Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 Review (Xbox Series X)

A giant sequel

By Paul Hunter

Seven years after Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice graced the PS4 and PC, Ninja Theory (now part of Xbox Game Studios) are back with the highly anticipated sequel Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2. Out today on Xbox Series X/S, PC and Game Pass, the follow-up continues Senua's journey after returning from the realm of Hel and now seeks her vengeance against the Viking raiders that enslaved her people.

This past week I had the opportunity to dive in and complete the sequel, which took me roughly eight hours to complete. The biggest highlight—which should be little surprise if you've been watching the pre-release trailers—is the stunning visuals made using Unreal Engine 5. Hellblade 2's ambitious graphics rival those of The Matrix Awakens Unreal Engine 5 tech demo, and are arguably in the same league (or perhaps better) as visual masterpieces like God of War Ragnarok and Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores. In short, Hellblade 2 is a strong contender for the best visuals in gaming to date. What's even more impressive is that Ninja Theory is a relatively small studio comprised of about 80 developers.

Digging a little deeper into what's so impressive about Hellblade 2's presentation, I'll start with how realistic the 10th-century Iceland location is. The Ninja Theory team visited real Icelandic locations and recreated them in-game using state-of-the-art photogrammetry. The beaches, rocks and vegetation are extremely detailed and essentially life-like, and using the photo mode (which is available at launch) you can even zoom in and take accurate photos of individual blades of grass.

Moving over to the characters, including Senua and others already revealed like Thórgestr and Ástríðr, the motion capture is so exceptional it's hard to even believe these are digitized models. You can see every skin wrinkle, wince and microexpression to fully experience how these characters are feeling in every cinematic sequence. From the subtle eye movements and facial tics to the detailed blood, sweat and tears, I was so impressed and so immersed in every cinematic moment. It should be noted as well that a hefty chunk of the experience is highly scripted, so there are hours of top-tier motion capture to enjoy.

There have been plenty of games this gen and last that have mastered the art of seamless transitions between cinematics and gameplay, but none of them hold a candle to Hellblade 2. This is the first game I've played that has such smooth transitions there were times when I wasn't sure if I was even in control, or if a cinematic had taken over. There were a bunch of moments where I was moving Senua forward using the analog stick only to realize seconds later that I was in a cutscene. Since it was sometimes hard to tell if I had control of Senua or not, in those moments I would continue to use the analog stick just in case. While it was bit odd not always knowing if I was in a cutscene, it's a testament to just how cinematic this game is.

Another area that is best-in-class is Hellblade 2's cinematography. The camera movements are incredible and stunning to witness, with the camera frequently zooming around Senua's face to capture her expressions of fear, anger, confusion and sorrow. Contrasting with those Senua close-ups are brilliant zoom-outs to showcase how small she is compared to the giants she's up against, or how labourious her current struggle is. There are also plenty of eye-popping pans and sweeps to showcase the beautiful Icelandic beaches, mountains, rivers and forests Senua has to trek through.

It's worth pointing out that the developers decided to put letterboxing (aka black bars) on the top and bottom of the screen for a true cinematic aspect ratio. I think the bars work as intended, it does add an air of quality to the presentation, but I also wish there was the option to remove them if desired. Given how beautiful this game is, certainly, there were plenty of times when I wanted a full-screen view to soak in all the chiselled pixels.

Much like the original game, wearing headphones while playing Hellblade 2 is an absolute must. Senua experiences psychosis and this manifests in the game with binaural voices that sound as though they're speaking all around her. The audio effect impressed me in the first Hellblade game and it's just as good in the sequel. The voices Senua hears are integral to helping you understand situations as they often will warn you of immediate dangers, give you hints on how to solve puzzles or provide insights into what other characters may be thinking.

Sound effects are also superb in this game, from the realistic water, rain and splashing sounds, to the gritty clashes and clanks of swords in battle. The heavy grunts, screams and panting during combat are all so well done and help further immerse you in the struggle.

On the topic of combat, the fight sequences are heavily scripted and almost feel like choreographed cutscenes. After every few sword swings, you'll trigger a mini-cutscene of Senua dispatching her current foe and more times than not turning around to see another enemy lunging at her. Fans will either love or hate how battle sequences are essentially pre-determined with no real player agency, but I personally enjoyed the cinematic flair, at least initially. I will say that by the latter half of the game, I started to wish there was a tad more depth to combat, which repeats the same pattern of blocking enemy attacks to accumulate Focus, then using Senua's mirror to freeze time and counterattack. You'll rinse and repeat those actions for every battle, albeit in cinematic style.

There's been much talk of Hellblade 2 running at 30 frames per second, but I think it was fine for this adventure. The narrative is at the forefront of this experience, so much of your time will be spent walking around various environments to navigate the terrain, solve puzzles and interact with other characters—actions that don't really require a high frame rate. And even the battles are heavily scripted so there's no real need to pump up the frame rate. Clearly, Ninja Theory prioritized visual fidelity and effects, and it's for the best given that this is meant to be an eight-hour cinematic experience.

Like its predecessor, Hellblade 2 is very puzzle-focused. The main puzzle type is unchanged from the original: you'll frequently need to hunt through environments looking for objects that form rune shapes, match three shapes and you unlock the path forward. There are interesting new puzzles though, like ones that require you to trigger switches that modify the environment and reveal glowing orbs to be placed on pedestals. For me, the puzzles were hit or miss, some got a bit tedious while others I thought were quite clever.

There are two main collectibles to find, which include finding rock formations that have a "face", along with rune posts that explain some of the backstories when touched. But it's the former that I found most captivating: it was a joy trying to find all the rock faces hidden among the scenery, and when you do locate and focus on them, a neat visual trick occurs as the rocks move to open a new path.

Story-wise, I thought Hellblade 2 delivered, although there were a few unanswered questions and I thought the story ended rather abruptly. For the most part, though, it was enjoyable seeing Senua's latest saga unfold, and there's a nice supporting cast of characters that deliver their lines with impact. In particular, Thórgestr's story arc is fantastic, perhaps even better than Senua's herself.

The Verdict

Hellblade 2 delivers as promised: an immersive narrative experience that continues Senua's story while delivering top-notch visuals, impressive binaural 3D audio, and among the best mocap ever in gaming. It's a compact, focused tale that trims the fat and pushes you forward at a brisk pace—exactly what I think fans of the original game will be looking for. Ninja Theory has proven, yet again, that they are one of the best narrative game developers this industry has to offer.

Final Score: 8.5/10 - Great

Hellblade 2 details

Platform: Xbox Series X|S, PC
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Genre: Action Adventure
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

A key was provided by the publisher.