Senua’s Saga Hellblade 2 review – bleak, distressing, and unmissable

Video Gamer is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Prices subject to change. Learn more

For all the praise I’m about to heap on Senua’s Saga Hellblade 2, it’s a game I never want to play again. An odd thing to say, but one said with the best of intentions. Hellblade 2 is a momentous addition to video game culture and a must-play for anyone with even a passing interest in the medium. It’s phenomenal in its brave thematic explorations, visual delights, and tight, restrained vision, but so overbearing in what it asks of the player that playing it once is enough. Disconcertion has its limits. Hellblade 2 holds your attention so tight that it burrows into the mind. As the credits roll, I’m left spent, drained by its emotive heft, by the whirling, needling Furies, by the wearying loss, by the fragile hope it cradles, and the near-unbearable cinematic bleakness that ripples out from every polygon.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua with red paint on her face, looking fierce.
Captured by VideoGamer.

You play as returning protagonist Senua, a Celtic warrior harried by psychosis, juggling the contradictory jabs and delusional prods of voices, dubbed The Furies, swirling in her head as well as harsh 10th century Icelandic vistas inked in Viking myth. Her journey starts shipwrecked on a desolate isle where she must muster the courage to take on slavers sacrificing her people to placate fractious giants. Though best experienced first hand, so I’ll spare the details, few games have openings that hit with such visceral, immersive force. Turned reluctant saviour, Senua explores a desolate world so bleak and harrowing it’s hard to keep your eyes on it for all its disturbing and unrelenting brutality.

There’s no HUD or a single on-screen prompt to blemish the experience. Black bars frame every action. And, playable portions blend in and out of cut scenes seamlessly. It’s beautifully cinematic, propped up by these grand, sweeping shots that skim gorgeously-realised Icelandic landscapes and coastlines. There’s a stark, arresting beauty to it all, hammering home that sense of isolation that Senua nurses. The lighting work is superb and the ethereal quality of Hellblade 2’s more ponderous, reverie-like portions is as accomplished as it comes. The Furies are the auditory highlight, but they are supplemented by crisp sound design and a sparse soundtrack that sparingly erupts into punctual swells, breathy chants, and orchestral stomps.

Hellblade 2 review: character Senua standing overlooking the sea on a rocky coastline.
Captured by VideoGamer.

Though much of the playable sections follow the strict paths and corridors narrative-heavy game conventions dictate, Hellblade 2 cleverly builds up a sense of trepidation about what might be around the next corner. Though it’s not exploration as we’ve come to expect it in, for example, an open-world game, it still feels like you are exploring the unknown, especially with the game’s metronomic pacing. This is only slightly let down by inconsistencies in environmental design that often lead you down perceived paths or ledges only to hit an ever-so-slightly immersion-sapping invisible wall. But, Hellblade 2 does quickly pull you back into the palpable authenticity and magic of its world, though.

A robust action game

Underneath all this lies a robust action game that splits your time between puzzle solving and combat sections. The puzzles don’t stray far from the satisfying formula laid out in the first Hellblade. Using her heightened senses, Senua is tasked with tracking patterns and runes in the world to open passages or use light to traverse morphing environments. They aren’t especially taxing or difficult, but offer yet more insight into her state of mind, gleaning structure and logic from what’s typically unseen. The Furies also provide a further layer to the puzzle solving, forcing you as a player to toil over whether to heed their curt suggestions or ignore them entirely, an apt taste of Senua’s own internal deliberations.

Hellblade 2 review: monster with blood shot eyes and wrinkly skin.
Captured by VideoGamer.

Combat in Hellblade 2 is a significant improvement over the first game while still retaining all of its weighty impact. It feels faster-paced, frenetic, and urgent. It’s fairly rudimentary in a way but it’s a system that requires you to be attentive or risk a cold, lonely death. Every dodge, parry, or sword swipe comes with a visceral responsiveness that’s heightened by stunning animations heaped in detail, from both Senua and a more diverse cast of enemies.

It’s brutal stuff, though, with incisions, cranial impacts, and finishing moves gory enough to make you feel uneasy even if you aren’t squeamish. This isn’t cheap barbarity for thrill’s sake; it serves to further implant the idea of a grim, violent world. Ninja Theory has removed the darkness mechanic, whereby a certain number of deaths would wipe your save, one of the first game’s more contentious design choices. Fights are exclusively one-on-one in Hellblade 2, removing the unwieldy multiple-enemy chaos that Hellblade struggled with due to janky targeting.

Hellblade 2 review: shadowy figure standing in front of a light with another character on the ground crawling.
Captured by VideoGamer.

Once again, Ninja theory delivers a nuanced and poised portrait of a person beset by psychosis. If the first game was an exploration of that internal struggle, Hellblade 2 turns outward, depicting how Senua’s addled mind tunes and alters her experience but also the characters and world around her, often in harrowing and unpredictable ways. And, rather than a story about ‘curing’ or ‘beating’ her psychosis, it’s one of empowerment and harnessing what’s perceived as a fault. It’s a semblance of control over the uncontrollable.

But, all this is to the rhythm of a narrative that’s steeped in so much loss, death, despair, and the most destructive of human inclinations. It gnaws away at you, testing how much discomfort and misery you can handle. There are portions that are nothing shy of distressing. It hits hard and in a way few games do. It’s something that’s mirrored in Senua herself. She carries around this persistent doubt, an entrenched fear that’s difficult not to empathise with. Hellblade 2’s world is harsh enough without opinionated Furies questioning every decision, heightening fears, brewing delusions, and, every so often, being useful. She’s fragile, human, ever-tense, earnest, and raw, yet endowed with this dogged persistence that makes her a deeply compelling heroine to root and care for.

Though Hellblade 2 takes a lot out of you, its rewards are worth it. Among the pilling corpses and Senua’s crushing anguish, there’s something important, that most universal of sanctuaries that relates to us all – hope. A guarded, dimly shining nugget of the stuff. We could all do with a bit more hope, however disquieting the path to reach it.

Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.

About the Author

Tom Bardwell

Tom is guides editor here at VideoGamer.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

  • Release Date: May 21, 2024
    • - 31 December 2020 (PC, Xbox Series X)
  • Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series S/X, Xbox Series X
  • Genre(s): Action, Action Adventure
Hellblade 2 review: close-up of Senua with wide, fearful eyes and a slightly open mouth.

verdict

Though uncomfortably bleak and distressing, Hellblade 2 is something truly special.
9 Story Gorgeous visuals Fast, weighty combat Satisfying puzzles Minor enviromental design frustrations