June 24, 2024 4:49 am

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Wastes Its Potential
Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Wastes Its Potential

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Wastes Its Potential

It’s okay for stories to end, and when I rolled credits on 2017’s “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” I thought Ninja Theory, its developer, understood that as well. Senua, a woman who hears voices and was thought cursed by those around her, overcame the grief and trauma of losing loved ones and learned to accept herself—all of herself, including her psychosis.

Only, that wasn’t the end. Ninja Theory decided to continue her tale in “Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2″, except this time, there’s no purpose for Senua. Ninja Theory struggles to find a new path for her and spends much of “Hellblade 2” repeating the same ideas from “Senua’s Sacrifice,” only with less depth. With no clear idea of what role Senua could or should play in this new tale, “Hellblade 2” feels like two games in conflict with each other, neither of which is particularly thoughtful or fully realized.

“Hellblade 2” begins with Senua on a boat. Having made her peace at the end of the first “Hellblade” game, she decided to strike at the leader of the Norse slavers who once ransacked Orkney. She gets herself captured on purpose and travels bound and weaponless in a boat with other slaves who she, somehow, plans to rescue—despite having no weapons and no allies. It’s not the most well-conceived plan, but Ninja Theory takes it very seriously nonetheless and expects us to do the same.

Things go badly wrong, and Senua changes her mission and decides it’s time to liberate an island nation from the tyranny of its gods. “Hellblade 2” wants to explore themes of tradition and folklore as tools to keep people from questioning or straying too far from the norm, but it never gives the topics enough depth or thought to turn them into anything interesting. 

Like the first game, the ideas in “Hellblade 2” unfold across three main components—narrative segments, puzzles, and combat. “Hellblade 2″’s puzzles are occasionally clever, including one instance where Senua’s voices encourage you to look at the world in unusual ways. The solution is focusing on a rock formation that, viewed from the right angle, looks like a face and then vanishes to reveal a new path. 

These creative moments are the exception, though. Most of the other challenges are tedious—match magic symbols with painted objects that look faintly similar, find special rocks, hold a torch, and so on. A few have some shallow symbolism attached to them as well, but “Hellblade 2” shows little interest in doing anything with that beyond showing you it exists.

That’s when it doesn’t actively undermine its efforts at symbolism. At one point, Senua recovers a mirror, a precious keepsake from her childhood, and faces some of the demons from her past in an effort to move forward. She fights spirits made of glass in battle, overcomes them, and declares that her past grief will drive her, not hold her back. The moment is a moving one. Then Ninja Theory instantly strips it of any meaning by making the mirror a permanent combat tool, where you can activate Senua’s mirror superpowers and use special attacks if she hits a bad guy enough. 

Speaking of combat, that element feels like an afterthought, though that didn’t stop Ninja Theory from adding several, lengthy battle sequences in “Hellblade 2”. Senua has a fast attack and strong attack; a parry of questionable value, as it often leaves her vulnerable to follow-up strikes; and a dodge with such limited movement range that you have to mash the button several times in a row for Senua to move out of harm’s way. 

An unmovable camera only worsens combat’s clunky, restrictive nature. It sits roughly a foot behind Senua and even with her shoulder blades, which makes gauging an incoming attack’s closeness—and good dodge timing, by extension—more difficult than it needs to be. Almost every battle follows the same back-and-forth pattern where you strike, dodge, and strike again, and almost every battle outstays its welcome.

“Hellblade 2″’s narrative has moments of vision but conveys them poorly. That’s when it bothers conveying an idea at all. Between big tentpole moments of plot development lie hours of walking, and sometimes a few of those tedious puzzles. Each chapter has at least one stretch that lasts several minutes where you’re just walking—through a ransacked village, up a hill, across a bridge. The first chapter is agonizing as much for its 45 minutes of wandering aimlessly across a rocky beach as it is for the frequent and unnecessary violence it inflicts on Senua.

Nothing happens in these silent moments. Senua’s voices speak up occasionally, but only when you’re near a story objective. The silence may be a welcome respite from their constant chattering for the player, but it’s one Senua herself is, apparently, indifferent to. How does she feel when the unseen voices speak? When they’re silent? When they voice her darkest fears or give her hope when all others seem determined to steal it away?

Who knows? Senua’s name might be in the game’s title, but “Hellblade 2” treats her as little more than a vehicle for moving the plot forward. We hear almost none of her thoughts, and she says even less about herself and the world around her. 

