Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review – A New Hope

What's in your head, in your head?

The original Hellblade, titled Senua’s Sacrifice, saw the eponymous warrior venture deep into Helheim in an attempt to save the soul of her damned lover who’d perished during a Viking raid on their village. It was an odyssey spent largely in solitude save for the many voices in her head that guide, comfort and taunt her throughout. The team’s willingness and ability to depict psychosis and place mental health on a plinth at the forefront of their small, independent game was something I lauded then, and am unsurprised that, with Microsoft’s backing, they’ve doubled down on this long-awaited sequel which was announced alongside the Series console line all of those years ago. 

The first Hellblade wasn’t a perfect game, mind you. Players might have paid an emotional tax by helping shoulder Senua’s burden and the catharsis of battling her demons was worth the ticket price for most. However, as a game, its expectations of the player were bare bones. Plying Senua’s trade as a warrior felt modest, and forging a path through the world’s runic problems felt pedestrian at best. With Senua’s Sacrifice, I accepted the surface-level beauty before me, so the question became: could Senua’s Saga hope to offer more to players or would it plead for absolution through flashy audiovisual design, performance, and story all over again?

Those hoping for Senua’s Saga to be a grand evolution of ideas put forward in the original game, stemming from blow your hair back creativity, are bound to be a little disappointed. Hellblade II is what I’d consider to be a safe sequel. Thankfully, while clutching at safety through iteration they’ve made some important refinements to the original’s trouble areas. 

Despite being rebuilt from the ground up, Senua’s proficiency with a sword and shield feels largely unchanged from Sacrifice. Light and heavy attacks are combined with dodges and parries to put to bed the horrors of the night, which in this particular tale range from Viking marauders and draugr revenants that stalk Senua’s every step. It remains simple and uncomplicated in that there aren’t attributes to juggle, or even a heads-up display to distract from the action. Once a particular combat aid is recovered in-story its cooldown elements are all cleverly integrated into the item’s design. So often with Sacrifice, skirmishes that saw Senua outnumbered would be a breeding ground of enormous frustration as you’d constantly find yourself hit from behind and overwhelmed by a few meagre adds. Saga presents all of its battles in a way that flows very cinematically but that also never pits Senua against more than one enemy at a time. This sounds like one step forward and two steps back, but I found the scripted nature of Saga’s many filmic frays incredibly engrossing and far better served the story’s intentions than the original’s “tougher” fights. 

Unlike Sacrifice, where boss fights were the only reprieve from the general monotony of the minute-to-minute combat, Saga’s grandest moments are rooted even deeper in Norse myth than the original was. And again, the trading off of literal gods for giants might seem like a backward step in filling in the gaps on Senua’s resumé however it doesn’t feel like it in practice, so good is the emotional deliverance experienced throughout. 

Environmental problem-solving using perspective and runes was another part of Sacrifice I know people didn’t love, however, it hasn’t stopped Ninja Theory from repeating the process here—though they did mix it up by adding plinths and terrain that transforms before your eyes with, let’s say, the flick of a switch. Granted, there are no tasks as obtuse as Sacrifice’s “aligning the ravens,” the only expectation of players this time around is to hoof across large areas on foot to find the right angles. With that said, this sequel isn’t without proper, mechanics-driven puzzles as Senua uses torchlight to navigate an underground cavern by lighting braziers to stave off the darkness. This particular section, which gave me The Descent vibes, delivered some of the most effective, unexpected horror by ratcheting up the tension by several degrees in an already rife with claustrophobia. On the whole, I do believe the “gameplay” parts of Hellblade are markedly improved upon with this sequel, even if all that means is Ninja Theory refined combat to feel less cheap while appearing more movielike. 

There’s no doubt that letterboxing helps in selling the experience, but Senua’s Saga does unfold like a film. Everything, from Senua’s slave ship capsizing to spectacularly open the game to the sunsetting of this particular saga, feels so cautiously choreographed and sumptuously shot. The story itself is captivating and, once again, spotlights turmoils like grief and loss within a setting rich with atmosphere, tension, and symbolism. While Melina Juergens has proven once before that she’s capable of carrying a plot on her back, I do feel adding a small cast of characters to the metaphoric vessel she drags along adds so much. It increases the apparent stakes and cost of her choices, even if the game never pulls the trigger on the consequences it threatens throughout, and allows their stories—so analogous to Senua’s—to bubble away in the crock pot that is this narrative and feed into the messaging. Like Sacrifice, so much of what Saga puts out there is art in that it confronts and holds a mirror up to the taboo and forbidden and there’s definite bravery in that. 

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It’s going to take some doing for a team to craft a better-looking game than Senua’s Saga this year. Although the console experience is locked at the dreaded 30fps, the game is staggeringly beautiful. All of its characters and their performances are rendered to such a jaw-dropping extent, taking care of even the most piffling detail, I believe it’s the new benchmark for both performance capture and model work. Juergens delivers yet another complex performance as Senua that’ll no doubt be discussed heavily during awards season, however, she’s in great company here. Chris O’Reilly, in particular, delivers a compelling turn as Thórgestr who begins this story as Senua’s slave master.  

Even more incredible is the world of Senua’s Saga. The way this version of Iceland is faithfully mapped, recreated through the magic of photogrammetry, and twisted to cater to the story’s need for fantasy is peerless and likely safe at the top of the mountain until the next Decima engine game is released. To say I gave this game’s photo mode a flogging is an absolute understatement. It’s just a shame so much of it falls into the ‘look, don’t touch’ as linearity rules over what appears to be a vast, boundless space. Exploring whatever space there is rarely serves Senua’s momentary goal, though uncovering well-hidden lorestones and the paths behind facelike rock formations can add to the tapestry of stories in Hellblade. 

A large part of the build to Saga’s release is every man and his dog bellowing from the belltower that the game is best experienced with headphones, and look that’s right. There’s an intangibility to Senua’s Furies, the name given to the voices that sow seeds of doubt into her mind, that plays so well through binaural audio. The panning from ear to ear sells the idea that Senua is surrounded, and to a degree imprisoned, by these thoughts. It heightens the panic, and it makes you question everything which is a powerful effect. Of course, being the second game, the application and design now far outweigh the novelty of hearing these disparaging whisper tones even if they work double-duty in place of a more traditional tutorial. The remainder of the game’s soundtrack is very much a baptism by Heilung, as many of the big set pieces are set to the rhythmic, almost ritualistic drums and guttural throat-singing they’re known for. It effectively connects the rawness of Senua’s story with the frenetic tempo the reformed, movielike combat manages. 

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is the only first-party Xbox game this generation that has screamed, with any confidence, “next-gen” to me. All at once it’s an audiovisual tour de force, a tremendous next chapter in Senua’s battle that strikes many disparate moods, and although it doesn’t take enormous swings to reinvent itself, its refinements make Saga a worthwhile successor to Senua’s Sacrifice. 

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is yet another arresting, artful chapter in an adventure now two games long. Though it might approach iteration with a very safe hand, only going so far as to correct the original’s shortcomings, Ninja Theory’s clear strengths in story craft, audiovisual design, as well as their care for the dark subject matter manage to shine through brighter than ever before.
Unparalleled audiovisual presentation
A beautiful expansion of the original Hellblade story
Full of great understated performances
Combat has been refined to be less frustrating and more cinematic
It's a rather pensive slow burn
It's definitely a safe sequel and doesn't take many big swings