REVIEW – Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

May 21, 2024

Written by Jamie Galea

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice wasn’t a game that I loved, but I really respected. It saw developer Ninja Theory, masters of bombast and a lack of subtlety, make a game that was the polar opposite of DMC: Devil May Cry or Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. It was a quieter and more restrained experience, reflected in the smaller budget, plus told a respectful story about someone living with psychosis. A lot’s changed in the seven years since Senua’s Sacrifice, but with Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, Ninja Theory make a loud and expensive return to their old style of game, with disappointing results.

Following the events of the first game, the warrior Senua has returned from the depths of Hel, finally accepting the Furies (the voices in her head that continually mock, challenge, and support her every action) as part of her identity. Yet that hasn’t stopped the Vikings from attacking her people, with a group of slavers kidnapping more of Senua’s people. Letting herself be captured by these slavers, Senua travels to Iceland to free her people, but these are the first steps to a much bigger journey.

The first thing that immediately strikes you about Senua’s Saga is that it’s an extraordinarily pretty video game. I initially had some doubts given the game is presented in a letterboxed aspect ratio and locked to 30FPS, but seeing it in motion is an entirely other deal. If you needed a game to show off what the Xbox Series can do, or a good test of your current gaming PC, this is absolutely a game to show off.

There’s nary a moment where the game doesn’t impress visually, and all without any loading times barring once you get into the action. Setting the game in Iceland, one of the most beautiful places in the world, and employing high level photogrammetry to capture its natural beauty, works wonders. If you’re a Photo Mode enthusiast, you are going to love taking environmental shots. Flowers also have to go to the character models and animation work, which are astounding and do wonders in breathing life into these characters.

Much like with the first game, the audio production is stellar. While the voice acting and performances generally remain great, Ninja Theory’s use of binaural audio is still top shelf, creating a fantastic atmosphere. It works incredibly well to ensure the voices in Senua’s head really do overwhelm you as they do her. Even if you have a fancy sound system that does great surround sound, the absolute best experience is by playing with a pair of headphones.

If nothing else, this would’ve been the perfect exclusive game to show off at the launch of the Xbox Series. At around ten hours long, it feels like the perfect length for what could’ve been a fantastic tech demo that doubles as a game. Years into the existence of Microsoft’s latest consoles, however, Hellblade II feels like a game out of time, and not always in the best way.

I say this because Hellblade II is something you don’t see out of Xbox lately, a game that’s designed for retention or monthly active users. This isn’t a bad thing! We need more games like this, and given recent news, Xbox absolutely does. The problem is that Hellblade II hems really close to the design of the original game, but chooses to not evolve it meaningfully. Instead, it chooses to throw money at the experience and ignore the constraints that lead to some of that games better creative choices.

If you never played it, the original Hellblade was effectively defined by two core tenets: dedicated puzzle segments, dedicated combat segments, with narrative gameplay where you’d lightly jog between both segments, taking in the story and the world. It delicately balanced these tenets into a game that never really outstayed its welcome.

Those three tenets are still very much the core of Senua’s Saga, but there’s now a much bigger emphasis on the story and narrative this time around, with the puzzles and combat taking a backseat. Far too much of the game’s run time genuinely feels like overly long walk and talk sequences that are occasionally broken up with something resembling gameplay.

While I wasn’t terrible sold on the way Hellblade told its story, I really did appreciate that ultimately it was a relatively lonely story of a woman descending into hell to try revive her dead lover. There wasn’t that much in the way of big setpieces, and any time we saw another character, it was exclusively as a flashback in Senua’s head, and usually via a live action performance. While you could chalk a lot of that up to budgetary constraints forcing specific creative choices, they were choices that ultimately benefited the game as a whole.

None of this is an issue now with Senua’s Saga, and it shows. Sometimes it works in its favour: when the game does a big setpiece, it does look spectacular. There’s a lot more dialogue from the Furies, who now overlap and respond to other characters dialogue, creating a great sense of being overwhelmed by these voices. These are the only times the budget and lack of restraint works in Senua’s Saga, which ultimately loses a lot by being this much grander experience.

