Review: Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Challenges You To Greet The Darkness As A Friend

Review: Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Challenges You To Greet The Darkness As A Friend

What happens when you face the void and human eyes look back? Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 asks this very question of you, from the opening moments until its denouement. Over the unforgiving volcanic Icelandic landscape, Senua’s journey to exact revenge on the Norsemen who wreaked havoc on her homeland is ultimately one of finding light in the darkness – and also knowing when to find darkness in the light.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is Ninja Theory’s sequel to 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and follows the titular character as she journeys to 10th century Iceland, hoping to stop the Norse slavers that have killed so many others from her home. Much like the first game, Senua is still followed (and at times admonished, tricked, and belittled) by the Furies – the voices of spirits that only she can hear – and followed by the Darkness. However, Senua is not the same after her journey to Hel and back – she fights back against the darkness that follows her, and uses her ability to see and hear what others cannot to guide her forward on her path. 

Echoes from the past

Senua’s psychosis is ever-present in Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, both through the Furies and her visions. Booting up the game and playing through the first couple of chapters, it became immediately clear that the auditory and visual anomalies of the first title had been amped up in intensity – perhaps a sign that Senua is no longer fighting against them in the same way she did before. Black smoke rises from the ground in your peripheral vision, contorting into the shape of desperate bodies clawing at Senua from the earth. Natural phenomena detach themselves from gravity, floating and bending into psychedelic forms, with only a change in perspective allowing the sundered world to become whole once more in the form of signs calling out to you to follow.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review
Image: Ninja Theory

Wearing headphones for the 3D binaural sound is a must to fully experience Hellblade II as intended. The full soundscape is at times overwhelming, with the winds blowing across Icelandic vistas punctuated by the competing voices of the Furies, always guiding, or questioning, or mocking. The croaks and groans of the dead and dying pierce through even the quietest moments, the guttural growls and screams indiscernible from monster or man (or sometimes both). Much like Senua herself, I found myself turning left and right, searching for the source of each noise in fear. In the depths of the game, this cacophony of sound, placed against the backdrop of Heilung’s masterful work on the soundtrack (more on that later), was almost too intense. I found myself having to step back from the game for a breath, the feeling almost too oppressive to breathe. While some might find this level of sensory intensity to be too much, it was ultimately this exact feeling that kept me coming back to play more of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2.

The soundtrack of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II itself is a masterwork in tone setting, created in collaboration with the band Heilung. From drum-heavy ritualistic battle chants, to high-pitched, almost kulning-style vocalisations, the music of Hellblade 2 feels as though it echoes across the millenia, calling out from a bygone time and a land steeped in mystery and a deep mythology. The music, layered with the remainder of the sound experience, serves as an ever-present reminder of the strange world Senua is in – and the game is all the better for it.

A struggle paid for in blood and flesh

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review
Image: Ninja Theory

Hellblade II isn’t only held up by its sound design though. Senua is a warrior, after all, and the path her journey follows is paved with blood and flesh. Armed with a simple sword, you could be forgiven for thinking combat would be a simple, button-mashing affair, there to serve as a break between the exploration and puzzles. However, Hellblade 2 builds upon the combat from the first game, feeling altogether more dynamic and engaging. A well-timed block or evasive action goes a long way, with a mix of fast and powerful attacks to experiment with against different enemies. Button-mash too long on one particular moveset and face the consequences of your foe breaking through your attack pattern. The Furies urge you through combat, sometimes providing helpful advice, sometimes voicing their fears. All the while, your Focus ability, channelled through a mirror from your childhood, allows you to temporarily halt enemies and strike the finishing blow. 

Combat in Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 feels scrappy, desperate, and at most points almost too difficult to win. While dying in battle was not a particularly frequent experience throughout my playthrough – only happening a small handful of times when I badlyfumbled a read onan enemy’s attack patterns and strategies – this minimised threat did not lessen the feeling that every battle was a struggle for Senua, and me as the player. Senua is a warrior, but in a strange world filled with powerful and dangerous enemies that aren’t always human, the odds are stacked against her. It’s an edge-of-your-seat experience each time your sword is drawn, or an enemy leaps from the darkness to make an attempt on your life.

Wisdom has a cost

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review
Image: Ninja Theory

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 leans into Senua’s psychosis as a tool for navigating the world she finds herself in, and the Furies (the main one being the fourth-wall breaking Narrator) guide both her, and by extension you, the player, along the way. Their commentary, while sometimes no more than expressions of unbridled fear as the adventure gets deeper and darker, also tries to assist you even in moments where you might otherwise find yourself stuck on one puzzle or another. It’s a more tactful way of making a major plot device more than just a part of the story, but a part of the gameplay itself – much like Senua’s ability to focus in, blocking out background noise and searching for signs and symbols that might further her goals. 

While much of Senua’s journey in the first game was a lonesome one (beyond the voices), Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 goes beyond this with the introduction of characters like Thórgestr and Fargrímr. Their presence is a light shining through the darkness of Senua’s mind, a break at points from the sometimes stifling intensity of the protagonist’s thoughts and visions. They provide, much like the abstracted puzzles encountered through the game, a much-needed different perspective through which to perceive the world and the story. 

It’s in their eyes and through her own that we see the major themes of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 play out. These characters, although Norsemen and therefore Senua’s sworn enemies, look back at her with the same pain and fear she sees in her own reflection. They are not just brutish foes destined to die by the sword, but humans with their own names and stories (sagas, if you will) to tell, teeming with the same darkness the warrior has been followed by all her life. And this time around, Senua is ready to listen – to them, to the Furies, to the land that bubbles with its own life and ethereal mysticism.

Beyond the veil

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 Review
Image: Ninja Theory

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is a visual marvel, and I can confidently say that it’s one of the best-looking Xbox games I’ve ever seen. The level of detail in Senua’s face, down to the tiniest microexpression, breathes a life into her that I’ve not seen from many other big budget titles that so often present themselves with gorgeous, but dead-eyed characters. The mist rises from rolling waterfalls in crystal clarity as the rising and setting sun glimmers across an expansive land that feels equal parts jaw-dropping realism, and beyond the veil of an otherworld – fitting for Iceland, a land home to deep lore and myth. Volcanoes in the far off distance belch out ominous smoke, blood drips from crumbling turf houses, and even the darkest caverns are home to lurking shadows that the human eye can only just make out. This is all to say that what has been achieved in Hellblade II visually feels like somewhat of a technological marvel, even played through the Xbox Series S’ slightly inferior graphic capabilities. It’s all part of the package that immerses you into this story, suspending your disbelief if only for a few hours at a time, as you embark on a journey steeped in ancient history and myth.

While there’s much more that I would like to say on my experience with the game but will hold off due to spoilers, what I will say of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is this: I walked away with tears in my eyes and chills, feeling like the story I experienced fundamentally changed my own perspective in the process. It’s been a long time since I experienced something like this, no less from a game with a relatively short runtime by AAA standards. That is truly a technological and narrative feat, and I find myself still thinking about Senua’s story, hours and days after the echoes of the past cease to ring clearly through my mind.

At one point in the game, the Furies tell you to take your darkness with you – it’s yours. Senua’s darkness (and depending on how you read it, your own too) is as much a blessing as it is a curse – the reason she can see what others cannot, the reason she can sense the pain of others as keenly as she feels her own. There is light to be found in the darkness, yes – hope in even the most insurmountable of circumstances. However, there is also darkness to be found in the light, and despite what the voices or the past might dictate, the dark is not something to fear.

Review conducted on Xbox Series S using a pre-release code provided by the publisher.

Image: Ninja Theory / Xbox / Kotaku Australia

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