Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review


Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice didn’t need a sequel. It had a clear story to tell, and it told it well with an artistic (and tactful) handling of the mental health themes and a powerful ending. But Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II builds a great case, using the titular warrior’s development to support not only herself but, for the first time, those around her, casting her in a recent and fascinating airy. The refined gameplay and stunning presentation make this a thoroughly satisfying second installment.

Since the end of the first game, Senua is a little older, a little wiser, and has more confidence in herself. While the psychosis-induced voices in her head still pierce her every thought (headphones are highly recommended for the fantastic and effective 3D sound), she has largely accepted and embraced them. This time around, the voices have less of a direct impact on gameplay and are largely used as an effective storytelling element: audible manifestations of her deepest thoughts and fears.

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Senua’s journey takes her to a recent land to put an end to the slave traders who have ravaged her homeland. As this story evolves into something much grander and fantastical, I enjoyed the recent emphasis on companionship. Melina Jurgens delivers another phenomenal performance as Senua, and she is supported by an equally impressive supporting cast. Watching Senua interact and journey with a compact cast of likeable and compelling allies and apply the lessons learned from her struggles to support them overcome their own darkness is satisfying. Not only does this feel like a satisfying development, but her understandable fears of misleading them add a nice dimension to her already compelling character. Watching Senua battle ancient demons as they rear their heads again is also a realistic and refreshing portrayal of the ongoing struggle that is sanity; her triumph in the first game was not, and should not be, a one-time victory.

The adventure feels more digestible and consistent with the mainstream, as it takes on an thrilling and unsettling pantheon of deadly giants. The first game told a low, intimate story, but this one feels closer to an epic without losing its brooding element. At around seven hours long, the story wisely doesn’t drag on and, like the first game, feels focused. You’re here for a good, emotional time, not a long one.

But now that Senua has companions to joke with, the voices she hears have an unfortunate habit of interjecting themselves during key dialogue. From an artistic perspective, and I say this as someone who has never experienced psychosis, trying to silence them to focus on the conversation helped me connect with Senua’s everyday experiences. But as a game, the constant chattering of the voices proved to be a real hindrance when I wanted to listen to someone else. When the game tries to separate the two, it sometimes creates an awkward conversational rhythm with odd, ill-timed pauses during conversations to fit in with the flurry of inner dialogue.

The intimate one-on-one duels remain largely the same, but with a stunning visual and cinematic upgrade, and without a few of the ancient annoyances. Enemies are no longer blinded from off-screen, meaning the action is always right in front of you. Sword duels remain a repetitive but fun dance of dodging powerful swings and executing satisfying parries to fill a time-slowing focus meter that, when unleashed, allows Senua to briefly unleash an unfettered attack. While I enjoyed cutting down equally armed enemies, the game admirably mixes the variety of enemies with challenging threats that erratically throw themselves at their hands or, most annoyingly, breathe fire. Dodging the flame-based attacks of the latter proved visually tough to avoid, so I often found myself cheating them and other nuisances by activating my focus to quickly drop them as soon as they appeared on the field. Thankfully, Ninja Theory removed the death penalty from the first game that occurred as a result of progressive death, so death has no consequences here and the player quickly returns to the action.

Defeating threats leads to fluid and varied transitions to the next enemy, making fights feel like an interactive movie in the most complimentary way possible. This is just a microcosm of the game’s incredible production values; Hellblade II is probably the most stunning game I’ve ever played. From the fantastic, subtle facial animations to the gorgeous lighting of the idyllic landscapes and the nightmarish designs of the Norse enemies, Hellblade II is one of the few titles that truly looks like a next-gen game. Best of all, the supposed boost in budget doesn’t just result in an boost in fidelity. The inventive artistic touches of the first game remain intact and dialed up to eleven, with stunning kaleidoscopic effects and dreamlike lighting and graphics. Hellblade II isn’t just technically impressive; it’s truly a work of art to behold.

Exploring this stunning world is also more enjoyable thanks to the increased variety of puzzles. The perspective-based “find the sigil in the environment” puzzles that were enjoyable but overused in the previous game are now significantly reduced and spread more evenly throughout the adventure. Other challenges, such as solving illumination puzzles to navigate a shadowy, horror-filled cave or building paths with world-changing magic, are suitably fun and make the journey more comprehensive. Stepping outside the generally linear paths to discover secret totems or mystical trees that tell fragmented stories is fun, even if the idea is conceptually at odds with narrative-focused wandering. It’s demanding to focus on a given conversation when I want to break away and explore every nearby surface in search of a hidden path.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II ends on another mighty note, and despite my initial reservations about continuing Senua’s story, I came away content to see her take on recent monsters, both literally and metaphorically. I’m glad Ninja Theory avoided the temptation to blow the formula out of proportion to something much bigger than it needed to be – this isn’t God of War on Xbox; it’s a better Hellblade. The first game is a familiar example of how you don’t have to be humorous in the established sense to be engaging. This sequel sprinkles in more broadly appealing thrillers while maintaining a thoughtful narrative and artistry that few triple-A games possess.

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