Senua's Saga Hellblade II - Main Art

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review: Beautifully Unremarkable

Not for you if:

  • You didn’t like the original Hellblade
  • You were satisfied with the first game’s ending
  • You don’t like games with themes of mental health
  • You need to be an active participant in the games you play
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Ninja Theory is a studio with a rich history of creating action games. Heavenly Sword, Enslaved, and their Devil May Cry reboot are only some of the titles they’re known for. However, in 2014, the studio decided to pivot. What if we could create an AAA game with a small budget and only about 20 people? 

The result was Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a 2017 third-person game that heavily emphasises narrative. It was the story of Senua, an 8th-century Pict girl with psychosis, on a journey to save her lover’s soul from Hel. Her story was finished and she found peace at the centre of Hel, where she accepted the voices in her head not as a curse, but as a part of her, of who she is. 

In many ways, it was unlike anything that’s ever been done before in video games. But as they say, the show must go on, and in 2018, Ninja Theory was acquired by Microsoft. Shortly after Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was announced, running on Unreal Engine 5 and expanding Senua’s story further. The only problem was—her story was already neatly wrapped up. So how does it hold up as a narrative game in the sea of AAA, AAAA, and GaaS titles?

TL;DR

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is sadly an unnecessary sequel. It’s a 6-hour narrative experience that’s little more than a UE5 tech demo. Very little separates it from the first game in terms of gameplay. And in terms of story—it reopens old doors that should have stayed closed.

Story – An Introspective Journey

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II takes place in the early 9th century. We join Senua in media res, on her way to Iceland where the ‘Northmen’ who enslaved her people and killed her beloved, Dillion, come from. Her goal is to eliminate the threat in any way she can. 

And so, she decides to be captured by them as a slave and brought to Iceland. After a storm at sea, Senua finds herself on the shores of Iceland with nothing but the clothes on her back. Bloodied, bruised, and haunted by those she feels guilty about letting down, she begins her journey again.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a bizarre sequel. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a cult classic, a game that many are fond of for its depiction of mental health, psychosis, and dealing with trauma. It had a positive ending in which Senua learned to live with herself and not blame others, or herself for the voices in her head. 

This game throws much of it out the window to justify its existence. Senua doubts herself, fears her father, and feels deep guilt for the people she lost. And a lot of that is a retread of the journey she already went on in the previous game. Druth’s collectable stories also make a return, but they are far less relevant to the main plot here compared to the first game. It feels like an addition that just had to be present, rather than an organic part of the narrative.

While the story does find its footing eventually, it also simply ‘ends’ abruptly. It feels like a middle chapter of a trilogy instead of a natural conclusion to Senua’s story. And with how things are going at Xbox, nobody can tell whether we’ll see a third Hellblade game.

Learning to Love Yourself

The one aspect where the game doesn’t falter is making Senua a more mature person than in the first game. It does this by introducing NPCs, characters that’ll join Senua at different points in the story. This can lead to interesting conversations where others understand that Senua hears voices and sees the world differently. It doesn’t stigmatise mental health issues but instead sends a positive message of self-acceptance. 

Many games such as the recently released Silent Hill: The Short Message have attempted to do the same. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II had the benefit of Ninja Theory working with professional psychologists and people who genuinely have psychosis. This gave the developers a unique perspective on the topic, going beyond simply making it a ‘cool’ story hook. 

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a story about learning to live with yourself—Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a story about learning to love yourself.

Gameplay – Nearly Identical to the First Game

For better or worse, the gameplay in Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is identical to the game we played 7 years ago. It can be separated into three categories: exploration, combat, and puzzles. Naming each of these categories in this way is overselling what you’ll do. 

Exploration consists of walking in a straight line and sometimes climbing a ledge or a ladder. Combat is the same as in the first game, with two attack buttons, a roll, and a block. There is one new type of puzzle here compared to the first game and it involves playing with perspective–that’s it. 

