Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review | Ninja Theory at its best

Ninja Theory has done it again.

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Not even more than a few minutes into my playthrough, I immediately knew that Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was going to be special and I’m going to be spending the rest of this review explaining why. This is one of those rare games that make you completely forget you’re playing one in the first place. It’s a completely immersive experience that will have you glued to the screen from the moment you boot it up, all the way to the end credits. Ninja Theory was cooking with this one and in almost every possible way, has outdone themselves with what they were able to achieve with the first game.

The first Hellblade was a massive hit that seemingly came out of nowhere. It was Ninja Theory’s way to show exactly what they’re capable of when no strings are attached and they’re left to create something in the exact way they intend for it to be. It was a narrative experience like no other, claiming to be the most accurate depiction of psychosis which allowed the developers to create some of the most insane imagery we’ve seen in a video game. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II cranks everything up with mostly positive results.

To Hel and back

The sequel is exactly what you would expect it to be. Bigger, bolder, and a deeper dive into Senua’s mind as we see her grow from being a victim of her own mind to being more in touch with it. That core character shift makes up the entire “Why?” of the game, which enables the story to show a different side of Senua. She is much more confident in the way she carries herself. While still constantly haunted by the voices in her head, she’s no longer controlled by them.

As much as Hellblade II still tries to center its focus on Senua, it did feel like it was less of a personal journey for her more than it became a tale of service for others. Senua is now a figure that people look up to. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it did make it feel slightly less engaging for me. But, the writing is still filled with so much depth and complexity and it would be criminal for me to speak any further about it. There’s a reason why Ninja Theory was so tight-lipped about story details and I intend to continue it to preserve the first-time playthrough experience.

Senua is now on a journey across Iceland, trying to help people along the way. Trippy hallucinations and mythological creatures aside, it’s a more grounded Hellblade story. In a lot of ways, Senua becomes a beacon of hope, a title that she is not familiar with. Coming from her past experiences of being considered an outcast because of what she is capable of, her abilities now become the reason why so many people follow her. This is an interesting dynamic that allows Senua to meet more core characters throughout the campaign. Although, I did feel like a lot of them were severely lacking in meaningful character development. Nevertheless, they become characters that Senua cares for and this added emotional weight provides even more narrative tension to an already mentally taxing journey for our protagonist.

It also goes without saying that every actor in Hellblade II is at the top of their game. So much raw emotion is required to bring the script to life and each performer gives it their all here.

Without saying any spoilers, I will say that the ending for Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II feels weaker compared to the original. For many, the last act of the first Hellblade was the emotional payoff that the whole game was building up to. For this one, it didn’t feel as impactful as I imagined it could’ve been.

Mind-blowing

Gameplay-wise, there’s really nothing I could complain about. It’s the first Hellblade but so much better. Combat, in particular, gains a massive upgrade in nearly every aspect.

Similar to the first game, Senua still takes on one on one battles but with the increased production values of the sequel, these encounters become much more intense and remain a significant highlight of my playthrough. Every movement is brought to life by incredible animation work. Senua and her enemies look and feel so much more alive.

During any combat encounter, the camera zooms in over Senua’s shoulders, the music ramps up, and the voices in your head constantly blurts out reactions to what you’re doing. Senue is overwhelmed and unsure of what the outcome will be and so is the player. Every win feels like you just barely came out of it, only for more enemies to come and surround you. It’s intense and it is a magnificent cinematic gameplay experience.

Sometime later in the game, Senua acquires a mirror from her childhood. One that she uses to focus in on herself and help drown everything out. This translates into gameplay. Once charged up and activated, every noise drowns out and Senua focuses on the enemy in front of her and she is able to attack with blistering speed. This is just one of the many examples of how narrative and gameplay come together in Hellblade II and it adds so much more meaningful context to what the player can see and do. Combat is badass but more importantly, every encounter is a meaningful part of the story and not just some event being thrown to add an action sequence.

Without revealing much, I will say that the “boss fights” lean more into being major interactive story beats rather than a key gameplay experience. While visually striking, it was disappointing from a player perspective.

Outside of combat, exploration is also incredibly enthralling given the amount of hidden things that are properly sprinkled throughout the linear levels. While there is one clear path to take, there are some minor deviations you can take to discover areas that provide optional narrative context. My favorite one has to be instances where some rocks may look like they contain a structure of a face. If you focus in on them, they reveal a path that contains extra content. It’s equal parts fantastic level art direction and a direct translation of Senua’s ability to see things other than what they normally are.

And of course, as we all expect, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a visual masterclass. Horrifically beautiful in every aspect. The graphical fidelity and art direction in this game is drop dead gorgeous. The environments are filled with so much rich and dense detail. No corner is left unchecked. And dear god, the character models and the facial animations. There are multiple moments where I just thought to myself that what I’m looking at is live action. Not a single inch of the performers’ face is wasted here. Every subtle muscle movement from the twitch of the eyes and the mouths is all preserved and shown. There is no way that any other game does facial movement better than Hellblade II right now.

And probably my favorite aspect of the game is the full commitment to remove any sort of UI. Other than the pause menu, there are no pop-ups, map markers, button prompts, etc. It’s just you and the game’s world. You are left to figure things out on your own and the game does an excellent job at walking you through the possible things you can do without being the direct tutorial you’d expect. Hellblade II is the standard for providing an incredibly immersive player experience. Not once did it remind me that I was playing a video game. I was in the world as Senua and I interacted with it in a way she would’ve. No other game can make you feel like you are part of the world like this one.

And finally, the sound design. Phenomenal. From the deafening voices in Senua’s head, the clashing of swords, the surrounding environments, the bombastic score, and the blood-curling screams, the sounds of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II get under your skin and it is an incredible audio experience. This is a game that HAS to be played with a good headset or surround sound speakers. There is just no other way to go about it.

I was able to play the game on my AMD Ryzen 5 5600X with a 4070 GPU setup with all settings cranked up to the max and it ran at a buttery smooth 60-80 FPS all throughout. There was only one instance where there were minor stuttering that happened in the latter half of the game but a simple re-launch fixed it altogether. This game is a visual powerhouse and it deserves to be played in all its glory.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review Final Verdict – 9/10

Narratively mesmerizing, highly engaging, and incredibly stimulating in both visual and audio presentations, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II sees Ninja Theory at the absolute top of their game.

Coming in at around 8-10 hours of game time, I was completely locked in, and very rarely did I catch myself wanting to leave the haunting world of Hellblade II. There’s just no other way to say it. This game is an absolute must-play if you’re on the lookout for industry-defining experiences that make use of the video game medium to its fullest potential.

This review was made using a game code for the PC provided by the publisher. 

9

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is an incredible experience that simply should not be missed. The game is fully committed to immersing players with fantastic world-building, top tier visual presentation, world-class audio design, and a narrative that continues to not shy away from the complex themes it combines with such dense mythology. Ninja Theory has themselves yet another all-timer with this one.