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Hellblade 2 review - a profound exploration of healing

Senua's Saga is a moving tale of psychosis and the process of healing, acceptance, and growth, executed immaculately by Ninja Theory.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua has red paint down her face and grits her teeth, staring into the lens

Our Verdict

Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 is an impeccable story of coming to terms with trauma and making difficult decisions, punctuated by moments of outstanding beauty and strength.

As I gasp for air and frantically kick towards the surface of the ocean with what feels like a million voices flooding my brain, I’m instantly plunged deep into the sensory overload that is Hellblade 2. Its predecessor, Senua’s Sacrifice, may have launched almost seven years ago now, but it feels like she and I have been apart for barely five minutes.

The binaural audio continues to overwhelm me as I’m thrown towards the coastline on wave after wave, paralyzed by the power of the ocean and incapable of scrambling to safety. A dead body’s eyes flicker towards me – or do they? – as I struggle to maintain a grip on the slippery rocks. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 has thrown me in at the deep end, and I’m instantly immersed in Ninja Theory’s brutal 9th-century world all over again.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua floats down into the ocean

A light smattering of paint dances across the rocky environment to subtly hint at my next move, but never obnoxiously so. I press on desperately seeking an escape from the auditory assault of a combination of whispering, shouting, and pleading mixed with death rattles and excruciating groans, and find that my thumb is pressed so hard against the left joystick that it’s beginning to leave an imprint. There’s nothing comfortable about Senua, or her Saga, and I don’t want there to be.

I feel an aura of recognition as I urge Senua forward. Having visited Hellblade 2’s setting of Iceland several times, I recognize the columns of basalt rock, deep gray in color, slick with moisture from the ocean’s spray. I’ve seen the magma they’re formed from on the distant horizon, flowing ominously freely. I’ve dodged their deposits and ogled at their magnificence while walking along the coastline. Ninja Theory has crafted something so beautifully reminiscent of real-world Iceland that I have to halt my approach several times to realign with reality.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua stands beneath Iceland's northern lights

I stumble upon the abandoned village of Freyslaug, adorned with mutilated corpses – some strewn across pathways, some nailed above doorways. Via Senua’s visions and intrusive thoughts, a vivid picture is painted of what might have happened here – hoarse wailing, ferocious burning, a baby’s scream… a mother’s mortified wail. Senua’s psychosis means that the voices she hears, known as The Furies, are an unreliable narrator at best. They’ll provide information that could help or hinder my adventure, such as warning me of incoming attacks from off-screen opponents, hinting towards nearby collectibles or puzzle solutions, discouraging me from certain decisions, or providing snippets of information about other people we’ll encounter. From time to time I can’t help but wish they’d leave me to it and let me figure things out for myself, but then a crashing reality settles around me – Senua, much like anyone who experiences psychosis daily, doesn’t have a choice.

All too frequently, mental ill health has been portrayed in gaming as a source of evil, perceived extremely negatively, and those living with it must consider their conditions as afflictions to be shamed and ‘cured.’ See American McGee’s Alice – even though she is not portrayed as evil, her insanity is still depicted as preventing her from being her ‘true’ self, and that she is a lesser person for it.

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Ninja Theory hasn’t tiptoed lightly around psychosis and its effects throughout the Hellblade series, but it certainly hasn’t demonized them either. Working alongside Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist and professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, the studio has heard first-hand accounts of psychosis. Fletcher states that the way the brain processes the world around it comes partly from the five senses, and partly from learned experience or things it already knows. He speaks of Senua’s traumas, including her abusive father, her mother’s sacrifice, and the invasion of her village and subsequent murder of her lover. He believes it’s possible that all of Senua’s past trauma could “topple her into this psychotic experience” as depicted in the games.

Senua’s trauma felt new, raw, and at its most painful in Senua’s Sacrifice, which tells of her experience in accepting that Dillion, her partner, is gone forever. Her psychosis is acute and difficult for her to break out of. She can’t ignore any of the voices she hears or visions she sees. In Senua’s Saga, despite not experiencing a miracle recovery, the balance of power has shifted and she finds herself able to take control, make decisions, and overpower some of the intrusions.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua looks on as the walls transform and mutate around her

The Furies are still ever-present throughout Saga, but their tone has changed. Senua remains plagued by the voice of her father, but recollections of Icelandic myths join the voices, pressing her to explore areas and discover their past. Senua’s psychosis feels like a more balanced experience than it did when we first met her, but certainly no less real to her. This time around, Senua is able to engage and interact with others based on their perceived reality as well as her own.

