Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

Xbox Series X/S, PC adventure

It’s been difficult to ignore the seeming shift in the games industry of late. There have been a worrying amount of lay-offs, as well as the plug pulled on a number of studios.

And there seem to be conflicting noises from Microsoft as to the direction the company are going as far as gaming is concerned. Not only did they recently close down four studios, including Tango Gameworks who developed the entertaining, BAFTA-winning Hi-Fi Rush, but with the announcement of a number of Microsoft Studios going to other platforms, which could eventually see the Halo franchise on a Sony console, it puts the question of whether Microsoft will continue with the console market in the future, up for debate.

This isn’t helpful if you’re Ninja Theory, say, who have been working for seven years on the sequel to their Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and releasing it solely on Xbox consoles and PC, with the focus less on the game itself and more on whether the studio is going to be around much longer.

It probably doesn’t help that the game is far from being an easy to pick up and play title either, with many saying that it shouldn’t really be categorised as a game. Which begs the question: what the hell is it?

boom reviews Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II
Listen Bob, the mask doesn't scare me, you're still gonna get it.

It’s set once again in Iceland, around the 9th century, with Senua still facing her demons, in her mind and in reality. She is told by the voices in her head, that she has the power to kill the giants that have been terrorising the land. But convincing others of that fact is more difficult. But she is nonetheless driven by these voices, to prove to the other settlements, that she is very much the real deal.

It is safe to say that Ninja Theory have produced a title that gamers have been waiting for, that could finally herald the arrival of what we expect from the now this generation of consoles in terms of stunning graphical fidelity. The visuals of this game are like no other you have ever seen grace a console; it is breathtakingly cinematic, from the stunning facial models that are simply lifelike to the most incredible landscapes that look nothing short of film-like. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it often looks like you’re actually participating in a cinematic event.

This is clearly something the studio were striving for from the off; not only does it have the widescreen black bars sandwiching the images in widescreen, but there are also no cut scenes, as all the scenes are seamlessly blended in with the movement of your character. The only give away that this is a video game is the gimmick often developed by developers these days that sees the main protagonist slow down, having to squeeze between a gap in a wall say, which gives the system enough time to load what’s to come without a load screen.

boom reviews - Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II
Wait - did that guy just jump the queue?!

The screen itself is also very clean, with no button prompts, no arrows for direction, no map, nothing, maintaining that cinematic experience throughout. And to be fair, its far more a cinematic experience than a gaming one. For instance, for the opening section of the game, for about seven minutes or so, all you are doing is pushing the left joystick up. And get used to it, as there’s a lot of doing just that, and only that, for large chunks of the game, as you push Senua around the admittedly impressive Icelandic locale, soaking up all the scenery.

It is a calming experience, or it would be if it wasn’t for the constant chatter from the voices in your head, mainly from two women. These voices will be divisive; some may think, as we did, that they illustrated the fragile state of the main protagonist’s mindset, as she comes to terms with whether she’s up for this momentous task or not. Others will think that they are just annoying, with the constant jibber jabber, much of it repetitive, that may well have many reaching for the mute button. They are worth listening out for however, as they provide the only clues as to how your character is doing, and where and what to do next. But it’s ironic to think that the voices inside Senua’s head could also do your head in too.

And just as you’re walking through some dark, foreboding wood, you will suddenly find yourself in battle. The fighting mechanic appears to have been dumbed down a little from the first title, believe it or not, as the inputs are not only basic, but also obvious. And although there are four to use – light attack, heavy attack, dodge and block – we hardly ever used block, having very little need for it, and just followed the standard formula for defeating foes.

The only other aspect of the game is some light puzzling, but none of which are that taxing. Walk, fight, solve a puzzle, walk some more, and some more, and repeat. And before you know it, the game is over, with the game roughly 6.5 to 7.5 hours in length, with very little in the way of repeat value –with only different narrators offered.

So if you’re expecting a deep, action-packed game, this is not it. So again, it begs the question: what is it? Is it a glorified tech demo, or an immersive, interactive storytelling experience? The truth probably lies somewhere between the two.

It’s a piece of high brow game making, exploring psychosis, as your character grapples with what’s real and what isn’t. It’s visually stunning, with superbly crafted audio, that makes for a fascinating experience. It’s not necessarily enjoyable, and if you’re into it, you’re more than satisfied with the shorter run through time, because it can easily take its toll on you.

So don’t be disappointed that it doesn’t necessarily fit within the description of a standard video game, instead embrace its ingenuity, its creative vision, and the way its implemented.

Think of it more as a European independent film, directed by the likes of Wim Wenders or Werner Herzog, which explores a narrative in an unconventional fashion, that may well be on the challenging side.

With so much uncertainty in gaming in general, and with Microsoft in particular, the release of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II doesn’t make anything any clearer.

What we do know is that nothing else looks like it, or plays like it – for better or worse – and is undoubtedly a unique form of storytelling.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a bold, brave and often brilliant, genuine attempt – albeit flawed – to create a completely new sensation in gaming, and that can only be a good thing.

we give this four out of five