Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2’s Combat Looks Beautiful And Feels Badass

Focus on Senua: Why “Senua’s Saga” Comes First in Hellblade II

About halfway through my conversation with Dom Matthews, head ninja at Ninja Theory, and Melina Juergens, lead actor for Senua and video editor at Ninja Theory, I broke. I had to ask why the format of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II title is the inverse of the first game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Why is the “Senua” part first? It’s a small thing, sure, but I had to know if there was anything to it beyond the studio’s secret machinations to confuse me. Juergens laughed and admitted that the change trips her up too (which made me feel a whole lot better), while Matthews surprised me with a serious answer to my otherwise silly question.

“We wanted to recognize the fact that the focus is on Senua,” Matthews told me. “It’s Senua’s saga, it’s Senua’s story–we wanted that to be front and center. And it’s an interesting thing, because, [in language], you can just accept that a [certain] word means something and you can’t break it down and go, ‘What does that mean?’ That’s ‘Hellblade’ now–Hellblade means something. It means something, but not in the building blocks of what it is–it’s [just] Hellblade. And that’s still important to the title of the game but we just wanted to put that focus on [Hellblade II] being Senua’s saga. It’s about her, it’s about her journey. It’s right that that comes first.”

Preview of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II Combat

That journey feels like it’s going to be fantastic. I played about 40 minutes of Hellblade II during a visit to Ninja Theory’s studio in Cambridge, UK, and I was enthralled. Unlike the first game, which saw Senua, a Pict warrior with psychosis, struggling to fight her way through Helheim, Hellblade II grounds Senua in Iceland. From what I saw, this change pulls the focus away from the tantalizing mythology brought to life through Senua’s delusions in the first game, and instead centers her conflicts in a more recognizable world. In response, Senua’s movements in combat look and feel more realistic, prioritizing the heft of her sword, felt through her tired desperation during lengthier fights. Whenever Senua clashes swords with someone, Hellblade II makes it feel tense, as if life itself is challenging Senua to earn her right to exist in this world.

“The reason why it’s one-on-one is because we wanted Senua to feel vulnerable,” Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II combat director, Benoit Macon, said. Even though there’s only ever one target, it often feels like Senua is surrounded as the camera zooms in for a very close over-the-shoulder perspective and the whispering advice of the psychosis-created Valkyries bombard Senua.

Enhanced Combat Abilities in Hellblade II

Combat is also made more exciting with new abilities for Senua. My favorite comes from an especially poignant moment in the preview when Senua was reminded of her childhood home, sending her mind back to that space. There, she remembered and recovered a small mirror which she used to focus as a young girl. Coming back to the present, Senua unlocked the ability to use the mirror to focus, temporarily slowing enemies long enough to land a full combo of attacks. Senua has to charge the move, meaning it never became a crutch during the preview, but I can’t see myself beating Hellblade II without using it. Unleashing focus creates this beautiful explosion of reflective shards and shimmering runes that then encase an enemy, thematically insinuating that Senua is giving the target her complete attention much in the same way she did her reflection as a child.

Exploring Dark Fantasy in Hellblade II

The mirror is just one aspect of the game that keeps Hellblade II firmly in the genre of dark fantasy. Senua still must complete environmental puzzles to progress in the world, scouring the immediate area for landmarks that remind her of the shape of certain runes to remove magical obstacles or noticing patterns in the mountainside that hint at secret passages.

This aspect of the game isn’t as challenging as the combat, instead providing a brief respite to catch your breath and soak in the tantalizing atmosphere. I didn’t find these moments as rewarding as the combat, as the riddles I solved seemed fairly simple and straightforward, while the dance-like puzzles of each fight pushed me to think quickly and strategically in the heat of the moment.

Evolution of Senua in Hellblade II

“[Senua has] come to terms with [the fact] that her lover, Dillion, is gone,” Juergens told me. “She’s accepted the past. She’s made peace with her past. In the new game, she’s still hearing voices and seeing visions, but she’s more in control of them and uses them more to drive her forward rather than being afraid of them, if that makes sense.

Truly, May cannot come soon enough. I can’t remember the last time a game preview left me so excited to dive into the full experience. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is set to launch for Xbox Series X|S and PC on May 21 and will be available day one on Xbox Game Pass.