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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review

A cold new world

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Since their founding in 2003, developers Ninja Theory have built up quite a diverse catalog. From original action adventures such as Enslaved, to revitalizing action game franchises such as DMC, and developing toys-to-life brands with Disney Infinity 3.0, the studio has managed to work in almost every genre. But with 2017's self-published title Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, the team were clearly trying to deliver on a passion project. An atmospheric adventure game with unique depictions of psychosis and deliberate slow paced combated, the title found success, and with it comes the opportunity for a sequel. Senua's Saga: Hellblade II, now published by Microsoft, hopes to reintroduce players to the dark corners of its protagonist's mind in a new setting.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2

The sequel continues almost directly from where the original game left off, and while a recap is helpfully included, it is minimalistic and could have offered more. Having overcome and accepted her inner demons, Senua realizes that her actions did not stop the Viking raiders, who continue to arrive at the shores of her homeland in the 10th century and take people away into slavery. In order to stop the problem at the source, she chooses to be captured, and taken across the sea to Iceland, in hopes of finding and defeating the leader of these raiders. Unfortunately her journey does not go smoothly, and she is shipwrecked on the cold and dark beaches of the island. After encountering and defeating one of the raiders, she forces him to lead her on the path to their leader, who resides in a fortress deep inland.

But the journey to this fortress is long and not easy – along the way, Senua encounters two other characters who have their reasons to join her on the trek. We learn that this land has its own problems – it may not have the darkness that consumed Senua's home, but instead they have giants, towering creatures of twisted human form that roam the land and mercilessly attack settlements. There are also other strange cultists and shamans that are similar to those from her home. In order to make it to her destination, Senua will have to overcome these demons, while keeping her own mind at bay.

The narrative setup of Hellblade II is fairly solid, with clear motivations and goals. There are more characters that join along on the adventure this time around, and the setup shifts towards a typical fantasy adventure, such as in the newer God of War games, with less focus on Senua and her mind. There are now very real threats across the land and monsters that need defeating, with civilians and characters involved, as compared to the first game where myth and reality were hard to separate as Senua was alone for most of it. This means the sequel loses a bit of its solitude and uniqueness, but at least it retains its serious nature and doesn't succumb to Marvel-tier writing like God of War.

Even so, the game has pacing issues. It remains a short adventure, like its predecessor, taking around 6 hours to complete. But the problem now is that the game clearly has a bigger and more traditional video game story to tell, but doesn’t have the time to tell it. The first half of the game is slow and mundane, as you crawl through a muddy and cold beach, and eventually spend an entire hour going through a series of dark caves as part of yet another trial that Senua must complete, to gain answers that she seeks on how to deal with the giants. That's nearly 1/6th of the game right there, and it's a drag to get through – even though that particular sequence does at least have a satisfying payoff.

This leads to the 2nd half of the adventure feeling rushed – the other giants you encounter are quickly dealt with, or not even seen at all. The game resorts to just having Senua walk through a bunch of scenes that play out via holographs, which are decent, but instantly forgettable. A chapter that, in another game or film, would obviously be an important and pivotal experience that tests not just Senua but all her companions, ends up being meaningless and is over in under 20 minutes. The missing gap for a much longer and more interesting second half is painfully obvious. It all leads to an ending that is also disappointingly generic. While the original game tried something interesting – as annoying as it was for some players – at least it was unique and tied into the major themes of the game. The finale of the sequel is a dud by comparison. That isn't to say that the game doesn't have some cool and memorable moments, such as boss battles and others which we won't spoil – but they are few and far between. With a longer runtime, the story and the campaign could have been much improved.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2

The original game's representation of psychosis was its main unique factor, and the sequel doesn't really move beyond that. Senua now accepts her inner voices, and is mostly unbothered by them – and as the player, you may even begin to tune them out. They chatter in your ear all the time, and while it's initially immersive and unsettling, it does grow a bit repetitive. The voices just say out loud what Senua – and indeed the player – may be thinking, but it doesn’t impact her mental state as much as it did previously. Instead, she seems to be most affected when she hears her father's voice – but again, he mostly berates her in very general terms, such as blaming her for all the deaths from the shipwreck. She sometimes succumbs to these dark thoughts, but after a minor breakdown, recovers and moves on fairly quickly. The other characters seem unphased or unaware of her zoning out during these moments.