Eddy Maile, a peer support worker at the Cambridge and Peterborough Foundation Trust, worked with Ninja Theory on perfecting its depiction of psychosis in Senua’s Saga. Having a lived experience of psychosis himself, he describes Hellblade’s portrayal as like nothing he’s “ever seen before in terms of its realism.”  Ninja Theory’s approach seeks to break boundaries between those living with psychosis and those who perhaps don’t understand it by developing a bond between the player and Senua.

Hellblade 2: Senua is attacked from behind in a dark cave

Senua’s psychosis intrudes and overwhelms once again when she’s exploring a vast series of underground caves and tunnels drowned in darkness, with microscopic glints of light bunching together to hint at the route forward. Senua can alter her reality of the caves to solve a set of puzzles and unlock new pathways. The area concludes with her hearing The Furies’ words of encouragement and praise before she falls into a seemingly shallow puddle that unfolds into an endless ocean. The world around her fractures into kaleidoscopic fragments, each of which subtly hints back her own reflection. Stalactites hang from the low ceilings, tinged with red, like threatening tendrils.

This ever-ominous, untrustworthy environment can be manipulated at a moment’s notice, and flicker back again before I’ve had a chance to adjust to the change. Similarly, it can shift and stutter and remain in flux for an uncomfortably long period of time. That discomfort is elevated by the exceptional audio production accompanied by a soundtrack composed and recorded almost entirely by experimental folk outfit Heilung.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua has a conversation

Having spoken to Heilung some 18 months before Hellblade 2 was released, the band told me of their multiple trips to Iceland to perfect the music including recording parts of the soundtrack inside a lava cave. “When we create our own albums we go out into nature and record actual sounds,” composer and musician Christopher Juul told me, “and this is very much how Ninja Theory works with this game to make it as immersive and natural as possible.” When walking through a cave and hearing droplets fall from its ceiling, or running down the shoreline and hearing the ocean spray violently crashing against the rocks, I’m reminded of this technique and remain ever thankful for the dedication Ninja Theory’s audio team has put into the creation of Hellblade 2.

Just as the audio adds to the realism, the seamless shifts between gameplay and cinematics are produced so flawlessly that the two never wrestle for control, nor do they break the immersion. While I’m never exactly comfortable playing Senua’s Saga, any particularly jumpy moments are reserved for when I’m in control of Senua, yet never go too far, nor are they shoehorned in for shock value.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua fights a masked opponent

Puzzle sections provide a welcome break from the trepidation of the narrative and give you space to breathe without overstaying their welcome. While some might take a few minutes to align symbols correctly or extinguish flames in the right order, the mechanics of these puzzles are simple enough to where progress never grinds to a halt.

Similarly, combat never gets in the way of progression or good pacing. While there’s no tutorial or HUD, the light and heavy attacks combined with dodge and parry maneuvers are easy to pick up and master. Senua’s Saga also improves on its predecessor’s combat by having enemies throw themselves into the fight. This results in some glorious sequences where I parry one enemy before landing a gory finisher on him just as another reaches out from off-screen to grab me by the throat and initiate a new battle to the death.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua looks at her reflection in a puddle

Taking on giants, which you’ll do several times during Hellblade 2’s roughly seven-hour story, is a completely different affair. Rather than fighting using the combat mechanics I’ve learned so far, I instead dodge falling debris to inch closer to my behemoth enemy, grasp onto pillars to remain safe from overpowering waves, or sprint through eruptions of fire.

Senua also learns to work alongside several side characters despite the seeming impossibility of trust among strangers in such a cruel world. While Senua initially keeps her defenses up to ensure her own survival, her concern eventually morphs into whether she, not they, are the real threat. Beyond the character work, some elements of the story have me frantically searching Icelandic mythology in order to appreciate Senua’s story on another level.

Hellblade 2 review: Senua and her traveling party

The game is exceptionally linear and directed, Senua’s weapon choices are limited to just her sword, and there aren’t any story-altering choices to make, but I don’t find myself wishing for greater agency. By the time the credits roll, I feel like I’ve been on Senua’s journey with her, and it’s a decidedly authored experience that I don’t need to leave my mark on.

Hellblade 2 is an immaculate tale of trauma, pain, and difficult choices punctuated by moments of beauty and strength. If Senua’s Sacrifice was the most realistic portrayal of mental ill health in videogames, then Senua’s Saga is a continuation of the process of healing, acceptance, and growth.

Code was provided by Xbox and Ninja Theory for the purposes of this review.