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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

Ninja Theory's sequel tells a raw, harsh and surprisingly sensitive Viking saga in the most beautiful way possible.

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Considering today's gaming landscape, sitting down with a game like Senua's Saga: Hellblade II feels like a small miracle in many ways. It's still a completely linear experience of 6-7 hours, with all the mechanical fat cut out in favour of a cinematic experience designed to keep you on edge. Granted, the first Hellblade was in many ways just as uncompromising, but Ninja Theory's sequel obviously has a much higher budget behind it, bringing it right up there with the AAA titles it so closely resembles in terms of production.

On the other hand, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous about how it will fare commercially, because how can a game that goes against so many of today's trends reach an audience big enough to justify its budget now that Game Pass is apparently not as crucial a parameter for Mother Microsoft as before? The simple answer, of course, is that it must be an inescapable experience that spreads across the gaming landscape with overwhelmingly positive word of mouth. Whether Senua's Saga: Hellblade II can do that remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be shocked, because Ninja Theory's sequel is such a singular, customised and personal experience that anyone with an interest in linear action games, engaging narratives and mythological tales owes it to themselves to give it a chance.

A huge part of the credit for this goes to the game's stunning presentation. Ninja Theory have been storytellers almost from the start, and in Senua's Saga: Hellblade II they take this craft to new heights with scenes that rival Sony's best studios in choreography and direction. And it's beautiful in just the right ugly way. Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is quite simply one of the most visually impressive games I've had the pleasure of playing. The environments and characters are brought to life by a tremendous level of detail that shows how close to photorealism gaming in 2024 can get when skilled developers don't have to render huge, open worlds. But it's the raw and dirty art direction that takes the cake. Senua's Saga: Hellblade II basically makes God of War look like a Marvel film. So dark, creepy and twisted are the black beaches, ramshackle villages and enchanted forests Senua travels through.

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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

The visuals are again backed up by a soundtrack unlike anything else in the gamescape. Senua is still accompanied by the two voices in her head, the Furies, whose advice, encouragement, warnings and admonitions flow into your headphones via the special recording technique binaural audio, which creates a convincing and sometimes frightening 3D soundscape. However, as a result of Senua's development in the first game, the Furies have become more positive and supportive, which is actually welcome after their often stressful and vicious demeanour in the first game. They are the signature of the soundtrack, but the rest of the cast also deliver excellent performances, and the background music can both thunder epically and create delicate string arrangements, depending on the situation.

It is on the shoulders of this trinity that Ninja Theory tells a story of revenge and forgiveness, heritage and environment, and fate versus free choice. Where Senua's Sacrifice looked inwards, Senua's Saga looks outwards to see if Senua can move forward and use her powers to help the people who need it most. At the start of the game, she is on her way to Iceland. Deliberately enslaved by Vikings who raided her village in the prelude to the first game, she's there for revenge, to plunge her sword into the heart of the monster that took everything from her. But what starts as a simple revenge plot quickly evolves into a larger societal narrative as a result of the people she meets along the way, people who change her perspective and goals.

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The great stars of mythology (aka the gods) must this time give way to a more down-to-earth Viking saga, where the extraordinary, yet mortal humans take centre stage. That's not to say that the supernatural elements are completely written out (more on that later), but the Iceland we encounter in Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is still very much Middle-earth with all the beliefs and superstitions that go with it. It's a wise choice because it further positions the game as the more realistic and lifelike version of the time period compared to, for example, God of War's more fantastical treatment of mythology. Robert Eggers' The Northman feels like an obvious point of reference, and the two works sit beautifully side by side when it comes to depicting Iceland during the Viking Age.

However, Senua's renewed focus on what could be called civic-mindedness has not made the road to the goal any less bloody than before. In fact, Senua's Saga: Hellblade II excels in some of the most graphically elaborate and well-choreographed combat in recent memory. In locked one-on-one duels, you have the classic arsenal of light and heavy attacks, a block and an evasion manoeuvre at your disposal. Often you have to open your opponent up to attacks by parrying or dodging, which gives the fights a rhythmic quality. You're mostly up against enemies who use melee weapons exclusively, but some will also throw spears or axes at you, or use a torch as a flamethrower, requiring you to dodge sideways instead of backwards. There are plenty of special animations that give the battles a fantastic cinematic look, but there's no getting away from the fact that they flirt with the quick time event style. And while the Draugr and Vikings you slash your way through look incredible, they eventually become monotonous.

However, the somewhat monotonous nature of the battles isn't as big a problem as it could have been if Ninja Theory hadn't used them as sparingly as it does. There are long passages where you are either served the story or solving relatively manageable puzzles. As for the latter, it's all about manipulating reality and switching between two dimensions to either identify runes in the landscape or locate magical stones to use in some kind of altar. As you switch from one dimension to the other, the landscape changes so that certain things disappear or appear, so it's all about paving a path forward by switching at the right time. It's not something that will put your mental capacity on overtime, but that's not the point either. Rather, Ninja Theory's intention seems to be to create just enough friction to keep the player engaged in their story.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

And it works, because it's not like any of the things you do are particularly fresh or remarkable at their core, but everything is elevated by the fantastic presentation. In the fight against the giant Ilthauga, you have to run from stone pillar to stone pillar between waves of fire. A classic discipline I'm not a big fan of, but Ilthauga's terrifying appearance, the hellish lava flow that surrounds the combatants and the rhythmic pressure of the bass drum that seems to beat out waves of flame make it an excellent sequence.

Visually, however, the sequence has nothing on the fight against another giant where Senua almost literally throws herself into the eye of the hurricane while dodging tidal waves and falling rocks. It's completely overwhelming visually. Nothing less.

When Senua's Saga: Hellblade II hits these high points, it's impossible not to completely indulge in Ninja Theory's bleak vision of the Viking Age. The often unforgettable scenes practically transform it into a visual poem, and in these moments, it couldn't matter less that the game's mechanical components are smoother and more superficial, because it's more of an interactive experience than a traditional game. However, in the moments when the magic doesn't materialise, it feels suddenly ordinary and even boring at times. Fortunately, it's the magic that most often materialises, which is why Senua's Saga: Hellblade II ultimately stands as a beautiful testament to the gaming medium's ability to tell meaningful adventures that touch the eyes, ears and heart. I sincerely hope it finds a large audience.

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08 Gamereactor UK
8 / 10
+
Stunning visuals. Compelling and consistent soundtrack. Excellent set pieces. A well-told story with something to say.
-
The battles become monotonous. Mechanical and generally a little too lean.
overall score
is our network score. What's yours? The network score is the average of every country's score

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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

REVIEW. Written by Ketil Skotte

Ninja Theory's sequel tells a raw, harsh and surprisingly sensitive Viking saga in the most beautiful way possible.



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