During these minor mental breakdown moments, Senua's world shifts, and she is transported into abstract levels or a different version of her immediate surroundings, where she has to walk around for a little while and perhaps fight some enemies, and overcome whatever is trying to bring her down. This usually means players need to walk through linear levels and perhaps complete a few simple puzzles. The perspective mechanic of finding the correct location to stand in, to align a special symbol in your view, returns from the first game. It means you may sometimes have more than one path to take in certain sections of the level, but these diversions are very short. Another puzzle element that the sequel introduces involves being able to manipulate the world by triggering glowing orbs by focusing on them. These changes only ever have two versions, so you are never thinking very long about what to do next and how to open the path ahead. In another mechanic, you can light or extinguish special flames that again offer two versions of the location.

All of these are hardly puzzles, as you generally are guided through a linear series of steps in order to open the path forward. They are mostly meant to break up the constant walking, crawling, and shuffling through the often claustrophobic environments. As before, Hellblade II wants to be a cinematic adventure, which means Senua walks slowly – and while that can be appreciated, at some points she moves extremely slowly – even when there is nothing of interest to look at or listen to. As such, you might actually find yourself holding the sprint button for half the game, just so she moves at a normal human walking pace.

The exploration and walking around is broken up with bits of scripted combat sequences. At the start of the game, the notion of this being the "land of man" is introduced, meaning that Senua will have to fight monsters of a different kind - ie the human slavers and invaders of her homeland. Although this idea is extremely short lived, as you end up battling strange humanoid beasts most of the time anyway, at least those battles are enjoyable. All of the fights are now exclusively 1vs1, and there is no awkward target-switching that the first game had with multiple enemies present. Despite this limited scope, the combat remains exciting thanks to varied and well-animated transitions between each opponent.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2

The basics remain the same and very straightforward – Senua just has a sword that can do a light and heavy attack, as well as the ability to dodge and to block. The enemies that you face have a decent amount of variety and attack patterns, but for the most part everything can be blocked. Senua can even block their first heavy attack, which helpfully glows with red indicator, but will need time to recover after, so the follow-ups must be dodged. Some enemies are quick, some have shields, others spew flames, but all can be handily defeated with a few slashes. As before, you build a Focus meter with successful hits, which lets you temporarily stun the enemy when activated. The combat is fairly simple but is well animated, and Senua will experience her fair share of punishment and distorted screen effects after heavy hits that may make Lara from Tomb Raider 2013 envious. If you happen to perish, the game usually resets you to the most recent enemy, and not the whole battle sequence.

Just as before, this is a cinematic adventure first and not just foremost, but purely. This means that, aside from strict linearity, there are very few things for players to do or worry about. There are no other elements, such as health, stamina, or damage bars, inventory, stealth, or player choice. There aren't even any collectibles – the only thing you can discover are special totems, one to increase your damage, the other your health; though again these are background mechanics that don't show any visual indicators. The combat remains fair and relatively easy on the Medium setting, as long as you find at least a few totems. The game actually starts off on Dynamic difficulty by default, but for a consistent experience you can choose one of the three traditional settings.

Being focused on immersion means there are certain levels of presentation quality that players should expect, but unfortunately Hellblade II leaves something to be desired in this area. First and foremost, the game chooses to apply black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, as it is rendered in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. On a typical 16:9 ratio TV screen that means about 30% of the view is blocked out. This will bring back memories of The Order: 1886, a game that controversially made a similar choice. But in that title, the reduced screen space was clearly used as a way to push visual fidelity of what was possible on the PS4 at the time. In the case of Hellblade II though, the reduced pixel count does little to improve the visual fidelity.

