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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II review – nerve-shredding arthouse game is 2024’s most unlikely blockbuster
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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II review – nerve-shredding arthouse game is 2024’s most unlikely blockbuster

As the stench of rotting corpses fills the air, I hear the screams of my butchered kinsmen, and my lips begin to tremble. “You let them die,” a voice in my head accuses, as I crawl hopelessly towards the lifeless bodies. “Save them!” another thought pleads. But their killer has seen me. As he draws his bloodied blade, I shakily raise my sword. “You?!” I chide myself inwardly. “Fight them? You are weak! You will die here.”

To say that Hellblade II is stressful would be an understatement. Part blood-soaked Norse epic, part harrowingly authentic depiction of living with psychosis, it blurs historical horrors with the snarling demons residing in our heads. Following Senua’s nightmarish journey through Helheim, this unlikely sequel finds our unlucky heroine shackled to an Icelandic slave ship. Torn from her homeland of Orkney by Northmen raiders, she is washed ashore in a violent storm. As her captured kinsmen perish, she finds herself alone in a hostile 10th-century Iceland.

Screenshot of woman slashing a monsterView image in fullscreen

If you were worried that developer Ninja Theory would lose its edge under its new owners, Microsoft … well. As fly-ridden entrails stain the floor of village huts and snarling ghouls stalk you through blackened caverns, Hellblade II’s uncompromising violence suggests that the expanded budget has only allowed its creators to reach new levels of brutality.

As with its predecessor, headphones are essential to the experience. After her lover is murdered in 2017’s Hellblade, a grief-ridden Senua interprets the resulting psychosis as an ancient curse, referring to her cacophony of internal narrators as “the furies”. Hellblade II employs the same binaural audio tech to bring Senua’s psychosis to life, an effect that envelops you in dread as increasingly frenzied voices hiss menacingly in your ears.

Melina Juergens gives an exceptional performance as Senua, the battling voices in her head brought hauntingly to life by actors Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland. Yet the horrors of Hellblade II aren’t just the shadows inside her mind. As you roam a stunningly rendered Iceland, across vast Norse plains and snowy mountaintops, you soon learn that reality can be just as terrifying as Senua’s hallucinations. Ninja Theory’s creation recalls the same kind of unsettling blend of folklore and history as Robert Eggers’ 2022 Viking film The Northman.

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Senua is no longer alone on her perilous journey, with a cast of suitably damaged characters helping to sell the larger scale of this ambitious story. As you battle everything from Vikings to giants and the undead, the line between the real world and Senua’s psychosis blurs. An unnerving cavern section dials up the psychological horror to almost unbearable levels.

Much like in Death Stranding, Hellblade II uses the otherworldly rock faces of Iceland to bring its surrealist fiction to life, combining lifelike photogrammetry techniques with widescreen presentation and filmic grain to deliver the most visually stunning game of this console generation to date. I’m never usually one to fiddle with photo modes, a rather pointless in-game equivalent of Instagram, but I couldn’t help but pause the harrowing action to line up aesthetically pleasing shots of the horizon, like a twisted A-level photography assignment.

The trippy, surrealist puzzle sections of the first game make a welcome return, too, regularly breaking up the scripted cinematic moments by dragging poor Senua kicking and screaming into a nightmare. These environments distort and bend before your eyes like a Tool music video from the 00s, the furies’ chorus of contradictory hints combining into a stress-inducing symphony. The unease is furthered by Hellblade II’s commitment to cinematic immersion. As you parry sword blows and roll out of reach of demonic talons, there are no button prompts, health bars or ability meters to guide you – just an increasingly wounded, sluggish-looking Senua.

Screenshot showing battle on a fiery volcanic plainView image in fullscreen

Video games have long been celebrated for their ability to put you into a character’s shoes, and Hellblade II harnesses that interactivity to create true, challenging empathy. Anyone who lives with anxiety is accustomed to unreliable narrators whispering in their ear, but it’s rare to experience this constant and intentional misdirection in a game. While I do not suffer from psychosis, there’s a surprising sense of catharsis to be gleaned from hearing this character’s innermost anxieties and self-doubt play out in real time.

As a big-budget sequel to an arthouse game about PTSD, Hellblade II is 2024’s most unlikely blockbuster. Yet from its nerve-shredding start right to its bold, bloody climax, it’s an affecting, terrifying triumph. It is brief and tightly scripted, and not much like other video games, yet where countless titles offer hours of loot and levelling, Hellblade II instead provides a harrowing, profound experience.

There is a layer of kindness interwoven within the cruelty, implying that even the world’s greatest monsters were once human. In an increasingly divided age, this simple message of choosing empathy over hatred feels especially poignant. As monolithic megacorps shutter Bafta-winning studios, a game like Hellblade II deserves to be cherished. Who knows how many more such cerebral epics this risk-averse industry will produce.

  • Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is out now; £49.99, or included with a Game Pass subscription

Source: theguardian.com