video games

‘Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2’ impressions – Microsoft’s next-gen showcase

Kyle Chua

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‘Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2’ impressions – Microsoft’s next-gen showcase
The long-awaited sequel features stunning visuals with some of the most realistic facial animations to ever be put in games

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is perhaps Microsoft’s best next-gen showcase yet. All aspects of its presentation are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with today’s hardware. Its visual and audio flourishes bring to life an incredibly immersive and cinematic adventure that’s unlike anything out right now – an adventure that also tackles themes of mental health in a unique way.

However, as I see it, the game – a sequel to 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – might not be to everyone’s taste.

Apart from a few off-the-beaten-path collectibles, your adventure as the returning protagonist Senua is entirely linear. Much of it plays more like an interactive movie than a traditional game, where you could just be walking for an extended period listening to dialogue – which can then be interrupted by a scripted set piece moment. At times, the pace can also feel slow, especially during chapters where there’s not a lot of combat.

Then again, these are evidently intentional creative decisions to bring the narrative into focus and realize how harrowing Senua’s new quest for vengeance is. These same decisions also evoke a grounded realism in the narrative despite the incorporation of supernatural elements from Norse and Celtic mythology.

Linear gameplay

So far, I’m about four hours into Hellblade 2, which is said to be around seven to eight hours long. That puts me in the halfway mark, and from where I currently am in the game – which likely applies to the rest of the game – the gameplay only consists of two parts: combat and puzzles.

The game’s combat system is fairly straightforward. As Senua, you have four basic abilities: a fast attack, a heavy attack, a parry, and an evade. The key is to parry or evade your enemies’ attacks, and then punish them with your own attacks once their guard is down. All combat encounters boil down to this back-and-forth sequence which involves learning your enemies’ attack patterns and capitalizing on brief openings.

Defense is just as important as offense as most enemies can simply block your attacks if you’re not patient enough to wait for an opening. Senua’s movement and sword swings carry a lot of weight to them, so you always have to be deliberate with your inputs. You do acquire an ability early-on in the game that lets you temporarily slow your enemies and make them vulnerable to a flurry of attacks.

Combat encounters play out as a gauntlet of one-of-one duels in small enclosed areas. Enemies could be lingering somewhere off-screen, but you’ll never be facing more than one at a time. But that doesn’t mean combat is ever easy. I’d say it’s just about challenging enough to keep you on your toes and your reflexes in check.

Combat, from what I can tell, is just a small part of the game as you’ll spend more time solving environmental puzzles between encounters. I do appreciate that new enemy types with different attack patterns are introduced on a regular basis, keeping those encounters fresh.

The game’s puzzles come in different forms, though if you played the original, most should probably be rather familiar. Visual puzzles, for example, are the most common early on in the game. These involve finding objects in the environment that are shaped like runes and focusing on them from a certain vantage point, say, atop a hill, to unlock a door that’s blocking your way. Later on, you’ll have to solve more intricate and involved puzzles to progress. In general, the difficulty of puzzles, for me, is just right. They’re not too easy that you don’t have to think, but they’re also not brain-racking enough that they’d eventually make you want to give up and consult a guide.

Unreal presentation

Presentation, as previously mentioned, is where Hellblade 2 truly shines.

Visually, the game is absolutely stunning with some truly realistic-looking character models and environments. Senua in some scenes look so lifelike that she had me doing double-takes to make sure I was still playing a game instead of watching a live action movie. The terrific use of lighting also adds to the realism and helps set the atmosphere of scenes.

Meanwhile, the facial animations are some of the best I’ve ever seen in games, with subtle movements of the face and eyes rendered in such realistic detail. They do such a good job of further selling the already stellar performances of the actors, so much so that with Senua, you can almost feel her pain whenever you see her contort her face and grit her teeth as she grimaces.

All these visual feats were made possible thanks to Unreal Engine 5, the latest iteration of Epic Games’ graphics engine. What’s perhaps most impressive to me about the game and the engine it was built on is how well it runs. I played the game on an aging gaming laptop, and I was surprised at how good it looked and how smoothly it ran.

Also, the overall sound design does a tremendous job in heightening your sense of immersion to the game – or rather to Senua’s inner psyche.

Senua suffers from a certain kind of psychosis that causes her to hear disembodied voices in her head – voices who talk to her and have conversations with each other. The game uses binaural audio to put you, as the player, in Senua’s head, letting you hear the voices the way she hears it, granted that you’re using headphones. The way it works is that you hear different voices from each earphone, giving the impression that they’re there in your head and are moving through your surroundings. This is done through binaural audio, a recording method that lets you hear sound in a 3D space when wearing headphones.

It’s such a great feature because it enhances both the narrative and your immersion. So if you’re planning to play Hellblade 2, be sure to play it with your best headphones.

There’s quite a number of things that make Hellblade 2 somewhat hard to recommend, much of it has to do with how unconventional it is compared to other high profile exclusives. In a way, it plays like an indie but has the visual and audio flourishes of a big blockbuster. But I’d be remiss if I said that it’s not worth experiencing – at least even once. Keyword here is experience. Because to me, Hellblade 2 is more of a game you experience, rather than you play – if that makes any sense.

Hellblade 2 is out on May 21 for Xbox Series X|S, PC, Steam, Cloud, as well as Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass. –

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