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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review

In the giant’s footprint

Ninja Theory’s 2017 Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a vicious little game. Following the harrowing descent of its titular heroine into a hellish realm woven from her mind as much as the harsh, Norse lands around her, its marriage of interactivity and theme was, and remains, an achievement like little else in the medium. Melding a combination of detailed mental health investigation, fully immersive 3D sound, and detailed animations and performances, it had teeth with a bite not easily forgotten. Marked by her quest to accept the death of her beloved but far from broken, Senua’s path forward after finding her voice amid a sea of others seemed infinite as she invited players to travel with her and hear of another story yet to be told.

Ninja Theory’s 2024 Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II isn’t the story I imagined would follow. Where Senua’s Sacrifice compounded intensity from its singular, interior focus, Senua’s Saga rips its heroine from familiar grounds and washes her ashore a foreign land, in turn extrapolating the core allegory of psychosis and trauma into biblical proportions. Loosely, Senua must now tackle fabled giants who are haunting the craggy highlands of 10th-century Iceland, her conquering of each enlisting more followers, and believers, in her way of seeing the world.

Melina Juergens is stunning as Senua

In pursuit of a grander scale, Senua’s Saga has a slipperier relationship with allegory and theme than its predecessor, often flowing between narrative and metaphor, the direct and indirect, in uneasy bursts. Senua’s desire for vengeance against those who enslaved and murdered her people ostensibly drives the plot but as the game unfurls its true emotional goals, the who, what, and where become borderline immaterial to the why. The game being an unapologetic parable grants it allowances here, but its disinterest in Senua’s new setting and supporting cast beyond pure functionality takes a toll by credits.

There are lengthy stretches of Senua’s Saga in which Senua simply walks forward while exposition spills forth from one character or another. These details are the building blocks of the game’s thematic throughline but are delivered with such rote regularity and blunt diction that even their best revelations feel muted. It lacks the considered care found in Senua’s Sacrifice, or at least the good sense to mask the lever pulling, and only adds more weight to the already strained balance between explicit narrative and allegory.

It’s emblematic of Ninja Theory’s approach to mechanical iteration in this sequel, which is to say little has been improved. Senua’s journey through Iceland is largely one of languished animations and rudimentary visual puzzle-solving, punctuated by bouts of kinetic combat. It is, almost entirely, a redux of Sacrifice’s core gameplay. As someone who adored the refined simplicity of that game’s melee encounters, their return here is a welcome one, though Saga’s lacklustre enemy lineup and glacial parry douse that fire just as I was seeking its warmth.

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Combat is minimised in more ways than one

The return of line-of-sight puzzles is also a point of contention, though these are at least punched up with Senua’s ability to change portions of the environment using otherworldly focus points. These moments are often visually stunning but inert due to their predetermined use and outcomes­; there’s very little in Senua’s Saga that requires your consideration and even more that feels uneasy about your input at all. A plethora of self-proclaimed cinematic games have been maimed for less severe cases than this, but Senua’s Saga is uniquely disheartening due to its proximity to greatness, both in its predecessor and itself.

There is a boss sequence in here that pulls on every thread Ninja Theory has spent the better part of a decade weaving to make for a sincerely jaw dropping moment of visual and sonic catharsis, mechanical simplicity be damned. There are echoes of theme and tone that speak to the uncomfortable, non-linear journey that healing can be, and the depths of empathy required to see yourself, and others, through those long nights and empty days. There is still some muddled work between intentionality and execution surrounding Senua’s mental health but it’s not hard to see the intended goal of the framework, even as the game pivots to answering questions nobody was asking. These fleeting examinations of family, legacy, and choice all feel strangely mundane compared to the complex and messy interiority of the first game, those same teeth now filed down.

Senua’s Saga is a remarkable looking game at least, the breadth and depth of its raw fidelity often pushing into ethereal uncanniness. Ninja Theory had already proved masters of facial capture with the first title but here there is a richly textured world that rewards the real-world mapping and hardware pushing efforts. And yet, like its pursuit of scale, the push toward fidelity has seemingly robbed the game of clear aesthetics, trading the expressive touches of Sacrifice for breathtaking, but placid, lighting and models. There are attempts to shift the visual language beyond the first game, with fractal patterns and reflections used sparingly but only ever to mixed effect.

It’s not entirely fair to have had a game like Alan Wake 2, in which many of these same techniques were deployed with a far sharper eye, to have hit before Senua’s Saga but it is somewhat indicative of the wider issue. For all of its new flares (Senua gets to hang out in the sun for once) and arduous animations, there’s nothing here that breaches the same timelessness of Sacrifice’s giant horse edifice or more extravagant enemy designs.

Senua’s Saga’s environments are high fidelity and underwhelming

In keeping with its previously established skill though, Ninja Theory’s 3D Binaural soundscapes, and accompanying voice work, remain unmatched. The game prompts you to wear headphones before playing and you’d be doing the craft a disservice to ignore this advice, the sound design and immersion such as it is. Senua’s voices return with full force, darting and weaving from ear to ear in unsettling and absorbing ways as a full-bodied sonic profile of Iceland’s wilds whispers around you. It’s a magic trick that still evokes wonder, though like any trick seen once before, you can’t help but think back on the first time it truly blew you away.

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Final Thoughts

Which is the overarching tale of Senua’s Saga– for almost everything it does well, there is a better counterpart in its predecessor, the remaining new additions never fully realised. It is painstakingly crafted yet thoroughly unengaging, its ruminations on the human condition are not unwelcome but presented with unearned profundity and housed in gameplay that is apathetic to the player at best. Senua’s Sacrifice was a crunchy experience but, in its limitations, and focus, it blossomed into a striking, contained reflection of emotions through systems. Conversely, Senua’s Saga is undeniably gorgeous and well intentioned, but exhaustively preoccupied with its own reflection.

Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review
Lost Chapters
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is an achievement in visual fidelity but fails to define itself amid clumsy retreads and unengaging new ideas.
The Good
Gorgeously rendered world and characters
Killer sound design
Solid direction for Senua
The Bad
Unengaging and uninteresting gameplay
Allegory and narrative both feel underdeveloped
Overall art direction is lacking
6
HAS A CRACK
  • Ninja Theory
  • Xbox Game Studios
  • Xbox Series X/S, PC
  • May 21, 2024

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review
Lost Chapters
Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is an achievement in visual fidelity but fails to define itself amid clumsy retreads and unengaging new ideas.
The Good
Gorgeously rendered world and characters
Killer sound design
Solid direction for Senua
The Bad
Unengaging and uninteresting gameplay
Allegory and narrative both feel underdeveloped
Overall art direction is lacking
6
HAS A CRACK
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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