Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Review - Hell And High Water

  • First Released May 21, 2024
  • XBSX

Hellblade 2 is perhaps the most visually remarkable Xbox title to date, but is ultimately undermined by its emphasis on fidelity over story and gameplay.

When Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was released in 2017 it quickly became one of my favorite games of all time. I beat it in one sitting and remember feeling thankful that I had played it in a room dark enough to conceal how much I wept as the credits rolled. As a young woman who had endured abuse and was desperately wrangling with her own mental health and attachment issues, Senua's journey resonated and comforted me in a way no other game ever had. So it might surprise you then, that when I heard Ninja Theory was working on a sequel, I was extremely hesitant.

My biggest concern--particularly after Microsoft purchased Ninja Theory--was that the next entry in the Hellblade series would aim to be one of the massive, AAA experiences that are taking over the games industry, complete with a cluttered mini-map, crafting, side quests, and more. That's not to say these features are inherently bad of course--they do have their place--but to me, this felt at odds with what Hellblade did so well. I didn't want breadth, I wanted the series to maintain its depth; I wanted emotion, art, storytelling, introspection, mythos, terror, and magic. In fact, I was so concerned that the studio would trade in its depth for breadth, I didn't foresee what actually happened.

Rather than expanding its systems and scope, or weaving a story equal parts intimate and mystical, Senua's Sage: Hellblade 2 focuses on vastly improving what its predecessor already did so well: visuals and sound. Hellblade 2 is a marvel to look at. It's gorgeous, cinematic, and hyper-realistic, yet still eerie and ethereal. Its music remains extraordinary, and its sound design is primed to make your skin crawl. And yet, I cannot help but be disappointed by how pared down and shallow its story and gameplay are. While Hellblade 2 might be a sight to behold, its minimal gameplay and muddled narrative prevent it from being a game that has any meaningful impact on me.

Senua struggles to regain her footing on a rocky beach.
Senua struggles to regain her footing on a rocky beach.

Senua's Saga picks up not long after Senua's Sacrifice, and follows our heroine as she sets off to confront the Northmen who keep raiding her lands and enslaving her people. She sees this not solely as a chance to do what's right, but as a way to atone for the sins she is still convinced she committed--a way to wash off the blood that she can't help but see on her hands. However, Senua soon discovers that vengeance is not so simple, and a decision that condemns and brutalizes one group could mean safety and survival to another.

It's a simple plot that is ultimately executed in a way that lacks richness. Yet there are certain themes here that carry it a bit further. First and foremost--and as every therapist will tell you--progress is not linear. Exploring Senua's reintegration into society and how her mental illness impacts that process is an interesting concept. Despite her being in a better place by the end of the first game, she is not miraculously cured of her trauma or the inner voices that manifested as a result of it. In fact, she is still largely fearful of herself and plagued by the guilt her father instilled in her. I appreciate that this comes through in her newest journey, too.

Additionally, Hellblade 2 hones in on compassion in a way that is not novel, but tender nevertheless. Between Senua's companions assuring her that her empathy and unique way of seeing the world is a gift, to the game's overall emphasis on trying to understand the "man behind the monster" in order to heal them and stop cycles of violence, there are some calls for kindness here that are always worth hearing. I appreciated the game presenting conflicting ideas on morality and reformation, and while it did frequently delve into the old saying "hurt people hurt people," it also made clear that people always have a choice and that pain is not an excuse for cruelty.

And yet, the themes fall a bit flat. I suspect it's largely due to the game's dialogue, narration, and Senua's voices, which never reach the same level of poeticism or introspection as they do in the first game. The voices in particular often come across as a distracting novelty. And sure, it can be argued that anxiety and trauma is distracting, but if that was the artistic choice Ninja Theory was going for, that sense of turbulence doesn't cut through. Instead, I was left frustrated that Senua's internal monologue became this simplistic bit of noise that only truly offered up either affirmations or self-flagellating remarks--some of which seemed to counteract all her previous lessons learned in a way that felt less like nonlinear progress and more like a lack of narrative cohesion.

Senua surrounded by fire.
Senua surrounded by fire.

But while the voices felt too simple, the game's narration felt overly obtuse, featuring legions of words said all to convey very simple messages that are then repeated dramatically time and time again. All this comes on top of the fact that this game adds a cast of supporting characters who talk over and under these other voices, leading to writing coming across as muddled and tedious, and ultimately lacks the same sense of artistry exhibited in the Hellblade 2's audio and visuals. I also suspect that some of this would have been easier to forgive if the game's story beats were bolder, more intimate, less repetitive, and less predictable, but Senua's Saga ultimately commits to being an aesthetic and cinematic spectacle at the expense of telling a profound story that takes both Senua and the player to new heights.

