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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 review: Xbox’s new exclusive is a fierce sequel

Senua in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2
Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2
MSRP $50.00
“Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 is a visual stunner for Xbox even if its gameplay isn't too creative.”
Pros
  • Well-written narrative
  • Stunning visuals
  • Industry-leading sound design
  • Excellent performances
  • Intuitive photo mode
Cons
  • Derivative gameplay
  • Runs at 30 fps on console

If Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was about accepting trauma, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is about learning to live with it.

Senua, Hellblade’s tortured hero, goes through a lot in her sequel. She winds up shipwrecked, faces off against overwhelming giants, constantly experiences the grisly deaths of people around her, sees the return of the darkness represented by her father, and more. But Senua fights through it all and makes more connections in the real world than she did in the very isolating narrative of Senua’s Sacrifice.

Though I initially worried that Hellblade 2‘s dark story about psychosis would trigger my anxiety, it’s a surprisingly inspiring sequel about perseverance in the face of pain. It tells a story about overcoming what holds us down, and finding solace in others. It doesn’t quite reach instant-classic status because of uninspired gameplay that’s much less creative and ambitious than its stunning presentation, but Ninja Theory’s latest is still an absolute must-play for any Xbox Game Pass subscriber and an experience I certainly won’t forget anytime soon.

A saga, not a tragedy

Hellblade 2 begins with Senua as a captured slave. She’s looking to get revenge on the slavers who destroyed her village in the original Hellblade. The slaver ship crashes, and while Senua captures the captain, she gets swept up in a hero’s journey as she attempts to rid the island of the giants that torment it. Xbox Game Studios and Ninja Theory have made it no secret that Hellblade 2 prioritizes its narrative first and foremost, and the single-player experience triumphantly excels at that.

The year’s most enthralling video game narrative.

It’s a tightly woven adventure that doesn’t overstay its welcome and feels like a satisfying expansion of the original Hellblade. This is still an intense and personal experience, but Senua’s journey this time around forces her to make more connections with both the giants and the people working to take the slavers down.

Senua continues to deal with psychosis throughout the whole adventure, and Ninja Theory continues to handle that respectfully. While games like Indika or films like Joker tend to use psychosis-like symptoms for abject horror, Senua takes a more nuanced and empathetic approach. While the Furies in Senua’s head will still sow doubt or tap into the darkness and trauma Senua will always carry with her, the voices also encourage her at times or change her perceived worldview into something more positive.

Senua carries a torch in Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice.
Tomas Franzese / Xbox Game Studios

Hellblade 2 understands that conditions like psychosis are something that people have to live with in the real world, not just scary, reality-altering mental breaks that can be adapted into video game form for our amusement. Senua’s mental health condition isn’t solely there to freak players out; it’s a lens for us to assess the mental battles we all fight and accept the fact that even though what we think and feel might make us believe we are different or othered, thinking and feeling is what makes us human and what keeps us grounded. Our emotions help us relate to others, and empathy ensures we won’t feel alone. If we constantly live in fear of ourselves, are we ever truly living?

Those are the main themes that Hellblade 2 gets across. Because of Senua’s psychosis and the game’s presentation, reading the plot literally can sometimes be a bit disorienting. Immerse yourself in Hellblade 2′s plot on a deeper and more thematic level, and you’ll discover the year’s most enthralling video game narrative.

Industry-leading presentation

Hellblade 2 has been heralded as a game that will truly feel next-gen, and it does live up to that hype. It’s a gorgeous experience and the best-looking game I’ve played on Xbox Series X. The visuals in cutscenes and during gameplay are equally high-fidelity, and it’s often tough to tell the difference between the two until Senua stops moving because you aren’t pressing any buttons on the controller.

Hellblade 2 is industry-leading, pushing the boundaries of high-fidelity game presentation.

Midgard, which is based on Iceland, is realized in stunning detail. The psychosis-induced visual effects that Senua experiences create some impressive, mind-bending sequences that will likely become standouts of this console generation. The motion capture prowess on display is top-notch, and all the performances are excellent. Don’t be surprised if Melina Juergens becomes the first person to win Best Performance at The Game Awards twice.

Ninja Theory’s artistry goes beyond visual fidelity, though. Hellblade 2 is framed like a Hollywood film, and while letterboxing the game is sure to be a divisive move, I think it works in the game’s favor. Ninja Theory knows its game is gorgeous, too, as it allows players to activate a photo mode at any time by hitting up on the D-pad. If you’re looking for further proof that Hellblade 2 looks that good, the images in this review were captured using the in-game photo mode and aren’t polished-up PR screenshots.

