Skip to main content

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 review – it’s the intrusive thought that counts

Ninja Theory’s graphical tour de force is marred by one-note action and narrative arrhythmia, but by God is it a treat for the eyes and ears.

Hellblade 2 review header that reads: "A tour de force of technical achievement, too often bogged down" - 3 stars
Image credit: VG247

Intrusive thoughts are impossible to live with. Cloying, claustrophobic, incessant, inescapable. Radio chatter from a distant room you can’t turn off at best, some hot, odorous wet breath in your ear at worst. They might have your voice, but they’re not your words, not really. They’re unfiltered, almost primal, a communion with bits of yourself you might never know – or have wanted to know – existed. This is where Hellblade 2 gets it right, because the intrusive thoughts are agonizing.

But they’re supposed to be. That’s the point. Xbox’s very adult and very serious series has, within two games, made itself totemic of two things; portraying mental health, and looking good whilst doing it. As far as these two very separate vocations go, Hellblade 2 nails it. At first, I was so aggrieved by the chattering voices (realised in binaural sound so it sounds like they’re planted somewhere in your bastard skull) that I searched the vast suite of accessibility options to see if I could turn them off.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? These spectres dug into Senua’s conscience like a pair of blood-hungry ticks are never going away. They’re going to offer commentary on everything you do, all the time. ‘You’re not good enough to solve this puzzle’. ‘God, this level goes on a bit, ey?’ ‘Hell yeah, you’re smashing this combat encounter!’ ‘Oh no, the boss is absolutely destroying you!’

Senua’s own tortured mind echoes your own, weirdly, as you play through the seven-hour game, and on more than one occasion, I was gob-smacked to hear the tandem voices ebb and flow between conceited and concerned in the exact same pattern my own little inner monologue did. Whoever wrote, coded, implemented and mixed the sound on that deserves a raise – it’s enough to prick the gooseflesh on your neck, and elicit so much sympathy for your battered, tired heroine.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2
Despite what I think, I'll probably end up playing this again some time just to gawp at it again. | Image credit: Ninja Theory / Microsoft

But the story it’s telling is… not as good as the first game’s. There are similarly harrowing themes afoot – vengeance gives way to a brooding, introspective tale of grief the meaning of motherhood, in essence – but it never lands as solidly as Ninja Theory’s unexpected first game. Is this because we’re sort-of retreading stony, awkward ground, or is it because the means of delivery have been tried and tested, at this point, and don’t feel as original or refined here? It’s hard to tell, but even though it’s a scant seven hours long, Hellblade 2 feels like it’s not worthy of its entire runtime.

There’s a lot of gaping and wondering, pensive shots of the gorgeous Icelandic wilds as Senua wrestles with the myriad demons inside her. And, don’t get me wrong, a lot of this focusing inward marries with the spectacle of your surroundings gorgeously (in fact, the cinematography of the whole thing might be my favourite thing about the game), it’s just that there’s a lot of it. If Hideo Kojima’s oeuvre has taught me anything, it’s that the more time you spend ‘on the stick’ in games like this, the better. Let us find the path, choose what to focus on, what to listen to, and decide why to listen to it. The majority of Hellblade 2 feels ‘on rails’, much to its detriment.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2
Yep, this is a shot from the game. It all looks like this. | Image credit: Microsoft/Ninja Theory

But that’s not to take away from Melina Juergens, the actress that became Senua for these games. Her performance is stunning, a high for the industry as a whole perhaps, and the technical artisans at Ninja Theory have worked some sort of fae magic in making her come to life in this game. There were times I wasn’t sure if the studio was ‘pulling an Alan Wake’ and patching real-life footage into the game – that’s how unbelievable the visuals are. The details of Juergens’ face, the torchlight softly beating on the cloth on her shoulders, the single tears that would run down her face. If I didn’t have the screenshots sitting on my harddrive, I’d honestly think I made it up.

The sound is equally as impressive. I beg you – beg you – please don’t run this through your tiny little TV speakers. I dread to think of the man hours you’d be wasting. The sound rivals The Last of Us Part II for how it plays with space, immersion, and binaural mastery, and I’d go so far as to say anyone with Game Pass and a passable pair of headphones should play this game to hear what can be done with gaming audio, alone. Gameplay be damned.

Senua, in Hellblade 2, stares out across the Icelandic scenery to watch the aurora borealis.
At this time of day, at this time of year!? | Image credit: Microsoft

And, damned indeed. Hellblade 2 is not a fun game to play. The puzzles feel like they just get in the way of the narrative, and they never make you feel clever or accomplished. They just feel like filler tracks, designed to create lulls between the singles you really want to listen to. The combat – whilst crunchy and satisfying when you pull off a parry – is rock-paper-scissors, if we’re being charitable, and a zombified slog if we’re not.

Sometimes, the game will change things up and give you a ‘Simon Says’ action encounter, or test your timing by making you run from one rock to another on a rigid timer. But… that’s about it. I understand that the point of this game is the narrative, but if games like Brothers, Disco Elysium, Pentiment, or so many others can leverage the video game form to elevate the story it’s telling, rather than just tack things on so there’s a bit of interactive bite, Ninja Theory could have taken notes. It’s just monotonous, all the way through, and the gut-punches of properly affecting story end up feeling weaker and wetter as a result. And it’s a crying shame, because some of those moments are – seriously – quite special.

A character in Hellblade 2 sweats visibly as he looks out of frame at something assumedly terrifying.
It's enough to make you sweat. | Image credit: Microsoft

Though Hellblade 2 has the power to force your jaw open and give you goosebumps, too often the whole project ends up feeling like a very expensive tech demo – an absolute tour de force of technical achievement bogged down in its own sense of gravitas and mystery. Keeping you off the stick for so many of its most impactful moments, and not giving you enough to play with when you do have control, hobbles the potential of this visual and aural masterpiece enough to make the whole experience feel like it was constantly trying to find a foothold on that dread Icelandic scree, and never really getting to its feet until you come staggering over the finish line.

This review was conducted based on gameplay on both Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S with a code provided by Microsoft. Hellblade 2 is out today on Xbox and PC, and is available Day One with Game Pass.

Read this next