Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is less personal, more spectacle

Senua, a pale woman with blue eyes and a faced streaked with dirt, faces the camera looking determined. Behind her, the landscape is lit by wildfire
Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

Ninja Theory’s sequel has a much wider scope

It’s no surprise that, as a sequel, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is bigger and more expansive than the previous game. Though this game’s scope, length, and subject are quite similar to those of the original Hellblade game — it is, of course, still an action-adventure dark fantasy about a warrior woman suffering from psychosis in ninth-century Northern Europe — much more effort has been put into making it appear grand and seamlessly cinematic. It’s an immaculately composed long take cropped to filmic widescreen. One result of this glow-up, however, is Hellblade 2 losing a bit of what made the first game — much smaller, more focused, and more personal, by comparison — feel unique.

Hellblade-the-first, Senua’s Sacrifice, begins and ends with its hero, Senua, mourning her murdered lover, missing her mother, and struggling to break out from under the mountain of guilt and shame handed down by her father. It’s a private and individually focused story. Senua spends the vast majority of the first game alone, with little but her delusions to accompany her.

It feels small and cramped as a result. Senua, returning from a self-imposed exile, is shattered after learning about the slaughter of most of her village, and spends the rest of the game lashing out against manifestations of her guilty and traumatized memories. It ends with her conquering her personal demons, coming to an understanding about her own unique way of seeing the world, and promising to take this newfound understanding with her, on to new adventures.

A woman with long, dark hair in a braid faces away from the camera towards a beautiful landscape in the sunrise
Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

This is where we find Senua in Hellblade 2. She has allowed herself to be captured by the Northman slaver Thórgestr, and taken far away from Orkney to the rugged alien world of Iceland. The series’ focus has opened up, passing beyond oceans and across mountain ranges. It’s a travel story, following a small troupe of heroes as they hike across the rocky steppes and wave-beaten shores of this uncompromising landscape. It’s a Saga, a tall telling of Senua as freedom fighter, liberator of her kidnapped countrymen; Senua as giant slayer; Senua as gifted clairvoyant, who can peer beyond the veil.

Beyond feeling epic, the game is simply beautiful. It feels like every last boulder, pebble, tall patch of grass, and copse of trees has been carefully modeled and arranged. The broad sky cycles between ash-clouded overcast and brilliant, fiery red sunset and star-filled auroras of blue and violet. Senua climbs over windswept, rocky cliffs down to dark dripping caves lit by torchlight flickering off of prismatic rock, out across mist-drenched forests and through flame-ravaged settlements. Everything, from top to bottom, is rendered in immaculate detail.

By shifting the focus from the small and personal to the grand and epic, Ninja Theory wound up changing something fundamental about the series. Though we still hear the gallery of psychosis-generated voices who add commentary to Senua’s actions, they don’t feel as important to a story that is far more interested in what she’s doing, rather than what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling. Here, she’s taking on tremendous tasks and facing impossible odds, and the dramatic tension lies simply in whether she can accomplish what she’s set out to. It’s less nuanced than the first game, which exists in a constellation of trauma and memory and the ways in which her psychosis impacts her life.

A zoomed-in shot of part of Senua’s face, her right eye shifted in panic to her right side. Behind her, there is a blurry figure
Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

In Hellblade 2, Senua’s psychosis begins to resemble something more anodyne, like a superpower, a tool with which to delve into secret aspects of the world that others cannot see. It’s like a mystical version of the “detective vision” made famous by the Rocksteady Batman games. No one can do anything to save themselves until Senua arrives. Her psychosis is embraced as a boon by everyone she meets. No one questions or challenges her mental state, in a marked contrast to how things went in the last game. Her father’s dripping evil baritone occasionally rings out to chastise her, but it’s quickly drowned out by her other, more supportive voices, as well as by the many pressing events the game shuttles between in rapid succession.

For Senua, this is, of course, a good thing. She’s moved beyond the pain and trauma; she’s advancing in the world, becoming a leader where she was once an outcast. Because of this, some of the air has, unfortunately, been let out of the experience. The dramatic experience of the game feels softer; there’s less to hold on to, less personal conflict to drive the plot forward.

