STAFF REVIEW of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II (Xbox Series X)

Tuesday, May 21, 2024.
by Adam Dileva

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Box art Ninja Theory is an intriguing developer, and their resume of games is an interesting one. Makers of Kung Fu Chaos, one of the best Mario Party-like games on the original Xbox, Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (one of my personal favorites), the Devil May Cry reboot with DmC, and even Disney Infinity 3.0, shows how varied they were before dropping Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice back in 2017, a game that really took me by surprise and made me take notice of their abilities.

Reviewing gives me an opportunity to play games I would normally never look at or take notice of, and the original Hellblade was one of those occurrences where I wasn’t really paying it much attention before launch, but happened to fall into my lap come release. It ended up being my personal Game of the Year that year for its unique narrative driven experience, and even all these years later, I still think of the game now and then.

Here we are seven years later, and with Ninja Theory now owned by Microsoft Studios, the long awaited sequel has finally arrived. There’s been a few promos and trailers, but there really hasn’t been much marketing or content shown for Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II outside a few spots. While this didn’t make me nervous, as Ninja Theory more than proved themselves in Senua’s first outing, there’s always that question mark, if lighting can strike twice.

All of the love and care that went into crafting the first game has clearly been not only retained, but vastly improved. Still a narrative driven action game that revolves around mental health, the sequel looks to amp things up even further, and they've more than succeeded in every aspect. Senua’s journey is once again going to be a brutal affair as she battles dark forces in reality and in her own mind. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II aimed to create the new standard for exclusives on Xbox Series X, and they’ve done more than just that, raising the bar across nearly all facets of visuals, audio and gameplay.

While it’s recommended you play the first Hellblade to really understand protagonist Senua’s character and growth since Hellblade II takes place following the original’s ending, some backstory will give more context into her condition and suffering. That said, there is an included re-cap video crafted to explain the events of the first game so you’re not completely lost if new to the series.

Senua’s original journey had her battling to the gates of Hellheim to try and save her dead lover’s soul. What makes Senua such an interesting character is that she suffers from psychosis, a form of mental illness. This makes her internal battle just as difficult as the external one in reality. A Celtic warrior from the 10th century, Senua’s journey is now leading her to Iceland so she can stop the Vikings who raided her village at its source.

While I don’t suffer from psychosis, both Hellblade games have now given me a basic understanding of what Senua must be dealing with on a constant basis. Hearing voices in your head constantly, seeing things as almost an alternative reality, and even simply understanding situations differently than most is common. Ninja Theory has taken extra care to recreate what these experiences must be like from someone who suffers with it, and like the first game, they’ve worked closely with doctors, scholars and even actual people who live with this mental condition. This realistic depiction is done with the utmost care, and with the latest technology, taken to whole new levels in this sequel.

This next chapter of Senua’s story is even more cinematic than before, raising the bar for visuals and audio to a level I’ve never experienced elsewhere before. With Senua finally making peace with her past and her condition, her perceptions and voices she hears aren't any less apparent, the difference now being that she’s learned how to not let them fully consume her, not let them fill her rage or depression at all times. She doesn’t fear the visions and voices any longer, which is impressive given the visions she sees and the constant whispering in her ears, acting like a narration of what’s happening. Facing a new type of enemy, the Draugr, Senua will also find new allies along the way, each of which I thoroughly enjoyed their story arcs and personalities.

I’m only going to mildly touch on story aspects given how narrative heavy her journey is, as its best left as a surprise if at all possible, but you can expect to take roughly 8-10 hours to see the credits roll depending on how long you search for collectables, take in the scenery and play with the photo mode for some amazing screenshots. Senua’s Sacrifice: Hellblade II doesn’t overstay its welcome at all, nor does it feel padded to artificially lengthen its gameplay. It’s a closed and linear story, but that’s also why it’s the amazing experience that it is, because of that focus. While there’s no New Game+ mode after completion, there is something interesting you unlock that I will surely play again through to experience, but am leaving that a surprise for you to find out.

Before you begin Senua’s journey, check out the options, as there’s plenty to set based on your preferences or accessibility needs. There are difficulty options for combat, but it goes a step further, allowing you to have Full control, Simple that will automatically use the best attacks and proper defenses, or if needed, full on automatic play. Combat was somewhat a challenge in the first game, so it’s great to see that if that was a barrier before, you won’t have to essentially worry about combat and still be able to progress.

