Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review – Must Experience if not Must Play

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review - Must Experience if not Must Play

The 2017 launch of Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a revelatory moment in video games. What the game did for motion capture, sound design, and the representation of mental illness was profound, and its impacts are still being felt today. The announcement of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II in late 2019 as an Xbox first-party exclusive shook the world with it being an unexpected sequel to a game that, more than most, felt like a one-off experience, and the premiere title for the then-revealed next-generation Xbox. Years would come and go, with only the occasional tease, or trailer being available to whet the appetite of fans, but finally, five calendar years after the games’ reveal, Ninja Theory has stepped out with Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. Can Hellblade II extract more from the foundational elements of the original game to develop a worthy sequel? 

Hellblade II picks up the narrative of Senua shortly after her return from Hel after the original title. With anger fuelling her, Senua is travelling once again, this time to seek revenge upon the Viking Norseman who decimated her village, but her quest hits a hurdle as the boat she’s aboard capsized and she washes ashore. New threats present themselves, as does the influence of the Giants, a threat to the locals, and another enormous test for Senua who may have been able to best Hella, but the enormity of the Giants poses a new kind of danger. All the while, the Furies continue to whisper in the mind of Senua, taunting her, questioning her every move, highlighting the failed to resolve. 

As a narrative device, the Furies are a wonderful tool and paired with the incredible audio design, that again shines brightest when players are wearing headphones, they enhance the immersion in the plot enormously, however, with the original game receiving endless waves of praise for this mechanic, it seems that Ninja Theory have doubled down harder upon this as a narrative mechanic, but in doing so, the remainder of Senua’s Saga suffers.


Despite all of its work in immersive storytelling, the greatest flaw of Hellblade II is in its gameplay balance. Ninja Theory doubles down on the strengths of the original, but in doing so takes from two other key pillars of the game, its combat and its puzzles. Players will spend over 75% of their gameplay time simply walking Senua from place to place, with very occasional changes of pace. Puzzles haven’t been reworked at all from the original game, with Senua needing to explore her surroundings to find environmental formations that assume the shape of three symbols. Upon locating the three, a barrier collapses allowing her to progress. 

As for the combative elements, Hellblade II chases a more cinematic approach to the original and is less enjoyable for it. Rather than placing players in a combat arena and giving them the agency to play their way as was the case in the prior entry, Hellblade II locks you in one-on-one encounters with an opponent, with a sequence of dodges, parries, and then swinging your sword repeatedly making up the simple, very repetitive loop. If you can build up enough of Senua’s focus by dodging or parrying blows, Senua earns the ability to slow down time temporarily. This allows you to unleash a flurry of slashes to get the upper hand in the conflict. As one enemy is thwarted, another simply fills its space, with Senua sometimes needing to take on upwards of 8-10 before she can proceed. This highly repetitive structure, paired with a lack of enemy types, sucks the combat of any weight, and the lack of freedom also feels stifling.


The phrase “gameplay is king” often rings through the ears as I play a game. The moment-to-moment action of playing the game has long had a massive influence on my enjoyment of the overall product, with other facets playing the supporting act. In the case of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, I was happy for my distaste for the gameplay to take a back seat as the story and presentation of the world of Hellblade II took the spotlight. Hellblade II is a stunning game, with every day of the seven years between releases being spent wisely on technological and artistic improvements that result in incredible facial animation, harrowing voice-acting, and gorgeous environmental design. Like the previous entry, playing the game with headphones on is a must as the voices inside Senua’s head bombard you from all directions, while even the clashes of swords, or the crunching of terrain underfoot, assist players to feel like they’re in Senua’s shoes.


While Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II isn’t the tour de force that I had hoped it would be, Ninja Theory has done an exceptional job of crafting a word that you want to explore more of and layered it with the presentational qualities that demand players to remain seated, immersed in every moment. The puzzles and combat are a definite step backwards from the 2017 title, something that isn’t a result of poor execution, but poor design. Where Ninja Theory has placed the majority of its resources, the game delivers in spades. You may find yourself disappointed, wishing for what could have been, but despite that, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is still not a game to be missed. It’s a technical and artistic marvel for the Xbox platform and a narrative experience that must be explored.


Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 was reviewed on the Xbox Series X with code kindly supplied by Xbox Australia

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