Photo mode in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2.
Tomas Franzese / Xbox Game Studios

Its 30-frames-per-second restriction is disappointing, but the lack of any noticeable frame rate dips or technical problems quickly became a non-issue as I aligned myself with the speed at which Hellblade 2 was moving. And I’d be remiss not to mention Hellblade 2’s industry-leading sound design. To accurately portray psychosis, Hellblade 2 uses binaural audio to give its soundscape a 3D feel.

It’s unsettling, but enthralling. I was always wide-eyed as I heard the Furies in Senua’s head move from one side of my headset to another. It’s pleasant to stop, smell the roses, and listen to the environmental soundscapes the developers had created. Hellblade 2’s soundtrack is excellent as well. Ninja Theory is begging people to play Hellblade 2 with headphones on, and I have to agree with them. This is a game best played alone at night with headphones on and the volume high.

Good enough gameplay

Narratively and technically, Hellblade 2 is industry-leading, pushing the boundaries of high-fidelity game presentation in the same way games like God of War: Ragnarok and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 do. It’s just disappointing that Hellblade 2’s gameplay isn’t nearly as creative or innovative. I don’t expect a game like Hellblade 2 to be fun; gameplay should reflect the theme and tone the developers are attempting to go for with their interactive experience. I just wish Hellblade 2’s gameplay was a bit more engaging.

Hellblade 2‘s gameplay is never that clever, even if it’s well-polished

There are essentially four modes of gameplay Hellblade 2 moves between: slowly walking around as Senua, perception puzzles, combat, and intense set pieces where Senua runs from point to point. None of these play poorly. Combat is improved from the first game with more detailed animations and cinematic framing that made me feel like the architect of an intense Hollywood fight scene during every combat encounter.

However, gameplay still feels more derivative than innovative. The perspective puzzles aren’t tough to figure out and aren’t very evolved compared to the original, even if they come with impressive visual effects. The attack-dodge-parry flow of combat is well-trodden in video games at this point, and instant-fail sections are annoying, even if Hellblade 2 never punishes players with the loss of a lot of progress.

I can’t help but feel like the sequel could have done more to reflect its narrative themes through gameplay. Indika, a somewhat similar game about a Christian nun dealing with voices in her head, handles its portrayal of mental health less deftly than Hellblade 2 but is more creative on the gameplay front. Within Indika’s opening hour, its titular character slowly fills a bucket of water as the devilish voice in her head taunts her, only for that bucket of water to be dumped out. That’s not “fun” gameplay but more thematically relevant. Outside of the vague concepts of “looking at things from a new perspective” or “fighting through the darkness,” Hellblade 2‘s gameplay is never that clever, even if it’s well-polished.

Senua runs through a storm in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2.
Tomas Franzese / Xbox Game Studios

Hellblade 2 doesn’t feature much in the way of gameplay progression, and while that’s OK, I hope for more gameplay creativity from games that decide not to focus on that. If Ninja Theory gets to make a third Hellblade game, gameplay is the area I hope they focus on and improve the most.

Hellblade 2 is a game about perseverance, so I’m happy that Ninja Theory persevered with this sequel and hope the studio gets a chance to continue to do so. Senua’s Sacrifice was a surprise from an indie studio punching above its weight in 2017; now Ninja Theory is an 80+ developer team with the backing of Microsoft that looked to top that game with its sequel.

Although the gameplay experience remained stagnant, Hellblade 2 successfully pushes boundaries on the presentation front, topping the first game with its stunning visuals, captivating performances, and immersive sound design. But is that enough? Right now, on the heels of the closure of Hi-Fi Rush developer Tango Gameworks, I’m worried what Ninja Theory accomplished with Hellblade 2 is not enough for the bigwigs at Microsoft. Many are concerned that Ninja Theory might be the next studio to get shut down.

That shadow looms over the launch of what should go down as a hallmark Xbox exclusive. While that’s certainly worrying, and those feelings shouldn’t be ignored, Hellblade 2 taught me that the best thing we can do is not let those negative thoughts drag down the accomplishments Ninja Theory made with this game. If Microsoft doesn’t value the artistry on display here, then that’s a mistake that Xbox will have to forever live with. Play Hellblade 2 because it’s a fantastic experience from a studio that deserves to live on and continue to make standout games, not because you fear what will happen to Ninja Theory if you don’t.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 was tested on Xbox Series X.

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Tomas Franzese
Tomas Franzese is a Staff Writer at Digital Trends, where he reports on and reviews the latest releases and exciting…
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