There are three different Color Blind options (Deueranope, Protanope, and Tritanope), subtitle options, text sizes, button preferences (tap versus hold versus auto). With audio being a massive focus, you can change the mix from voices, sound effects and more. If you suffer from motion sickness, you can also change the motion blur and camera bobbing. There’s an impressive amount of accessibility options, so anyone should be able to enjoy the game regardless of any potential accessibility requirements. One option I highly suggest toggling is the walk/run to ‘toggle’ instead of the default ‘hold’, or else you’ll need to hold a Bumper button the whole time you want Senua to run (more like a brisk walk compared to a leisurely stroll).

Gameplay is similar to the first game, and while it may be linear, that by no mean diminishes its experience, fitting the narrative focus. With no HUD and no markers showing you where to go, you’re completely engrossed in Senua’s world. There are some subtle ways the game leads you in the right direction, like seeing some white paint or scuffs on ledges you can interact with, or following the light in a near pitch black cave. The narrative flows so smoothly that you don’t even know what chapter you’re currently on, as it’s all done cinematically. There’s no cutaways or text on the screen announcing chapters, again, fully immersing you in its own reality. Even the change from cutscene to gameplay is indistinguishable until you learn its subtle camera tricks indicating when you have control back of Senua.

While designed linearly, there are odd small paths you can explore, possibly finding pillars that have runes on them. These light up when found, indicating how many you’ve found along your journey. These give you some background lore and a small story told to you, fleshing out Senua’s world even further. While optional, there’s something you can unlock after completion if you’ve found every hidden collectable.

For those virtual photographers, you’re going to be very excited for the control you’re given with Hellblade II’s photo mode. You’re given a huge amount of tools, not just from moving the camera, but adding lighting sources, hiding characters, enabling or disabled background animations like weather, filters and more. What I didn’t expect was being able to enable photo mode during cutscenes, which made for some really interesting peeks behind the curtains so to speak. I fully expect to see some incredible screenshots, and the dozens I took were simply of the gorgeous backgrounds and Senua in the environment.

Puzzles return, much like Senua’s first outing, though not quite as heavily as before. There’s two different types of puzzles, what I call the ‘sign’ puzzles from the first game, and ‘orb’ puzzles. Every so often you’ll come across a door or pathway that becomes blocked as you approach. It will have a specific symbol on it, and the ‘key’ is to find the same parts of the symbol in the world. For example, maybe you need to find a symbol shaped like an “F”. Well, standing in a specific area and looking in a direction might have some debris or tree branches line up to form that symbol, unlocking part of the doorway. Finding the right spot and angle is key here, and you’ll know you’re in the right area when you start to see glowing symbols floating all around you. If you played the first Hellblade, it’s virtually identical.

The orb puzzles have you shifting reality to pass specific blockades or areas. In reality you might see a simple wall, but part of it has a strange glow to it. Find the nearby floating orb and this will distort reality, almost like a secondary plane, making that part of the wall disappear. Find another orb to swap back realities and the wall reappears. The later puzzles will have a few you need to trigger in a specific order to go from area to area, but none really stumped me for too long.

Senua’s journey isn’t an easy one, and along the way she’s going to have to fight in some brutal combat. There are light and heavy attacks, along with a block and dodge, but he biggest change from the first game is that Senua will face foes one at a time, almost like a gauntlet of enemies. Some may see this is a step back, but I remember becoming frustrated in the first game’s combat due to being constantly surrounded by enemies. This drastic change allows for a much more cinematic feel, being slower paced but no less brutal. Senua isn’t a superhero, she fights to survive and doesn’t hold back, and nearly every battle can feel like her last, especially when you’re fighting the tenth enemy in a row. Combat tells a story, not just showcasing her brutality and combat skills, but her desire to survive even when fearful.

One big change from the first game is the bosses. While they exist here, they are quite different than what you might remember from the first game. I’m not going to spoil anything of what to expect, but they aren’t your typical ‘boss fights’ that the first game had. That said, these were some of the most memorable sequences in the whole game, something I know I’ll be thinking of and remembering for some time. It’s different, but it fits Senua’s journey and is pulled off very well.

Unreal Engine 5 is showcased fully in Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. The first game seven years ago impressed, and somehow Ninja Theory has taken it to a completely higher level. "Photorealism" sometimes gets thrown around a little loosely, but the facial animations of every character, especially Senua, embodies the photorealism terminology. Those with ultrawide screens will be happy to know that there’s support, and on a standard 16:9 TV or monitor you can expect an anamorphic camera with 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This means there’s a black header and footer, giving a cinematic feel.

