HomeTech Senua’s Saga review: Hellblade II: The nerve-shredding arthouse game is the unlikeliest blockbuster of 2024

Senua’s Saga review: Hellblade II: The nerve-shredding arthouse game is the unlikeliest blockbuster of 2024

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Senua's Saga review: Hellblade II: The nerve-shredding arthouse game is the unlikeliest blockbuster of 2024

TOAs the stench of rotting corpses fills the air, I hear the screams of my slaughtered relatives and my lips begin to tremble. “You let them die,” a voice in my head accuses me, as I desperately crawl towards the lifeless bodies. “Save them!” Another thought begs. But his killer has seen me. As he draws his bloody sword, I shakily raise mine. “You?!” I scold myself internally. “Struggle them? Are weak! You will die here.”

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

Players must fight everything from Vikings to giants and the undead. Photography: Xbox Game Studios

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

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

Melina Juergens gives an exceptional performance as Senua, the conflicting voices in her head hauntingly brought to life by actresses Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland. However, the horrors of Hellblade II are not just the shadows within her mind. As you journey through an incredibly rendered Iceland, across vast Nordic plains and snow-capped mountain peaks, you soon learn that reality can be just as terrifying as Senua’s hallucinations. The creation of Ninja Theory recalls the same kind of haunting mix 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 fight everything from Vikings to giants to the undead, the line between the real world and Senua’s psychosis blurs. A disturbing cave section elevates the psychological horror to almost unbearable levels.

Like Death Stranding, Hellblade II uses the otherworldly rocks of Iceland to bring its surreal fiction to life, combining realistic photogrammetry techniques with widescreen presentation and film grain to deliver the most visually stunning game of this console generation. till the date. I’m usually never one to tinker with photo modes – a fairly useless in-game equivalent of Instagram – but I couldn’t help but pause the heart-wrenching action to line up aesthetically pleasing shots of the horizon, like a gnarly A-level photo assignment. .

The surreal, mind-bending puzzle sections of the first game also make a welcome return, 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 2000s Tool music video, and the Furies’ chorus of conflicting tracks combine into a stress-inducing symphony. The unease is compounded by Hellblade II’s commitment to cinematic immersion. As you parry the sword swings and move out of range of the demonic claws, there are no buttons, health bars, or skill meters to guide you, just an increasingly wounded and slow-looking Senua.

‘A stressful symphony’… The Saga of Senua: Hellblade II. Photography: Xbox Game Studios

Video games have long been celebrated for their ability to put you in a character’s shoes, and Hellblade II takes advantage of that interactivity to create true and challenging empathy. Anyone living with anxiety is used to unreliable narrators whispering in their ear, but it’s rare to experience this constant, intentional confusion in a game. While I don’t suffer from psychosis, you can get a surprising sense of catharsis from listening to this character’s innermost anxieties and doubts in real time.

As a big-budget sequel to an arthouse game about PTSD, Hellblade II is the unlikeliest blockbuster of 2024. Yet from its heartbreaking beginning to its bold, bloody climax, it’s a moving and terrifying triumph. It’s short and tightly scripted, and doesn’t feel much like other video games, but while countless titles offer hours of loot and leveling, Hellblade II offers a deep and harrowing experience.

There is a layer of kindness interwoven with cruelty, implying that even the world’s greatest monsters were once human. In an increasingly divided time, this simple message of choosing empathy over hate is especially poignant. As monolithic megacorporations shut down Bafta-winning studios, a game like Hellblade II deserves to be appreciated. Who knows how many more cerebral epics this risk-averse industry will produce.

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