That would be fine, if Ninja Theory didn’t keep trying to make Senua’s personal journey an important focus—and if it didn’t treat serious emotions and their resolution with a flippancy that borders on astounding. Senua regains a sense of confidence by walking around with a torch while her father’s dead spirit tells her not to. She arrives at profound emotional truths by matching symbols in her mind, and Ninja Theory expects us to believe in deep, personal transformations that happen solely because Senua repeats affirmations to herself. 

“Senua’s Sacrifice” is an uneasy balance between treating mental health conditions as a storytelling gimmick and exploring them in mildly interesting ways. “Hellblade 2” throws that concern out the window by doing almost nothing with the concept. Senua fought manifestations of her fears and complexes in the original game. In “Hellblade 2”, she fights Norse slavers, a giant earth god, and some warriors made of glass. It makes much of Senua—and others she meets who hear her voices as well—having unique perspectives on the world but can’t decide why that matters. She’s simultaneously one who knows the gods; one who can and should kill the gods; a person who “sees beyond the veil;” and one who must make the living her primary concern. The ambiguity is thematically appropriate, as so-called seers often lived in liminal spaces in folklore and real-life. However, all it translates to in “Hellblade 2” is a series of bland and basic puzzles where that perspective means Senua can see hidden items or move objects around. There’s no serious attempt to consider what it means for Senua or the people around her beyond labeling it as a superpower.

Moments where Senua’s delusions take over happen without your input, which could be an interesting opportunity to explore how it feels when you have no control over the things you’re seeing and feeling. Instead, it’s a sanitized ride through scripted scenes of horror and anguish that seems designed to ensure players feel as little discomfort or emotion as possible. Spectacle matters more than substance, which raises an important question: How Ninja Theory thinks it can evoke empathy and understanding despite removing all opportunities to feel, think, and see as Senua does. “Hellblade 2” has no answer to that question.

Outside of representing psychosis accurately, the closest it gets to anything resembling meaningful use of the subject matter is when Senua realizes she might not have to be alone forever, despite her condition. Like almost everything else tied to Senua, though, these moments are brief and fleeting. 

The whole thing is a strong reminder that it’s okay for stories to end, that not every popular piece of media has to be a franchise, and it’s a waste of potential. Ninja Theory has an interesting story and a clever take on the power of storytelling buried in the confused mess of “Hellblade 2”. It just shouldn’t have been Senua’s story.

The publisher provided a review copy of this title. “Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2″ is available now on Xbox Series X|S and PC via Windows and Steam