With no UI or HUD, you’re engrossed in Senua’s world, not simply following a marker or icon to your next objective. This helps make it feel like a cinematic experience, more than just a ‘game’, it’s a playable cutscene. The original game was motion captured in two days, but combat alone in Hellblade II took 69 days; this alone should tell you how much effort has gone into improving every aspect, down the smallest details. The smallest details from Senua’s movements are realistic, and watching behind the scenes videos, you can see why. Even her outfit in game was created in real life so the actress could wear it and have it be as realistic as possible. I’d argue that the smaller details are even more important than the general visual improvements. I never saw any instances of clipping, as Senua’s hair and even clothing reacts realistically based on her environment and movements. Everything is just so fluid and natural, from facial movements where you can actually see emotion from a small squint in the eyes, to the natural movements in combat when Senua gets knocked down and must get back up before it’s too late.

The environments are equally as beautiful and hostile. Even in the darker scenes, there’s beauty to be had, then when you’re outside and the sun is shining, it’s hard to not snap a few vistas for its beauty. The real world is gorgeous, and the visions that Senua sees and experiences are just as mesmerizing. Lighting in each environment also feels natural. Fighting in the darkness with just a few torches in the background gives an uneasiness, where seeing a mysterious light shine through a cave entrance provokes wonder and beauty.

Ninja Theory is pushing the boundaries of realism, and the motion capture work from all the actors involved needs to be specifically pointed out for how real and raw their performances where, especially from heroine Senua. So many small details makes for a realistic performance, and I could tell how Senua was feeling simply from the smallest facial movements. Even the camerawork feels like a Hollywood level of immersion and professionalism, again feeling incredibly cinematic at all times, not just in cutscenes.

For how impressive the visuals are, the audio experience is even more so. The voices in Senua’s head that are a constant are called furies. They are always there, and while the audio in the first game was incredible, again, Ninja Theory has upped the bar in every way. First and foremost, if at all possible, play this with a pair of headphones on, any pair, but the higher quality, the better. Binaural audio makes the voices in Senua’s head sound so incredibly real, it’s as if they are voices in your own head. While Binaural audio isn’t a new technology, it seems they’ve perfected it, hearing voices distinctly in one ear or the other, appearing as if they are all around you at times. This is produced from a dual microphone setup, and in some behind the scenes videos, you can see performers Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalan circling the microphones as they deliver their lines which gives a 3D sensory experience. This constant narration was something that haunted Senua previously, but she’s clearly learned to deal with their presence.

In the first game only these voices were binaural, but now it’s everything audio related, even the music and background. I swear I thought it started raining heavily outside during one sequence that I took my headset off only to realize it was in game. For how realistic the visuals appear, the audio is on the same level of realism. Even smaller details are highlighted and noticeable, from Senua’s footsteps, a crackling fire, and even waves crashing in the background. Audio Director David Garcia performed something incredibly special in all of Hellblade II’s audio aspects. There’s even a streamer mode you can enable if you’re worried about DMCA strikes if you plan to broadcast to others.

Then there’s the performances from all of the talented actors. The voice acting across the board is nothing less than flawless. Melina Juergens reprises her role as Senua, and does an absolutely unbelievable performance as expected. Every line delivered, to her combat shouts and grunts, Senua’s motion captured and acting comes together in a completely believable performance that made me feel for Senua even more than before. Performances from everyone else are just as amazing, from the voice of Senua’s father belittling her abilities and trying to make her question her own motives, to your new enemies and allies, simply flawless. A special mention to folk band Heilung, crafting a very unique soundtrack that fits the setting and mood at every turn with their chants, drums and piano.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is an absolutely beautiful game, not just in its visuals, but also the audio and Senua’s actual journey from the original game to what she’s become in this sequel. There’s a famous quote stating video games can’t be art; I’d argue that Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II proves this inaccurate. Artistry across different senses and technology come together to craft an amazing and meaningful tale worth experiencing. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a linear narrative driven action game that is unique, intense and incredibly immersive. With a focus on mental health and illness, there’s nothing quite like Hellblade II, a visual and audio experience unlike anything we’ve experience before, raising the bar of what ‘next-gen’ should mean. Once again, a Hellblade game is going to be in my GOTY contention.

**Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 10.0 / 10
Gameplay: 10.0 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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