Apart from the initial table setting, it often feels like the story never really gets going for a while, with the pace feeling glacial at times. One section that sees you in a cave goes on for so much longer than it has any right to. By the time it does get going, it’s far too late to really feel anything for Senua or her quest. There were points where I’d forgotten why she was even doing all this to begin with, which is not an encouraging sign.

This isn’t helped by the additional of several new characters into the story, whom along with the Furies & Narrator are just constantly talking to you and constantly exposition dumping to the player. It’s slightly better when Senua’s by herself, but even then, the writing still feels like it’s trying to coast on vibes more than anything else. So much of this game is the game trying to write these deep and meaningful dialogues that are supposed to be resonant, but it never quite clicks as well as it should.

If you’re wondering why I’m not referring to any of these newer characters by their names, it’s not due to any embargo reasons, it’s because I genuinely could not tell you who they are. None of these characters are given any real development or given anything to really do aside from telling Senua the plot of the video game.

As for the parts where you play the video game, they’re not that much better. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the puzzle sections of the original game, but mercifully they’re a much smaller part of the overall experience. There’s only so much of the “find the rune in the world by standing in the place we want you to stand” that I can stomach, and thankfully there’s drastically fewer of this kind of puzzle.

The game forgoes the portal puzzles of the original, but introduces a new puzzle type, where you activate switches to turn on & off parts of the world to collect items. It’s a neat concept, but it’s barely used. Both types of puzzles also tend to be on the easier side, so you’ll never be truly stumped for long at the very least.

And then there’s the combat, which has seen some truly baffling changes. Where the original Hellblade’s combat was passable enough, there was enough mechanically that could’ve been improved on, particularly when fighting more than one opponent. Senua’s Saga makes the decision instead to not add to or change how combat works, but instead to simplify, getting rid of the group fights entirely.

Every enemy is now fought one on one, with transitions between fights until you’ve defeated everyone. It looks striking enough, and often feels seamless, but this decision feels like an overcorrection more than anything else.

It’s especially weird when there’s literally no change to the core of combat. Senua doesn’t gain any new moves or new weapons, and while her enemies have one or two new tricks, you’ll pick up on them very quickly. There’s still no meaningful way to break enemy shields or guards aside from mindlessly attacking or waiting for an opportunity to attack, which feels ridiculous.

If you’d gotten used to what Hellblade’s combat offered, you’re more than versed in what Senua’s Saga offers. There’s a bigger emphasis on animation now so your moves come out a little slower, but thankfully it’s responsive enough that you can always cancel into a dodge or a block if you know you’re going to get hit.

Though worryingly, combat is easy enough where the strategy that carried me throughout the entire game is to only use light attacks and dodge/block to build up enough Focus, which allows Senua to slow down enemies while keeping her full speed. Deploying the focus during combat feels tantamount to a skip fight button because it’s that useful in combat. Even on the game’s default difficult of “dynamic”, you almost don’t need to vary this up.

It’s really hard to not come away from Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II with some level of disappointment. For all that the game does on a technical level, it comes across as a hollow version of the same game from seven years ago, and nowhere near as interesting. If this game had been released back in November 2020, it would’ve had a great time as the big tech demo of the launch lineup, and I think I could be a bit more forgiving of it. These days though? Not so much.

It’s a shame, because Xbox really does needs more games like this. They need more games that aren’t designed to be time sinks, that you can finish in a weekend and feel like you’ve actually accomplished something.

If anything else, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II shows that even if you can throw money at a game and make it look pretty, you cannot have creativity without some form of restraint. Otherwise, you just have a hollow imitation of a much more interesting video game.

RATING: Caution

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was reviewed on an Xbox Series X with a code provided by the publisher. For more of Jamie, follow him across social media at @jamiemgalea

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