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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory’s Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

Rarely does a game balk at traditional video game ethos with the confidence and commitment seen in Ninja Theory's sequel.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory's Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II favours a visceral, cinematic aesthetic over standard video game language

When I booted up Senua's Saga: Hellblade II for the first time, it began with an in-game cinematic, with the eponymous protagonist out at sea. Warrior Senua has willingly allowed herself to be taken captive by Northmen slavers and hopes to cross the sea and reach Iceland, the home of the Norse slavers, to free her people. Her plan is interrupted, however, when the ship meets a violent storm and is torn to shreds, throwing everyone overboard. Senua survives, barely, washed up on a rocky shore, and decides to look for other survivors along the coast.

Here's when the game first hands control to the player, but it's not immediately apparent. It took me a second or two to realise that Senua was awaiting my input. Usually, when video games transition from cutscene to gameplay, the aspect ratio changes from cinematic formats like 1.85:1 widescreen or an anamorphic 2.39:1 widescreen to 16:9, which matches most high-definition monitors and televisions today, thus giving a full-screen image without any letterboxing or pillarboxing.

But here, the black bars on top and bottom of the screen persisted, even when I was in full control of Senua. Maybe a glitch, I thought. Or perhaps I could head to settings and find an option to turn off the letterboxing? But no. As I soon found out, the game camera in Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is an anamorphic lens with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which means developers intended the game to be played in the cinematic format, with letterboxing on most average displays.

This information annoyed me a little, but it also left me with admiration for the studio's commitment to a particular aesthetic and vision. And I think that mixed sentiment sums up the entire Senua's Saga: Hellblade II experience, too. In its unwavering march towards what it tries to be — a cinematic, narrative driven, interactive featurette, it largely ignores what it is — a video game. As the former, Hellblade II is stunning. It's an intense and evocative tale about confronting demons — both within and without — performed, shot and presented at a level of immersion and fidelity yet unseen in the medium. As the latter, its' a short, shallow and repetitive tech demo that's interested less in engaging and more in enthralling. At the end, falls somewhere in the middle — stunning to look at, but shy of inviting you to do more than just look.

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Senua's Saga excels at telling its story. For someone who jumped into the sequel without playing the first game, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Hellblade 2 thankfully begins with a cinematic recap that not only catches you up to speed, but also sets the tone of the narrative. Senua washes up on Icelandic shore, in search of her people and the Norseman slavers who took them. Battered and bruised, she walks along the rocky coastline in search of other survivors from the shipwreck, before she runs into the slave master, Thórgestr. A gruelling sword fight ensues, but Senua overpowers the slaver, binds him and directs him to take her to his settlement.

From there on, true to its title, Hellblade 2 becomes Senua's saga as she explores the desolate landscape, walking through ruined settlements, fighting off draugars and finding other allies along the way. She learns of giants who've reached Midgard from their home Jötunheimr after a volcanic eruption tore open the walls between the two Realms. Without giving much away, the giant encounters in the game are truly sensational and deliver on both spectacle and story.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory's Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

Senua washes up on a rocky Icelandic shore in the opening section of the game
Photo Credit: Ninja Theory/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

Hellblade 2 eschews traditional video game narrative beats and tropes in favour of telling a more complex and clouded tale about guilt, confrontation and the powers that corrupt people to the point where they can become unrecognisable. The story is also served by the shorter runtime; if you don't dilly-dally about, you could see the ending in under seven hours. That might leave some, expecting more milage from their game, underwhelmed. But I can't imagine Hellblade 2 as a 15 to 20-hour title full of things to do. Its tight focus keeps the emphasis on the story, so that the weight of the themes it is trying to explore through Senua's experiences land as impactfully as intended.

You also experience the narrative through the chaotic mind of Senua. She suffers from severe psychosis, a mental health disorder that can distort reality and bend perception. Senua struggles with hallucinations and delusions, not knowing if she can trust her own instincts and experiences. The game manifests her battle with her inner demons in sensitive and effective ways, giving the constant push and pull in her mind a literal voice. Senua is haunted by the pair of voices in her head, called the Furies, that constantly talk, asses her situation, disparage her, and even push her to keep going. More than the people around her, the voices are Senua's eternal companions, for better or for worse. You constantly hear them whispering, “you will fail,” “get up and fight,” “you can't win,” and they become your internal monologue.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory's Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

Hellblade 2 portrays Senua's psychosis with sensitivity and authenticity
Photo Credit: Ninja Theory

Hellblade 2 also excels in delivering the experience of living with voices in your head. The incessant auditory back and forth in Senua's mind, in effect becomes battling dialogue in your head, too. Developers Ninja Theory implemented binaural audio to push a lush, 3D soundscape directly to the player's ears, promising an authentic portrayal of psychosis. The Furies become a constant narrator of your experiences in the game, breaking down the cards Senua has been dealt at any given moment, questioning every possibility, but ultimately deferring to Senua (and you, the player) to take the right call. Consequently, headphones are an unmissable requirement to experience the game as intended. Wearing a decent pair of spatial audio-enabled headphones and playing the game at night was one of the most immersive gaming experiences I've had in a long time.

