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Mind over deadly matters — Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is truly, madly, deeply immersive

Mind over deadly matters — Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is truly, madly, deeply immersive
In Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II it’s hard to tell where the practically full-motion video cinematics end and gameplay starts. (Image: Ninja Theory / Xbox Game Studios)

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a breathtaking, truly next-gen gaming experience.

Here’s the thing about mental illness. It doesn’t ever truly go away.

This is how 10th Century Pictish Warrior Senua, the title character in cinematic action-adventure Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, from Ninja Theory and Xbox Game Studios, feels most of the time. Senua didn’t defeat the voices in her head at the end of the original Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice; she accepted her psychosis as integral to her existence — just as she let go of her grief and guilt.

At the start of Senua’s Saga, many of those darkest thoughts come flooding back as our heroine survives a devastating shipwreck off the Icelandic coast.

As a bit more narrative context to set up Senua’s Saga, Viking raiders have continued to plague Senua’s people, carrying them off as slaves. Stepping into a protector’s role, Senua lets herself be captured in the hope she will eventually face and be able to slay the head slaver. The shipwreck derails those plans and knocks Senua psychologically, but it also puts her in a position to help others struggling in a volcano-ravaged land full of suffering.

Mirroring Senua’s returning crisis of confidence (or perhaps it never retreated?), in some ways, Hellblade II is more of the same. Despite the seven-year gap between it and the original Hellblade, Senua’s Saga feels like a direct continuation of the story — even beginning with a plot catch-up video.

Senua is once more performed by Melina Juergens. She’s taunted, guided, encouraged and everything else by the voices she alone hears, which are again given a binaural recording treatment that demands the game be played with good headphones.

Gameplay sees a return of perspective puzzles, hand-to-hand combat and environmental explorations that shift between harsh reality and an even darker nightmare equivalent. Even the voice of Druth (Nicholas Boulton), Senua’s old mentor, is back, pairing snippets of Nordic legend with collectables for Senua to find. Of course, as before, Senua’s Saga is extremely dark and heavy tonally, with no levity, and clocks in at around eight hours for a single playthrough.

While there are a lot of familiar elements in Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, there’s the strong sense that the game is a new chapter of Senua’s story.

Hellblade took her alone to Helheim, the Nordic afterlife, whereas Hellblade II is set in Midgard, the world of men. Supernatural forces may intrude, and Senua’s visions take her briefly to other realms, but the game is set in “reality.” As such, Senua meets and interacts with characters like conflicted Viking slaver Thórgestr (Chris O’Reilly), wandering wise man Fargrímr (Gudmundur Thorvaldsson), and fellow female fighter Ástríðr (Aldís Amah Hamilton) who has been forced into an unwanted leadership role.

This trio’s presence provides welcome parallels and contrasts for Senua’s character, especially as she struggles with disturbing questions about parental inheritance.

What’s interesting is that while the new characters don’t appear especially developed, on completing the game the player unlocks the ability to replay the story — in its entirety or on a chapter-by-chapter basis — with their narration. This perspective switch is an extremely compelling feature, which adds new layers to the supporting cast, fills in plot gaps, and is a novel alternative to giving players different endings.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. (Image: Ninja Theory / Xbox Game Studios)

At this point, it is worth noting that Senua’s Saga does not seem as boldly inventive as its predecessor. Ninja Theory is less concerned this time with going off the beaten track — aspects such as threatened permadeath, and unwinnable fights, are missing — and have put all their chips on immersive credibility instead. It’s a bet that has paid off, for the most part.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is all about plunging players into a cinematic experience that pierces straight to one’s emotional core. The effect is achieved through a well-advertised mix of components: the use of Photogrammetry to recreate Iceland’s striking landscapes; the design and fabrication of real costumes; extensive research and consultation with experts to credibly depict psychosis and the historical period; motion-captured performances that extend even to combat. And, of course, bringing it all together with the cutting-edge technology that is Unreal Engine 5.

The result is that Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II provides a glimpse at the future of gaming.

A truly next-gen experience (in visuals and silky smooth performance), it’s hard to tell where the practically full-motion video cinematics end and gameplay starts. They’re indistinguishable from one another. Virtual photographers will be in heaven capturing Senua’s Saga via arguably the most impressive photo mode of any Xbox exclusive to date — where one can even pause and capture cut scenes from different angles and with different lighting.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a visual feast. (Image: Ninja Theory / Xbox Game Studios)

Of course, a tech demo does not a game make. Cinematic games should never feel like one is passively watching a movie, and Senua’s Saga avoids that trap, even as it comes across like a marriage of The 13th Warrior and The Descent, with fellow pitch-black Scandinavian lore game Bramble: The Mountain King, and maybe even Tomb Raider (2013), lurking on the influence periphery. It’s thrilling to be in Hellblade II’s harrowing world filled with monsters of all kinds.

Narratively, Senua’s Saga ebbs and flows like the tides of the Icelandic coast, but the game is especially impactful when it goes full horror. Or, alternatively, veers into heart-breaking territory in its explorations of what desperation and despair can do to a person.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. (Image: Ninja Theory / Xbox Game Studios)

Adding to the sense of emotional gratification is a combat system where every battle feels like a fight for survival. Once Senua regains her ability from the first game to slow time and out-manoeuvre her enemies, things are a little different. However, apart from that, combat is deliberately heavy, clunky and visceral — benefitting from real-world movement capture and the fact that one can never tell how close to death you are due to the game’s lack of a user interface.

Meanwhile, a nice touch is the addition of a default Dynamic difficulty setting — or the player can select the traditional rigid Easy, Medium and Hard — which means battles are challenging but never frustrating blockers to progress.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

Player perspectives from Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. (Image: Ninja Theory / Xbox Game Studios)

Ninja Theory hasn’t dramatically overhauled the simplistic combat from Senua’s Sacrifice.

For example, Senua still uses only one weapon throughout the game. However, the thoughtful tweaks have made it a lot more interesting, and, in addition to an expanded variety of foes, the game includes a battle that Hollywood filmmakers can only drool over as it chains together complex choreography in an apparently single take, with the camera weaving between combatants.

Ultimately, though, going the cinematic route is a double-edged sword. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II dazzles the senses and can be very moving, but its greatest deception is how “on rails” it still is.

The game gives the impression of being a vast open world when the reality is that Senua is always locked to narrow paths. And just as the puzzles feel easier this time around, the game conveys less doubt and danger overall. There’s no perceived consequence. If you haven’t played the original Hellblade, you’ll be unaware of it; but if you have, you may find yourself looking at the polished surface and oddly missing the disquieting whispers that should be waiting beneath.

That’s the lone believable truth absent here. DM

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is out from  21 May for Xbox Series X|S and PC.  

Disclaimer: This review copy of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was provided by Xbox and its South African distribution partner.

This article was first published on PFangirl

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