Whether Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is for you or not depends entirely on your expectations. If you’re looking for the next God of War: Ragnarok, this isn’t it. What this IS, however, is an accessible, 6-hour narrative journey that anyone can pick up and enjoy. 

Once you’ve beaten the game, there’s little reason to go back through the story. If the most feature-rich part of the game is the photo mode, there’s something to be said about what Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is trying to do in the first place.

Diverse Accessibility Options

Adding to the point that this is a game that anyone can pick up and finish, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II features really extensive accessibility options. You can nearly automate how the game plays and enjoy the experience happening on the screen. It lets you modify its visuals and audio to match your needs. 

Menu narration, text size adjustments, and various gameplay indicators can also be turned on. The team at Ninja Theory made sure that Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is approachable by anyone, which is one of the game’s strongest points.

Visuals – Photorealism Powered by Unreal Engine 5

The marketing surrounding Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was always focused on what a visual marvel the game would become. Running on the latest version of Unreal Engine 5, it’s truly one of the best-looking games we’ve seen so far, and that’s not an overstatement. 

Ninja Theory did a remarkable job for such a small development team and the game is a joy to just look at. Brilliant motion capture, real-life scouting of Iceland, and diligent attention to realism and detail in the characters’ costumes all contribute to that. This game is immersive, eye-catching, and a wonderful tech demo of what the future of video games could look like.

Beauty Comes with Technical Limitations

While Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II looks amazing, these graphics came at a cost. On Microsoft’s flagship console, Xbox Series X, the game runs at 4K 30FPS with horizontal black bars limiting your field of view. Depending on your TV or monitor, these bars will become bigger or smaller, and in extreme cases, can take up to ⅓ of your screen. 

This is a technical compromise the team made so Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II can run at a steady framerate. The game also has motion blur and chromatic aberration settings turned up to 11, although you can turn motion blur off. What’s also important to note is that the game is very non-interactive.

Yes, the rocks on the ground, trees, rivers, villages, and caves you’ll visit are beautiful–but they are a theme park. You can’t interact with anything apart from a few planks and doors throughout the game. It’s a shame because the game looks stunning in still images. But most of the time, it’s a long cinematic sequence where you’ll occasionally interact with something–if the game allows you to.

Audio – An Immersive & Surreal Experience

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II follows up on great visuals with an audio design that’s beautifully haunting. Just like in the first game, Senua hears voices, ‘Furies’, as she used to call them. These voices are different aspects of her psyche, reacting to what’s going on around her. With 3D spatial audio, you’ll be hearing voices all around you as you play the game. Even if you don’t have an expensive set of headphones, your TV will do the job just fine. 

It’s because the game was designed with different sound sources in mind to accommodate various setups. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II expands its cast of characters and all of them are voice acted by professionals. When they speak to Senua, her psyche reacts to what they say in real time. 

So, you’ll often hear two distinct dialogues happening at once—one in front of you, and one next to you. It’s a very surreal gaming experience and any gamer should at least try it out just to see what it looks and sounds like.

Conclusion – Should you Play Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II?

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is an enigma of a game. On one hand, it’s the most visually striking game we’ve had the chance to play so far, period. On the other, it’s little more than a narrative experience with light gameplay elements. And to someone who loved the first game, it also feels unnecessary. 

It propels Senua into a new adventure and diminishes the first game’s ending. Worse yet, it fails to provide a new, definitive ending to her ‘saga’. If you’re at all curious about playing a short, beautiful narrative game, give it a try. And if you’re a GamePass subscriber, you should especially give it a try, because the barrier for entry is even lower for you than most. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is now available on Xbox Series X|S, PC, and GamePass.

Rastislav Filip

Posts published: 51

Professional copywriter, full-time nerd, and a loving husband. Loves playing JRPGs and story-driven games, binging TV shows, and reading sci-fi/fantasy books. Probably writes content in his sleep.