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  • Writer's pictureJames Stephanie Sterling

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 - What's In A Name? (Review)

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2

Released:  May 21st, 2024

Developer: Ninja Theory

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Systems: PC, Xbox X/S (reviewed)


Whether it holds the secret of a wizard’s power, summons a demon, or puts that little shit Rumpelstiltskin in his place, the power of the “true name” is one of the most enduring tropes in fiction. Like the best narrative tools, it’s also greatly rooted in reality. 


To know something is to see it, to see something is to understand it. Understanding makes a thing tangible, reachable, and ultimately defeatable. To know your enemy is to follow advice older than time, because it's really good advice. Half the battle, and all that.  

Senua does not know the name of what’s in her head. She hasn’t heard of psychosis, because that’s a name for an era long after hers. She won’t know the relief other sufferers of mental illness can feel when they learn the terrifying thing crawling around in their skull has a name. A classification. A way of fighting it. 


Of the many themes in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2, the power of names is the most personally resonant. I’m among those who have gotten to feel that relief. Very much like mental illness, the grotesque giants who serve as Senua’s antagonists are horrifying in their unknowability, impossible to fight for as long as they reside in the obscure.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was highly praised for its style, storytelling, and impressively authentic portrayal of mental illness with Senua’s aforementioned psychosis. The sequel goes harder in every direction, for better or worse, but mostly better.


As someone whose own neurodivergence makes processing multiple audio sources incredibly difficult, the constant chatter of our protagonist’s internal monologue is at times a struggle. I did, in fact, almost stop playing entirely early in the game because being yelled at by different voices while trying to concentrate is horrible, and Hellblade 2 is merciless about it. I had to really push past a barrier to finish the whole thing.


This is not the game’s fault. Indeed, it’s to its credit. There is a content warning of course, and I knew what I was getting into having played the first. In any case, I’m glad I powered through. The experience was worth the moments of distress.

Following a similar track to its predecessor, Senua’s Saga blends puzzling and combat with a whole lot of walking and talking, the latter elements generally being better for their excellent narrative and atmospheric, often breathtaking, locations. 


Senua sets out on a quest to stop a band of slavers from doing their slaving thing, and after willingly allowing herself to be captured she ends up in a foreign land with a giant problem - as in, a problem with giants, though it’s also a giant problem. Her subsequent goal is to combat the terror imposed by these giants - a simple story on the surface, but Senua’s story is never really simple. 

Saga’s campaign explores the power of names, as well as the importance of empathy and the pitfalls of trying to live up to the role of hero. Plus of course, plenty of exploration of trauma. It’s a game about feelings after all! It's a gritty game, a violent game, and an often stirring one.


One of the most notable narrative additions in Hellblade 2 is the presence of supporting characters. While Sacrifice was a distinctly lonely adventure save for the omnipresent whispering, Saga introduces several allies for Senua to learn from and play off of. Not only does it help provide extra storytelling, it lends the sequel a flavor that ensures this isn’t just a retread. 

One particular character, Fargrimr, stands out. For the first time in Senua’s story, we hear a voice of acceptance and understanding. The impact this has on the game can’t be understated - the campaign is still very lonely, with Senua isolated for large sections of it, but having a friendly face to come back to after the latest emotional wringer lends a real sense of relief that lets the story’s tension off the boil at key moments. 


Those moments between the horror, where Senua and her unlikely allies are merely walking through beautiful scenery with a brightness that contrasts everything else, are simply wonderful. It also reinforces the ideas of familiarity and understanding that run throughout. 

Hellblade’s puzzles are less enjoyable. They’re not as repetitive and dreary as the ones in Sacrifice, since some extra variety’s been thrown in, but nonetheless I get very little enjoyment out of slowly wandering an arbitrarily roadblocked area playing a glorified Hidden Object game. The solutions are rather obviously signposted this time, making their completion at least swifter, but that tells me the experience would be better overall if they’d just get taken out. 


Combat has absolutely tremendous production value, with the claustrophobic shaking camera helping to nail a sense of desperate violence perhaps not seen in any other game. The way the screen flows from enemy to enemy is exquisite, some of the greatest presentation you’ll see in a game. Every sword swing looks brutal, every flailing animation heightens the feeling of chaos. It really is stunning.


All this stylishness does a lot to wallpaper over the issue of combat itself not being particularly good on a mechanical level.

Divorced from aesthetic, fights are rather slow affairs where you wait to be attacked before blocking/avoiding and hitting back, repeating back and forth until the mirror Senua possesses glows so you can slow down time and land a flurry of blows. Taking initiative in combat is never not punished, it seems, with the original game's cool "roadie run" attacks feeling like a total no-go. 


Hellblade 2’s fights are strictly bottlenecked, meant to be played one way, which they will be from the very first battle to the very last. They look fantastic, and the delivery is often so good they can remain exciting, but if you’ve fought one guy, you’ve fought them all, and when a battle scene goes on too long, that repetition becomes readily exposed. 

There are action sequences that stand out though, particularly the climactic encounters with giants that offer huge, setpiece-laden environmental challenges. Huge in scale and packed with special effects, these moments are memorable and thrilling. 


Chase sequences and more horror-flavored areas offer some great stuff too. One particular chapter has Senua navigate a watery cave while the shaded ghosts of everyone she thinks she failed reach out to drag her down. The whole segment is perfectly murky and foreboding. 


As my prior mentions of style may have suggested, Senua’s Saga is a gorgeous game. Thinking about how expensive those lavish animations, rich environments, and exquisitely detailed eyeballs must be makes my nose bleed, but it is a beautiful game. 

That said, it can sometimes be pretty to the point of distraction - once you notice Senua’s hair flopping back and forth over her shoulder with such enthusiasm it’s clear the artists are flexing, it’s hard to pay attention to what’s supposed to be the important part of any given cutscene. 


While I won’t say Senua’s Saga looks too good, I’ll say it makes me think we’ll see a game that does in the near future, something so visually lavish it’s actively detrimental. A bit like when George Lucas kept adding pointless visual bullshit to his funny puppet films. 

I don’t think we can have too good a voice actor though, and that’s handy because the performances here are top notch. Emotive, sympathetic, understated when needed and believable when explosive, every character is engaging both in terms of visuals and audio. Sound design overall is amazing, from the binaural (obligatory word use) whispering to the creepy sound effects and hauntingly pretty soundtrack. 


Also, damn are those giants creepy! Ninja Theory decided Attack on Titan’s uncanny behemoths weren’t fucked up enough, and tried to make something more upsetting. They succeeded. 

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 can be a mentally taxing experience by design, especially if one already has their own litany of mental health struggles. It is a necessary part of a game that explores its themes touchingly and tastefully, a beautiful and astoundingly stylish production. Like its predecessor, the presentation outstrips the gameplay, which suffers from repetition and a lack of escalation or variety. It’s a damn fine thing in totality though, one well worth digging into.


8/10

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