It’s okay for stories to end, and when I rolled credits on 2017’s “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” I thought Ninja Theory, its developer, understood that as well. Senua, a woman who hears voices and was thought cursed by those around her, overcame the grief and trauma of losing loved ones and learned to accept herself—all of herself, including her psychosis. Only, that wasn’t the end. Ninja Theory decided to continue her tale in “Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2″, except this time, there’s no purpose for Senua. Ninja Theory struggles to find a new path for her and spends much of “Hellblade 2” repeating the same ideas from “Senua’s Sacrifice,” only with less depth. With no clear idea of what role Senua could or should play in this new tale, “Hellblade 2” feels like two games in conflict with each other, neither of which is particularly thoughtful or fully realized. “Hellblade 2” begins with Senua on a boat. Having made her peace at the end of the first “Hellblade” game, she decided to strike at the leader of the Norse slavers who once ransacked Orkney. She gets herself captured on purpose and travels bound and weaponless in a boat with other slaves who she, somehow, plans to rescue—despite having no weapons and no allies. It’s not the most well-conceived plan, but Ninja Theory takes it very seriously nonetheless and expects us to do the same. Things go badly wrong, and Senua changes her mission and decides it’s time to liberate an island nation from the tyranny of its gods. “Hellblade 2” wants to explore themes of tradition and folklore as tools to keep people from questioning or straying too far from the norm, but it never gives the topics enough depth or thought to turn them into anything interesting.  Like the first game, the ideas in “Hellblade 2” unfold across three main components—narrative segments, puzzles, and combat. “Hellblade 2″’s puzzles are occasionally clever, including one instance where Senua’s voices encourage you to look at the world in unusual ways. The solution is focusing on a rock formation that, viewed from the right angle, looks like a face and then vanishes to reveal a new path.  These creative moments are the exception, though. Most of the other challenges are tedious—match magic symbols with painted objects that look faintly similar, find special rocks, hold a torch, and so on. A few have some shallow symbolism attached to them as well, but “Hellblade 2” shows little interest in doing anything with that beyond showing you it exists. That’s when it doesn’t actively undermine its efforts at symbolism. At one point, Senua recovers a mirror, a precious keepsake from her childhood, and faces some of the demons from her past in an effort to move forward. She fights spirits made of glass in battle, overcomes them, and declares that her past grief will drive her, not hold her back. The moment is a moving one. Then Ninja Theory instantly strips it of any meaning by making the mirror a permanent combat tool, where you can activate Senua’s mirror superpowers and use special attacks if she hits a bad guy enough.  Speaking of combat, that element feels like an afterthought, though that didn’t stop Ninja Theory from adding several, lengthy battle sequences in “Hellblade 2”. Senua has a fast attack and strong attack; a parry of questionable value, as it often leaves her vulnerable to follow-up strikes; and a dodge with such limited movement range that you have to mash the button several times in a row for Senua to move out of harm’s way.  An unmovable camera only worsens combat’s clunky, restrictive nature. It sits roughly a foot behind Senua and even with her shoulder blades, which makes gauging an incoming attack’s closeness—and good dodge timing, by extension—more difficult than it needs to be. Almost every battle follows the same back-and-forth pattern where you strike, dodge, and strike again, and almost every battle outstays its welcome. “Hellblade 2″’s narrative has moments of vision but conveys them poorly. That’s when it bothers conveying an idea at all. Between big tentpole moments of plot development lie hours of walking, and sometimes a few of those tedious puzzles. Each chapter has at least one stretch that lasts several minutes where you’re just walking—through a ransacked village, up a hill, across a bridge. The first chapter is agonizing as much for its 45 minutes of wandering aimlessly across a rocky beach as it is for the frequent and unnecessary violence it inflicts on Senua. Nothing happens in these silent moments. Senua’s voices speak up occasionally, but only when you’re near a story objective. The silence may be a welcome respite from their constant chattering for the player, but it’s one Senua herself is, apparently, indifferent to. How does she feel when the unseen voices speak? When they’re silent? When they voice her darkest fears or give her hope when all others seem determined to steal it away? Who knows? Senua’s name might be in the game’s title, but “Hellblade 2” treats her as little more than a vehicle for moving the plot forward. We hear almost none of her thoughts, and she says even less about herself and the world around her.  That would be fine, if Ninja Theory didn’t keep trying to make Senua’s personal journey an important focus—and if it didn’t treat serious emotions and their resolution with a flippancy that borders on astounding. Senua regains a sense of confidence by walking around with a torch while her father’s dead spirit tells her not to. She arrives at profound emotional truths by matching symbols in her mind, and Ninja Theory expects us to believe in deep, personal transformations that happen solely because Senua repeats affirmations to herself.  “Senua’s Sacrifice” is an uneasy balance between treating mental health conditions as a storytelling gimmick and exploring them in mildly interesting ways. “Hellblade 2” throws that concern out the window by doing almost nothing with the concept. Senua fought manifestations of her fears and complexes in the original game. In “Hellblade 2”, she fights Norse slavers, a giant earth god, and some warriors made of glass. It makes much of Senua—and others she meets who hear her voices as well—having unique perspectives on the world but can’t decide why that matters. She’s simultaneously one who knows the gods; one who can and should kill the gods; a person who “sees beyond the veil;” and one who must make the living her primary concern. The ambiguity is thematically appropriate, as so-called seers often lived in liminal spaces in folklore and real-life. However, all it translates to in “Hellblade 2” is a series of bland and basic puzzles where that perspective means Senua can see hidden items or move objects around. There’s no serious attempt to consider what it means for Senua or the people around her beyond labeling it as a superpower. Moments where Senua’s delusions take over happen without your input, which could be an interesting opportunity to explore how it feels when you have no control over the things you’re seeing and feeling. Instead, it’s a sanitized ride through scripted scenes of horror and anguish that seems designed to ensure players feel as little discomfort or emotion as possible. Spectacle matters more than substance, which raises an important question: How Ninja Theory thinks it can evoke empathy and understanding despite removing all opportunities to feel, think, and see as Senua does. “Hellblade 2” has no answer to that question. Outside of representing psychosis accurately, the closest it gets to anything resembling meaningful use of the subject matter is when Senua realizes she might not have to be alone forever, despite her condition. Like almost everything else tied to Senua, though, these moments are brief and fleeting.  The whole thing is a strong reminder that it’s okay for stories to end, that not every popular piece of media has to be a franchise, and it’s a waste of potential. Ninja Theory has an interesting story and a clever take on the power of storytelling buried in the confused mess of “Hellblade 2”. It just shouldn’t have been Senua’s story. The publisher provided a review copy of this title. “Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2″ is available now on Xbox Series X|S and PC via Windows and Steam Read More