During the daytime scenes, the game does have its impressive moments, with sharp textures, clear environment details, and attractive distant vistas that can be captured with the included photo mode. There are also engaging moments where the game flirts with leaning into horror game territory, with its depictions of what is happening around Senua. But for the majority of the game, you will be in dimly lit or outright dark areas, and they just do not look good. The constant darkness and fog or rain make the visuals appear muddy and of low quality, combined with underwhelming water effects. The weather effects are not very good looking, and they get combined with noise/grain filters that further reduce their appeal. And despite all of this, and the reduced field of view because of the aspect ratio, the game runs quite unsteadily on the Xbox Series X. The title only manages 30fps at most, and offers no visual settings to enable higher framerates other than HDR brightness. In particular, the framerate is all over the place during exploration, and rotating the camera in any dark/foggy areas (which is most of the game) introduces bad looking blur, pixelation and hitching. The combat thankfully runs at a steady framerate – but that's perhaps because it often clouds all background visuals with a thick fog or heavy blur, creating pseudo-abstract arenas during fights.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2

Where the visuals try to redeem themselves is in the performance capture; the cutscenes also do not have any performance problems. The developers did a great job of incorporating the actor performances into the game, with detailed facial animations that look smooth, and do not enter the uncanny valley of LA Noire. Senua's performance (played by Melina Juergens) continues to lead the way, with strong emotional showcases, and very well realized vocal delivery, from the hushed whispers of desperation to the loud cries during battle. The other members of the cast also do a good job, and the voices in Senua's head continue to whisper with crisp detail. As before, full 3D Binaural sound returns, for those with headphones that support it and who want to experience the ASMR-like voices in Senua's mind. As already mentioned, general movement and combat are nicely animated as well, though not without minor glitches on occasion and enemies snapping into place for takedowns.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is a sequel that gets just enough things right to continue its momentum, but it stands upon shaky, cold ground. The story of Senua is still engaging and she is an interesting lead character, but the narrative runs into trouble with pacing. Keeping the game at 6 hours, its first half feels too slow, while the second half is too rushed, and it delivers an underwhelming conclusion. The depiction of Senua's psychosis is still engaging, but it begins to grow meaningless and doesn’t affect the story or gameplay enough in this sequel. The combat has been tweaked to be more smooth and enjoyable, even if it remains a little simplistic. But perhaps most surprising is the decision to introduce a cinematic view aspect ratio that may annoy some players and does nothing to help alleviate the game's performance issues, even with its frequently murky visuals in the dense fog, rain, and general darkness. Hellblade II is a decent second chapter to Senua's Saga, and it will find an audience priced at $50. But hopefully, if there is a third entry, it will take bolder steps forward to match the ambitions of the original.

Our ratings for Senua's Saga: Hellblade II on Xbox Series X out of 100 (Ratings FAQ)
Presentation
70
Excellent performance capture and animations, along with haunting 3D audio, are undermined by frequently dark and muddy visuals that lack detail.
Gameplay
70
A very linear experience that serves its purpose. The combat remains enjoyable, if simple, thanks to smooth transitions and satisfying takedowns.
Single Player
68
The depiction of Senua's psychosis remains intriguing, but the poor pacing and unsatisfying conclusion leave you wanting a longer game that would've had the time to flesh out its ideas.
Multiplayer
NR
N/A
Performance
60
Despite murky visuals, constant rain and fog, and a limited aspect ratio view, the framerate is unstable throughout.
Overall
70
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II keeps the basics intact, and while a strong lead character, great animations, and simple but enjoyable combat continue to deliver, the poor pacing and performance issues prevent this sequel from breaking free of its past.
Comments
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II box art Platform:
Xbox Series X
Our Review of Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
70%
Good
The Verdict:
Game Ranking
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is ranked #1272 out of 1983 total reviewed games. It is ranked #20 out of 37 games reviewed in 2024.
1272. Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
1273. HyperParasite
Xbox One
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Screenshots

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
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