Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 review – a saga to be seen, not played

Senua’s Saga could have been a movie, but it fails as a video game
Ninja Theory

A few years ago Epic Games showed off what the next generation of video games could look like with an Unreal Engine 5 demo. It showed that the bleeding edge of tech could achieve near-photorealistic imagery, but it didn’t feature any meaningful evolution in game design. It’s just a demo, of course, real games would feature evolutions in both, we thought. It took a few years, but Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 realizes that vision and vindicates my concerns about chasing that impossible goal without being backed up by engaging gameplay.

Can a studio that had half a decade and infinite resources from Microsoft still run out of time to realize the complete vision for its story? Hellblade 2 ends right as it starts to explore one of its most interesting ideas as if to tease even more stories to come. How will Senua’s traumatic past dictate her actions in the present? Will she become a monster? I feel like these questions were answered already in the first game, and the sequel doesn’t do nearly enough to explore deeper.

Screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 showing Senua overlooking a vista over sun-tanned hills.
Hellblade 2 has some gorgeous scenery. / Ninja Theory

Senua’s Saga continues the Pict warrior’s journey through hell on earth. After forgiving herself and accepting the Furies, Senua’s next mission sees her go to war against the Viking raiders that destroyed her life. Along the way, Senua meets new allies, moving on from fighting Norse gods to removing the darkness that plagues the cursed land. The narrative here definitely loses the tight focus of the original, keeping you guessing whether the story beat you’re invested in the moment will be meaningful in the grand scheme of things.

The first game was an isolating experience, as the only other characters sharing the screen with Senua were her enemies. Senua’s Saga changes that, giving us a small cast of characters, each with their conflicting flaws and ambitions. The interplay between Senua, these characters, and the voices in her head make for riveting scenes. You may want to trust other characters, but the Furies may suggest otherwise, presenting valid arguments. This gets infinitely more exciting when Senua goes against the Furies’ wishes, making choices for herself.

Screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 showing Senua with face paint, a man stands behind her holding a torch.
Ninja Theory

Senua’s Saga should be witnessed on the biggest IMAX screen with the best sound system, but you don’t gain much by playing it. If you were hoping for giant improvements or any further complication of the first game’s mechanics, then you’ll be disappointed. The usual gameplay loop involves walking around, looking at the pretty environment while exposition is delivered, solving puzzles to enter hidden areas, and getting into fights.

Senua’s Saga does not contain any boss fights. Yeah, that’s right. There are boss encounters, as you traverse the levels to drive away the agony of the giants that torment this land, but you don’t fight them. Instead, you’re thrown into battles with multiple enemies, but they only come at you one at a time. These battles are woven into the story seamlessly, with Senua getting tossed around the Draugr and other monstrosities. There are encounters that could be interpreted as boss fights, but the gamification has been stripped from them, for better or worse.

Screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 showing Senua in combat with a Draugar in a fiery environment.
Combat is Hellblade 2 still focuses on one-on-one battles. / Ninja Theory

Like Senua’s Sacrifice, the sequel does not contain any in-game UI or HUD. This accentuates the cinematic immersion, leading to many moments where I couldn’t tell if I was watching an animation or enacting it. It can also lead to moments of confusion, as the game won’t tell you if an object is interactable, though it doesn’t take long to figure out as there is such limited interactability anyway.

There’s been much talk about the complex performance capture sessions that go to painstaking detail to bring these encounters to life. The result is gorgeous, bridging the gap between scripted choreography and gameplay with player agency. I was stunned to see small beats of an encounter play out in different permutations as I reloaded them for a benchmark. But it’s only an illusion, one that, once you realize it, will take away from your sense of accomplishment once you stand amidst the corpses of those you bested.

Screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 showing Senua in a sunlit forest
Hellblade features similar, but expanded gameplay from the first game. / Ninja Theory

Puzzles have also been expanded upon, but the core remains the same. Instead of one type of puzzle involving matching glyphs, we now get three types. All of these exist to show off Unreal Engine’s Nanite geometry, and some cool level design. Much like the combat encounters, they are set pieces themselves.

The developers at Ninja Theory are masters of crafting a palpable mood through the use of filmmaking techniques like blocking, lighting, and subtle lens changes. Of course, the quality of character models and environments is amped up during cutscenes, but it’s subtle. Binaural audio also goes a long way in immersing you in 9th-century Iceland, with some surprises like digital audio glitches that kept me on my toes. There’s a greater dynamic range in the sounds you hear, which is used effectively to complement the visual density.

Screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 showing Senua with other characters - three men and another woman stand beside her.
Senua gets some friends in the sequel. / Ninja Theory

Besides Senua, the story does a disservice to new characters by only hinting at their struggles. Most of the interesting stories behind these characters live in the past. As Senua grapples with her own sanity, so do Thorgestr and Astriðr. While we hear everything going through Senua’s head during many moments of misery, we don’t get to see how that affects others in a meaningful way.

Senua’s Saga can be broken down into three events, with each having its own acts. The issue is the severity of these events, as two of them feel like a side quest in another game. Games like God of War Ragnarök also meandered around, but it wove all of its stories together to form one compelling narrative. That, and other titles like The Last of Us, are often referred to as playable movies, but they offer way more player agency and tools to express yourself in the field. Senua’s Saga could stand to learn more from the giants it is inspired by.

Screenshot from Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 showing a portrait of Senua with a fiery background.
Senua is a well-realized character trapped in a story that doesn't demand more from her. / Ninja Theory

Score: 6/10

Version tested: PC (Steam)

Hellblade 2 Technical Performance

Hellblade 2 is a heavy game, but there are enough options given to alleviate excessive GPU load. The RTX 4080 was able to render above 60fps at 1440p, which increased to over 100fps using frame generation. I never ran into any bugs or performance issues, with minor frame time spikes while traversing through environments. It’s a polished experience, and considering the quality of the visuals presented, it is almost a miraculous port.

Published |Modified
Rahul Majumdar


Rahul is a writer and filmmaker from India, currently navigating the entertainment industry in Mumbai. With a keen interest in film, video games, and the tech that drives them, Rahul has written for multiple outlets like TechQuila, IGN India and IndiaTimes. He has also worked on some shows and films you may or may not have heard of, although he vastly prefers gaming binge-sessions. His favourite games include The Witcher 3 (how original), and Assassin's Creed games of yore, and he's trying his best to get into more Nintendo games. When not rambling about pop culture in blogs, you can usually find him doing the same in bite-sized chunks over at Twitter (or whichever platform is popular at the moment)!