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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Review – Visceral & Haunting

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, the long-awaited sequel to the critically acclaimed Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, has finally arrived and it has been well worth the wait. Developed by Ninja Theory and published by Xbox Games Studios, the game plunges players back into the psychosis-fueled world of Senua, a Celtic warrior battling inner demons and external threats. This time, her journey takes her across the brutal landscapes of Viking Iceland. This is not a game for the faint of heart. It’s a brutal and visceral experience that tackles mature themes of psychosis, loss, and resilience. Despite not being a huge fan of full-on horror games, this is one of the best games I have played in recent years.

The first thing that struck me about Hellblade II on Xbox Series X is the incredible visuals. Built on Unreal Engine 5, the game creates a world that is both breathtaking and unsettling, and characters and their clothing are impeccably detailed. The developers have meticulously recreated real Icelandic locations, capturing their stark beauty and harsh environment. Weather effects and lighting are particularly impressive, with rainy thunderstorms and flickering firelight creating a truly immersive atmosphere. The photo mode was a great addition as there were many times where I would stop to marvel the scenes in front of me, only now I could zoom and pan to create some incredible shots.

The narrative picks up after the events of the first game. Senua, haunted by her past and the voices in her head, embarks on a journey to rescue those she loves from a tyrannical darkness. The story is masterfully crafted, seamlessly weaving Norse mythology with Senua’s internal struggles. The game explores themes of mental illness, grief, and the power of resilience in a way that is both sensitive and unflinching. The voice acting of all characters is outstanding, the level of detail in the facial and motion capture, and the environmental storytelling are phenomenal in conveying Senua’s fractured perception of reality.

The game builds upon the innovative use of binaural audio from the first game, further blurring the lines between reality and Senua’s psychosis. Voices whisper in your ears so it is best to play wearing a good set of headphones, and monstrous visions flicker at the edge of your vision. There were sections of the game that genuinely had me on edge and feeling uneasy, particularly when coupled with some gruesome and gory scenes. The sound design is truly masterful, creating a constant sense of unease and vulnerability. There were times where that sense of uneasiness and dread were almost getting too much for me and I was longing for Senua to get through these dark caverns and out into the light. I was thankful to reach the end of each chapter and log off for the night, but the story had me wanting to jump right back in the next night to find out what happens next.

Combat in Hellblade II feels more refined than the original game, and even more heart-pounding with the intense sounds of monsters chasing you and circling behind the action. While still brutal and visceral, the encounters are more strategic, requiring players to learn enemy patterns and utilise well-timed dodges and parries. I died a lot early on to the creatures that blew fire or threw axes. I was getting good at parrying blows, with each successful parry enough to perform a finishing move or power up Senua’s mirror to slow down time, but I often forgot I could dodge. Thankfully you never lost much progress with a death, if any at all, so dying wasn’t a nuisance, rather a chance to try a different tactic. The combat serves to punctuate the narrative rather than overshadow it with each fight adding another layer to Senua’s struggle.

While there is brutal and unforgiving combat, Hellblade II is more than just a hack-and-slash game. Exploration and puzzle-solving play a significant role, and the game rewards taking your time to soak in the atmosphere and unravel the mysteries of Senua’s world. In addition to wooden poles with symbols to find, there are also stone faces that if you use left or right trigger to focus on, will reveal a hidden path to a tree and this reveals even more story elements. These were a nice reprieve from the often dark and depressing scenes that Senua was navigating and a good chance for me to pause, put the controller down and go for a little walk around the house to grab a drink and calm me down.

Overall, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a mentally demanding but rewarding game with an intense blend of storytelling and immersion, and one of the best game’s I’ve played in recent years. It’s a harrowing but hopeful journey that is not afraid to push boundaries and confront players with uncomfortable themes that stay with you long after the credits roll. This is a must-play, even for gamers that aren’t into full-on horror games, and definitely if you have Xbox Game Pass where it’s available day one. The Xbox Series X version takes full advantage of the console’s power, delivering a proper next-generation visual and auditory experience best experienced with a quality headset.

This review utilised a key provided free by Xbox and Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II launched worldwide on May 21, 2024, on Xbox Series X|S, Day 1 on Game Pass, and Steam.


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