Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Is a Respectable Vision with Dull Execution

Games Reviews senua's saga: hellblade ii
Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Is a Respectable Vision with Dull Execution

Senua hears voices. The Pict from Orkney who journeyed to Hell and back in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice still deals with psychosis, which Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II once again depicts as a constant conversation between multiple whispers in Senua’s head. They remark on the plot, vocalize Senua’s anxiety and confidence, react to the undead flesheaters she occasionally has to fight through, and keep a running commentary throughout the game. Hellblade has been praised for the tastefulness and accuracy of how it shows psychosis (although Paste BFF Dia Lacina compared it to being pandered to and used in a piece at Polygon), and its developers at Ninja Theory have clearly worked hard to explore the topic with some degree of sensitivity. Their method is commendable; it’s also really irritating. And that’s kind of important when you have to sit with it for several hours.

Ninja Theory is admirably committed to its art, but those unrelenting voices make it hard to play Senua’s Saga in anything but short stretches. They’re an ASMR chorus of self-doubt and recrimination that might put the player into Senua’s mindspace, but also helps make Hellblade II dull and repetitive. These solemn, British-accented voices circle around each other, often saying the same thing with different words or intonations, in fragments and aposeopesis, and questioning each other and Senua, and although it might be an illuminating look at how people live with auditory hallucinations, it’s also insufferable in a videogame. While playing it I felt like how I assume critics of the great band Life Without Buildings (like Senua, also Scots) must feel when they complain about Sue Tompkins’ fragmented, recursive lyrical approach; here, though, it’s like six voices instead of one, and they all sound like they’re sneaking up on you and trying to creep you out, and they don’t have a white-hot post-punk trio backing them up. 

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

If these voices were less insistent, perhaps I could move past them. But even then, Hellblade II is rather barebones as a game. It alternates between four basic scenarios: long, slow strolls where other characters struggle to be heard over Senua’s voices, as the camera swoops over impressively rendered Icelandic vistas; environmental puzzles that mostly consist of phasing between a few different layers of reality while looking for runes hidden in the world around you; repetitive, parry-based sword fights that feel like a reluctant sop to those expecting an action game; and multi-part cinematic set pieces where Senua confronts and defeats a series of giants, often by running from one piece of conveniently placed cover to another while getting closer and closer to the behemoth at the center. 

It also feels like a game that doesn’t really want to be a game. It gives control to the player sporadically and almost begrudgingly, regularly slowing Senua to a crawl as other characters or her own hallucinations explain the story, and making combat a series of one-on-one encounters no matter how many enemies join the skirmish. A solid chunk of your time playing as Senua will be spent walking very slowly. Hellblade II intentionally moves slow, but it doesn’t feel like a smart or effective use of pacing; it’s simply sluggish. Its greatest strengths—its understated acting, its succinct dialogue, its gorgeous depiction of Iceland, the stylized way it manifests Senua’s visual hallucinations—are all cinematic in nature. Senua’s Saga is so determined to be a filmic experience that it strays too far from the most fundamental satisfactions of a videogame.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II

The best thing about Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II—and the reason I still sort of love it, even though I did not enjoy playing it—is Ninja Theory’s unwavering devotion to its sure-to-be divisive vision. The first Hellblade wasn’t a blockbuster, but it’s sold very well over the last seven years, and was well-received enough to convince Microsoft to buy Ninja Theory about a year after its release. (If you’ve been following game news lately, that’s now an ominous observation.) Instead of trying to make the sequel more accessible to a broader player base, Ninja Theory has stuck to what made Hellblade work for those who liked it. It’s an uncompromising game that challenges the player to accept its harsh austerity, and I wish more studios had the confidence—and permission—to do that. That doesn’t inherently make it good though.

For most of its duration, Senua’s Saga is undone by its own admirable precepts. It’s too enamored with its central conceit of letting us hear the voices in Senua’s head, too concerned with being serious and sober, too in love with the barbaric world it’s trying to create and the relentlessly grim story it’s trying to tell to work as a worthwhile piece of entertainment. I really hate to say that, because Ninja Theory’s dedication to their vision is laudable, especially in an industry full of cookie cutter sequels and generic retreads focused on hitting the broadest possible audience. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II deserves respect, but it doesn’t necessarily deserve to be played. 

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was developed by Ninja Theory and published by Microsoft. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for PC.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, music, and more. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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