Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Review: Setting the bar for what a sequel should be

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II screenshot. Courtesy of Xbox
Senua's Saga: Hellblade II screenshot. Courtesy of Xbox /

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is a game I was looking forward to before it was even announced. The immersiveness and level of detail in the first game alone had me excited for what was to come. The story of a warrior in mental peril fighting to save herself by saving others was an incredible journey.  I interviewed studio head Dom Matthew's back before Senua's sacrifice released, and seeing the technology change has been a great experience. Those who played the first game knew the ending set up what would surely be an interesting sequel, and the story takes us along an amazing journey right from the jump.

Unlike the first game where Senua was alone, Senua's Saga: Hellblade II gives us three companions during our story arc - Thorgestr, Fargrimir and Astrior. Each play a unique and extremely pivotal role throughout the game. Senua finds herself stranded after a boat crash and needs to find a way to survive. As she always does, Senua must fight and claw for every inch she gains while battling the voices in her head. The technology advancement truly aids the immersion on this point, which I'll follow up on in a little bit.

It turns out that giants are roaming the land, and Senua must find a way to defeat them. Of course, nobody believes this is possible, but Senua's pure grit and determination win out. This results in the story of Senua embarking on her journey to rid the land of the giants and allow the people to truly live free.

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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II screenshot. Courtesy of Xbox /

Now, of course, there are more details to go along with the story. Fortunately, I am not allowed to disclose them. Also, fortunately for you, I wouldn't tell you even if I was allowed to do so. The reason being is the story Senua is on, and all the things which encapsulate it such as the giants, her psychosis, her family, etc, result in the most profound tale of self-determination I have ever witnessed in any form of media. Ninja Theory does an incredible job of setting the story up so that you have to read between the lines in order to see the true meaning of Senua's struggle and what it represents. Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is a true philosophical experience.

Throughout the game, like the original, there are lore towers you need to reach. There are 18 in total, and each one provides a bit of back story on the game. They tell you things that are going on that you can't see in game. I recommend trying to find them all. Not only do you get more of the story, but doing so gets you an achievement and a special unlock after beating the game. In addition, there are 17 story trees you can find. These are located by hidden faces in rocks and walls. Focusing on them reveals a hidden path to activate the tree for a piece of back story. Similar to the first game, you'll need to explore to find them. I missed 3 of each on my 1st play through, then went back to find them. Luckily, a chapter select is available to show you how many you missed in each one.

I'm honestly not a big accessibility settings guy, but I admit when interesting settings peak my curiosity. Senua's Saga: Hellblade II features what I like to call the Tesla of video game settings. Combat features a self-play option for both offense and defense separately. This allows you to simply focus on puzzles and exploration and let the game fight for you in battle. I played on the Dynamic setting (there are also easy, medium and hard). Afterward, I did try the self-play for testing purposes and it works really well. Senua blew right through the enemies without a scratch. Those looking for the last few lore towers after the game may want to make use of this feature. In fact, I recommend it.

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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II screenshot. Courtesy of Xbox /

Combat itself was amazing to me. What I found most incredible was there was no differentiation between "cinematics" and gameplay. Remember when Geoff Keighley revealed a new trailer at The Game Awards and he promised it was gameplay and not a cut scene? I watched it and couldn't understand how it was possible. After playing the game, it's easy to see. Every movement in Senu's Saga: Hellblade II was motion captured. Walking, fighting, climbing, falling etc. There are no pre-programmed computer moves in the game. If the actors didn't do it, it's not in it. Ninja Theory spent 69 days of motion capture on Combat alone during development. For comparison, they spent only 2 days during the first game.

Even the environments are breathtaking. Ninja Theory traveled to each place in the game (set in Iceland) and scanned the real world through the use of photogrammetry. The reason I used quotes up above on "cinematics" is because all of this technology essentially makes the game one, giant cinematic. Normally, a game cuts away to a cinematic then fades back into gameplay. Not here. In Senua's Saga: Hellblade II, the cinematic IS the game. So, after a "cinematic", or more aptly titled "non-playable gameplay", it just re-engages your ability to control Senua. Absolutely nothing changes.

The quality is so good that the motion capture and photogrammetry allow you to basically play the entire game as one giant cut scene. At the start of the game, I actually thought the game froze. Senua crashed off the boat and was just standing there on the shore. It took me a couple minutes to realize I had control of Senua as there was zero difference in the game.

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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II screenshot. Courtesy of Xbox /

Now, my favorite part. I always play with headphones, but Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is in a different world, man I tell you. Ninja Theory had spoken about how they recorded the game using 3D binaural audio. I'm here to tell you right now - IT MAKES A HUGE DIFFERENCE.

As you know, Senua suffers from psychosis and hears two different voices in her head. With the headphones on, not only do you hear these voices, but they actually sound like they're coming from INSIDE your own head, NOT the headphones. It's truly amazing. In addition to that, remember I said every movement was motion captured. This includes simple breathing. This means every single breath Melina Juergens took during motion capture is captured in perfect audio. Every scream, cry, even nasal breathing while her mouth is closed perfectly captures that sniffling sound she makes. Juxtaposing the audio with the graphical prowess adds a level of immersion I've yet to experience in a game. This is the best audio I've ever experienced, hands down, without question.

This leap in technology that Ninja Theory was able to deploy fits perfectly with the philosophical story struggles that Senua finds herself attempting to overcome. After all, what better way to have a player feel immersed in a character's story than to have technology make them feel like the character herself? Senua realizing that helping others be free is the key to finding how she can help herself be "free" has a lot of real world implications.

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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II screenshot. Courtesy of Xbox /

Saying anything really more will give the game away, so you truly must try it out for yourself. It's worth ten times its 10 hours of gameplay. Whether being free to you means beating your struggles, simply finding out how to live with them instead, or something entirely different, Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is one of the best overall immersive experiences I've had the joy of playing in a game.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II (Xbox Series X) Score- 10/10

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II sets the bar for what a sequel should be. A truly immersive and powerful story experience equipped with graphical and audio prowess never before experienced in a game.

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.