The game's technical achievements don't just stop at audio. Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is, simply put, one of the best-looking games ever made. Built on Unreal Engine 5, the game pushes the visual boundaries of the medium to a realm of cinematic photorealism perhaps not yet seen in the medium, not even in The Last of Us Part II or Uncharted 4. The game's characters not only look like real people, they move like the living, too. Faces, skin, eyes, hair, imperfections are all highly detailed and lifelike. Visually, Hellblade 2 is always stunning, but never pleasing to look at. The world is grey and grim, and the opening section of the game is drenched in torrential rain. But when the clouds part, the Norse lands are washed in resplendent, golden sunshine.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory's Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

Hellblade 2 features industry-defining visuals
Photo Credit: Ninja Theory/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

As you walk through the coarse terrain, meet other people, and explore scattered settlements, you see how the game world evokes a specific visual motif. The desolation of the landscape matches Senua's loneliness and broken homes that dot the expanse speak of her inner ruin. With the anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, Hellblade 2 often evokes a cold, miserable Western, with Senua its unflinching hero on an unrelenting journey. The game's incredible visuals are complimented by excellent voice work from all actors. Melina Juergens as Senua is raw and evocative and conveys the strength of the character through the depths of her psychosis. I wouldn't be surprised if she picked up all of the year-end awards for her work on the game.

The graphical achievements of Hellblade 2, however, hinge on the system you play it on. The game is one of the most demanding titles on PC right now and its high-end visuals demand a high-end PC for the best results. I played the game on an HP Omen 16-xf0060AX, provided by HP for the purpose of this review. And even with an GeForce RTX 4060 and AMD Ryzen 7 7840HS, I could not get consistent 60fps performance at 1080p resolution, even with DLSS frame generation on. I tweaked and tinkered with graphical options, settling for custom settings somewhere between Medium and High, to get a reliable framerate that fluctuated between 50-60fps.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory's Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

Senua keeps marching on as she battles her psychosis
Photo Credit: Ninja Theory/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

What works to the game's advantage, however, is that it lends itself to lower framerates closer to the film medium. An action-heavy title would be distracting to play at 30 or 40fps, but Senua's Saga delivers a perfectly enjoyable experience around that mark. To experience the game in all its 4K graphical glory, however, would require a monster PC. Anything else would require you to make some compromises. But these are dwarfed in the face of the game's monolithic ambition and its singular narrative experience.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II reviewed on HP Omen 16

Processor: AMD Ryzen 7 7840HS.

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce RTX 4060 laptop GPU (8GB GDDR6 dedicated).

Memory: 16GB DDR5-5600 Mhz RAM.

Storage: 1TB PCIe Gen4 NVMe TLC M.2 SSD.

The thing that can become a legitimate hindrance in your enjoyment of Hellblade 2, however, is its shallow gameplay. Most of the time in the game is spent trudging through linear environments, with barely any emphasis on how you traverse the world. The game emphasises exploration but offers only a couple of meaningful ways to incentivise it. You walk off the beaten path to find Lorestangir posts that dish out lore, or spot Hidden Faces in rock formations in the environment to reveal a secret path that leads to a tree. Not including collectibles and other rewards for exploration makes sense for a game that is laser focussed on its narrative, but the Hellblade 2 experience would have been richer if it included more environment-based puzzles and traversal challengers. Without that gameplay variety, it can often end up feeling like a walking simulator.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory's Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

The same shallowness pervades the game's combat as well. As Senua, you can inflict light and heavy slashes with your sword and block or dodge incoming attacks. If you block an enemy's swing at just the right time, steel will meet steel and you'll get a bright flash, indicating that your opponent is staggered and open for counters. Senua is also armed with a mirror, that charges up with successful attacks and parries. Once fully charged, the mirror starts glowing, and you can hit the focus button to slow down time, granting you an open window to go in on your enemy. That's about it when it comes to combat mechanics in Hellblade 2.

While action sequences are gritty and immersive, with no HUD elements or combat indicators, the lack of complexity of moves and weapons available at your disposal makes for a simplistic and repetitive experience. Again, within the cinematic vision of the game, the combat fits like a snug glove. It's visceral, violent and heart-pounding, accentuated by brilliant audio design and music. But it also feels like a missed opportunity to bring a bit of actual gaming depth to a video game, even if it's one that has cinematic ambition.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Ninja Theory's Flawed, but Uncompromising Sequel Is a Cinematic Achievement

Despite its single-minded approach, its total devotion to the choices it makes at every step, and its limited interest in being a video game in the traditional sense, Senua's Saga: Hellblade II serves a peerless experience in the medium. There have been a few great narrative-focussed titles that go for cinematic realism before, but rarely does a game balk at video game ethos with the confidence and commitment seen in Ninja Theory's sequel. That same disdain for gamey mechanics, however, pushes Hellblade 2 towards the realm of an interactive movie.

But then, games can be a lot of things. The are fewer boundaries in gaming than any other form of artistic media, and titles that challenge established understanding of the medium push the margins further out. Hellblade 2 doesn't offer meaningful exploration, it doesn't come loaded with side quests and activities, and it doesn't let you play your own way. It has a strict vision for what it does offer: an uncompromising and harrowing story, immersive environments, photorealistic visuals, and excellent sound and performances. And with its sensitive and important representation of mental health disorders, Senua's Saga stands distinct among formulaic big-budget games.

Pros

  • Emphasis on narrative, characters
  • Industry-defining visuals
  • Excellent audio design, music
  • Sensitive portrayal of mental health issues
  • Cinematic, immersive storytelling

Cons

  • Shallow combat, exploration
  • Repetitive gameplay loop
  • Performance issues

Rating (out of 10): 8

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II released May 21 on PC and S/X. The game was tested on an HP Omen 16-xf0060AX laptop provided by HP.

Pricing starts at Rs. 4,399 on Steam and Store for PC and Xbox Series S/X. The game is also available on .

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