Senua starts the game on a mission to free her fellow enslaved Orcadians, but she almost immediately brings Thórgestr over to her side, before shifting to a slightly tangential, if far more epic, mission of saving the local people from an invasion of giants. Down this route lie more impressive visual spectacles: harrowing fights against massive giants, mind-altering voyages into magical realms, and far less of Senua herself.

In the first game, Senua would constantly react to the voices in her head and to the hallucinations that haunted her. In the sequel, we’ve moved from internal battles to external ones, and Senua has much less to react against. Instead, she’s drawn along by the game’s events, rarely hindered or held back, but thrust forward with prophetic inevitability.

Senua (left) brandishes a knife at another warrior (right), a man with a knife of his own, rearing backward from Senua’s attack
Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

The external does offer plenty to find interest in, particularly in terms of the aesthetic experience. There’s something richer and more exciting about having to fight flesh-and-blood people this time around, rather than the illusory figures that haunted Senua in the first Hellblade. There’s a more grounded sense of terror in being hunted by real men with a hunger for violence in their eyes, and a stronger sense of the gravity of having to take a life, even in self-defense.

One of the game’s early sections, where you must sneak into a settlement that’s under attack by a band of draugar, a bloodthirsty group of warriors, stands out as an experience of high tension. Senua must crawl through piles of corpses and severed limbs, and hide as the ones responsible for this bloodshed leap around howling, seeking out and grabbing helpless villagers right in front of her eyes. It’s a horrifying sequence, and one that distinguishes Hellblade 2 from the first game, where the traumatic events had already happened long before Senua arrived (and was forced to reenact them in her mind). Bringing in other people — whole societies and cultures, eventually — enriches the game and makes it feel more alive, even as Senua herself comes across as more deadened.

Hellblade 2 doesn’t ultimately maintain the energy level of these early sections. There are long stretches of basic environmental puzzles that involve Senua navigating around enclosed spaces in order to stand at different angles from which to view puzzling runes and unlock them. It’s an iteration of a mechanic that saw plenty of use in the first game. Here, while the puzzles are more visually impressive, the essence of the gameplay is identical. And it doesn’t add anything to the game that isn’t brought about more effectively by its more dynamic combat sections, or its more ruminative moments of exploration, during which Senua traverses this strange new world listening to the voices in her head alternately describing it and reacting to it.

Senua runs, her back to the camera, through a landscape full of wildfires and strange, shadowy figures that appear to be frozen as if turned to stone
Image: Ninja Theory/Xbox Game Studios

So much of Ninja Theory’s focus in Hellblade 2 seems to be on pure spectacle. An Xbox Wire post about the game highlights the effort the creative team has put into stepping up the immersive feel, quoting studio head Dom Matthews: “We have a fantastic building; our performance capture stage, new technologies and techniques, but all of that exists to pursue the same goal. That goal is to create an experience that allows players to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves fully in this world.”

Though there is arguably a degree to which having a head full of voices might prevent Senua and the player from ever being fully immersed in the game’s environment, the sense of verisimilitude is undeniable in Hellblade 2. Sprinting through enormous, terrifying fantastical spaces as Senua squares off against mythical enemies; fighting for her life as she is knocked back and forth between brutish warriors; clearing a battlefield, panting, her head still swinging wildly back and forth in search of further dangers — it all works as visual texture to make this game feel richly cinematic.

But in all this spectacle, something of Senua herself is lost. Where the first game felt like a journey of self-discovery, both for Senua and for the player, Hellblade 2 feels more invested in creating the myth of Senua: Senua as legendary giant slayer, as mystical seer touched by the underworld. There are moments where we do get glimpses at her actual humanity — in early chapters, where she is still struggling to survive and find her footing in this strange land, and in the denouements after later battles, where she falls to her feet, diminished, and mourns for those she was unable to save. But these moments are marginal to the central thrust of the narrative: a woman finding her place in the world; moving from a state of victimhood and isolation to one of heroic leadership; working to unite a people against their fears. It’s an inspiring story, and a hopeful one that seeks not to dwell in the mournful solemnity of the first game, instead pressing forward toward an impressively epic future. But, as with most epics, we only really get to see the broad strokes. We get the myth, but we lose the woman.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 was released May 21 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Ninja Theory. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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