember the scary passage with the monsters in near-perfect darkness. As much as the novelty tries as it can, it fails to awaken terror or anxiety in me.

Ultimately, though, I want to commend Ninja Theory for clearly executing their creative intent without compromise, just as Remedy was praised for doing last year with Alan Wake II. Hellblade II is definitely only for some, and it is suitable for some moods or characters. In the end, I hope that now that the studio has been approved for another project, it can go ahead with it. I don’t think we need another Senua.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is more of an interactive experience than a game. Unfortunately, the bigger budget and flashier visuals don’t cover up the sad fact that what worked so well once may not be enough a second time around. Still, it’s a feat worth at least watching if not playing and possibly finishing.

Where to Buy Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

  1. Steam (PC): Available for $49.99. You can purchase the game directly from Steam
  2. Xbox Store (Xbox Series X|S, PC): The game is priced at $49.99 or it’s for free with the Game Pass. Check it out on the Xbox Store

1 COMMENT

  1. I really enjoyed the hellblade II, although i did not play the first game. I would give it at least 8/10

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here