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Side Quests: Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 Review

Jason Fanelli Posted:
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Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 is a harrowing tale filled with uncomfortable tension, deep and authentic emotion, and masterful performances heightened by incredible visuals and top-notch audio design. It's also not much of a "game," as the pace at times is off-puttingly slow and the core gameplay loop becomes predictable – and that's despite the game being about six hours in length all told. Fittingly, I'm having an intense internal argument about Senua's Saga, and both sides have a compelling argument. 

Hellblade 2 returns to the saga of Senua, who, at the end of the last game, has just killed a god in her quest to rescue her lost love. Now, she is traveling north to the homelands of those who took her love from her, her intentions changing from rescue to revenge. I'm not going to go into more detail about the story than that, but suffice it to say this is one you're going to want to experience for yourself. 

There are times in Hellblade 2 that genuinely made my skin crawl, with most of them involving claustrophobia in some way. Senua is sometimes forced to crawl through tight spaces, and the camera work accentuates her struggles in such a way that I began to feel like the walls are closing in. Senua's facial expressions – the struggle of each movement, the fatigue of her life's work , etc – only serve to heighten the anguish further and make for some powerful moments. 

Hellblade 2

Claustrophobia is but one of the many uncomfortable feelings Senua's Saga presents, but they're all done in such a masterful way that I find myself drawn into them rather than put off. The slight changes in screen color when the voices in Senua's head start to get more frantic, the constant sound of her breathing even in moments of respite, and the way the game plays with light and darkness have me fully engaged from start to finish. A lot of time, effort, and love went into making these moments as authentic and devastating as possible, and that work shines through in every scene. 

Unfortunately, other parts of the experience do not hold up their end of the bargain. Combat is a jolt of energy in an otherwise slow and deliberate setting, but only the first few times. Once I get the timing down for parrying, or I realize that I simply need to hold my ground until my mirror charges up and I can activate for a near-instant kill, fighting enemies loses its luster. Fighting groups of foes one at a time is fine, until I get to a sequence of nine or 10 in a row and I just want the fighting to end. 

The world around me in Hellblade 2 is beautiful and scenic, a testament to the research that went into recreating the real-world Iceland into this adventure. I'd have loved to explore it more, but other than the occasional beaten path that leads to one of the game's two major collectibles, I'm just walking or jogging down a specific path until I meet the next objective. I do really enjoy the "hidden faces" idea – where finding a random face on the landscape and focusing on it will turn it into a hidden path that suddenly comes into view – but that's the only interesting part of exploration. 

The technical side of this game, meanwhile, boasts some of the most impressive work I've ever seen in a video game. Some shots of Senua make her look like she's standing in front of me rather than in a video screen; there's one moment in particular where you can only see the edges of her face, and she looks more human than I do in the mirror sometimes. The emotions that shine through her every movement, from the subtle quivering of her lip to the teeth-gritting anguish in particular story moments, are hard to explain other than "wow, this looks incredible."

This technical prowess isn't just a feast for the eyes either; Senua's Saga is an audio auteur's dream project. Whispers, screams, disembodied chanting, the use of binaural audio to switch ears at will, it's all absolutely incredible work. One voice in particular is so gritty and deep that it invades your entire mind when it speaks, demanding your attention from the first word, and it blocks out the other whispers that are chiming in behind it. I'm in awe of the audio design of Hellblade 2, to the point where I hope other games take some cues from it in the future. 

Hellblade 2

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 will come down to your own patience level. Are you willing to jog through landscapes with little to offer off the beaten trail in order to experience the incredible story? Will the linear nature of the adventure deter you or spur you on? Are limited combat mechanics a dealbreaker? These are questions you'll have to answer from the little voices inside your mind before making the decision for yourself. 

For me, while there were some moments I wished the pace would pick up, I was mesmerized by Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 from the opening set piece to the thought-provoking ending. The way it explores the human psyche is fascinating, and the imagery it provides in doing so is something I'll remember for a long time to come. In fact, there's one scene in particular that my embargo guidelines specifically forbid me from even mentioning with specific detail; after playing through myself, I completely understand why. 

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 is best experienced for yourself, not spoiled by a friend or watched on a YouTube channel. To fully understand what it's trying to do, you need to hear those voices for yourself, feel that anguish and pain as it happens, and continue to press on through it. It's a powerful game with a powerful message, even if some parts of it aren't as engaging as the rest. Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 requires your patience; if you provide it, you will be rewarded handsomely. 

Full Disclosure: A copy of this game was provided by PR for the purposes of this review. Reviewed on Xbox Series S|X.

7.0 Good
  • Powerful, emotional story that must be experienced to be fully appreciated
  • Incredible visuals and audio design
  • Wonderful performances by every character
  • Not enough world to explore, I would have loved to see more of it
  • Combat is rudimentary throughout, with little to no variation
  • Pacing can be slow at times, to the point where it could be a turn-off for some


Jason Fanelli

Jason Fanelli is a tried-and-true Philadelphian, having lived in Delaware County for his entire life. He’s a veteran of the games industry, covering it for over a decade with bylines on The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, IGN, and more. He currently hosts the Cheesesteaks and Controllers podcast on iHeartRadio for Fox Sports Radio in Philadelphia.