This is a problem that rears its head again when examining Hellblade 2's gameplay, which is substantially more frustrating than its storytelling. While playing through Senua's Saga, you will primarily do three things: walk, solve puzzles, and fight. In theory, that should be enough to make a player feel like they are playing a game--I mean heck, strip down Zelda and it's basically the same thing, right? Yet Hellblade 2 reached points where it felt more like I was watching a slightly interactive movie. The majority of my time felt spent crawling through caves or walking along beaches, and infrequent puzzles and simplistic combat kept me from feeling any sense of relief, connection, or satisfaction with the game.

And sure, I've heard it argued that the original Hellblade's puzzles and combat were nothing extraordinary--I'd say that's fair, as the game primarily focused on deep, introspective storytelling. But considering Hellblade 2 doesn't have that, I had some hope new and improved mechanics might lie in store for us. Instead, things have been pared back. Just about every battle is the same: you face off against an enemy, parry their attack, press a button to kill them, then engage with the next one. Whereas in the previous game you had to navigate the field, manage multiple enemies, and could kick and fight a bit more dynamically, all of that has been cut in favor of circling around a single enemy until you can get in a parry.

It's clear that the reason for this new combat system is to make battles more scripted and cinematic, as it's easy to incorporate tense moments, rolls, combos, dramatic deaths, and more when the player is limited to hitting a couple buttons against a single opponent in a very small space. But the big problem here--well, other than the combat itself--is that several games have proven that fights can feel choreographed and cinematic while allowing players to engage with enemies in more meaningful ways. Combat in Hellblade 2 feels not just like an afterthought, but virtually non-existent. In fact, I'd argue that the end result feels similar to a quick-time event, yet more tedious.

Senua engages a draugr in combat.
Senua engages a draugr in combat.

Solving puzzles is just as simple a process, and mainly consists of finding ways to distort reality in order to gain access to new areas and vantage points. From there, you will find hidden runes that aid your progress. It's slightly less tedious, but none of the puzzles scattered throughout the game are particularly engaging or difficult, meaning you never feel challenged or particularly satisfied with yourself.

This isn't to say Hellblade 2 is devoid of any remarkable features. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more visually striking first-party Xbox title. From its lighting and framing to the hyper-realism of its characters and locations, every bit of Hellblade 2 feels cinematic and spectacular. Whereas its story and systems could use some love, it is abundantly clear that these environments--from the animal skulls that adorn dilapidated houses to the towering mountains and vast oceans that extend past where the eye can see--were completely adored by the team. Similarly, the game's motion capture and performances are next-level, with each of the game's main cast bringing a level of melodrama and tension to the game that elevates a script that is otherwise a bit flat and predictable.

The game's sound design and music are perhaps even more notable. Though the most obvious praise is leveled at the game's binaural audio, there are so many other elements that come together alongside this choice that elevate it. The deep groans of rotting buildings and shrieks of villagers in pain are so realistic they feel palpable. Senua's up-close and breathy panic inspires instant tension, while far off, guttural singing strikes fear. Though the combat itself might be subpar, the music that plays while Senua faces off against the draugr is intense and riveting.

Senua looks out at a mountain over a lake.
Senua looks out at a mountain over a lake.

But while few games can rival Hellblade 2's sound, graphic fidelity, and talent for rendering stunning vistas and characters so expressive you can tell when they're tensing their jaws, I couldn't help thinking how gorgeous the game would be if what was depicted was more varied. There are a few memorable set pieces I won't spoil, but even compared to its predecessor--which led players through tombs, razed towns, haunted woods, chamber halls, and let them face off against giants, a rotting boar, towering stag-headed monsters, and the god of illusions--there is surprisingly little variation in Hellblade 2's settings and monsters. Though the caves Senua crawled through succeeded in inducing the claustrophobia the game warns you about at its start, large chunks of the game taking place surrounded by stone isn't entirely appealing. It's yet another substance problem in a game that is regrettably full of them.

Based on its new naming convention, the use of "saga" in Hellblade 2's title, and Microsoft's acquisition of developer Ninja Theory following the success of Senua's Sacrifice, it seems as if Hellblade is slated to be a series as well as a staple in Xbox's first-party lineup. That said, at this point, I don't exactly understand where the series is headed, if not to the box office. There are plenty of games that prove games can be art, but as some studios lean harder into proving that in one specific way that cribs from Hollywood, we're seeing some games that feel afraid of being games. With too much focus on cinematics and too little on creating an experience that is engaging, Senua's Saga fails to reach the same highs as its predecessor--even if it does look stunning whilst trying.

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The Good

  • Impressive visuals, motion capture, and performances make for a striking cinematic experience
  • Music and overall sound design triumph at elevating tension and emotion

The Bad

  • Shallow, muddled storytelling falls short in offering a unique or introspective experience
  • Extremely minimal gameplay with simple puzzles and flat combat
  • Set pieces, encounters, story beats, and gameplay quickly grow repetitive

About the Author

As a long timer lover of dark fantasy, mythology, and mad women with swords, Jessica was very eager to review Senua's Saga: Hellblade II. She completed the game in around 7 hours on her Xbox Series X with a review code provided by the publisher.