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From the moment that you start playing Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, you are tossed in a storm like a sailor on the seas of fate. As a Celtic warrior, Senua is chained aboard a Viking slaver ship headed to Iceland. The storm is horrifying, the ship capsizes, and you can feel Senua’s struggle for existence.

Much more in command of herself than in the previous game, Senua has allowed herself to be captured to trace a path to her enemies who keep enslaving her people. She wants to get to the bottom of why they keep attacking and put an end to it. The odds against her are horrifying, yet she fights on.

This is a familiar state for Senua, who is one of the most interesting video game characters of all time, played with a stirring performance by voice actor Melina Juergens. Senua is interesting because she is so different and normal compared to so many other women characters in games. She’s not a muscle-bound hero, but she has learned to fight and wield a sword. She always seems so exhausted from her journeys, travails, and combat — yet she soldiers on.

By design, she isn’t sexy or voluptuous, and so she doesn’t fit any of the tropes from past video game history. To paraphrase a recent talk by Anita Sarkeesian, Senua is proof that the game industry no longer hates women. Rather, she is an embodiment of how far the industry has come.

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Senua is unique not only because of how she looks, but because of what goes on inside her head. She is . As she is living in a metaphor in a fantasy world, where the demons in her head can really be demons in the world around her.

Senua sees things that others don’t.

As you wear headphones, you can experience what Senua feels. She hears voices and she stays within that reality to fulfill her quest. In Senua’s Sacrifice, she was preoccupied and enslaved by her darkness. She could not avoid the voices. In Senua’s Saga, she has a better grasp on reality where she is in control. She can resist and change the voices and make her own decisions. The darkness, especially in the intimidating form of her deranged father inside her head, is still with her. But she can master it and control her fate.

The challenges are different this time, as Senua is investigating a new land which is bedeviled with its own monsters and demons — and giants from Norse legend. She must still use her different perspective — her ability to see the world in another way than most of us — to solve puzzles in the world. Senua has psychosis, where she sees and hears things that aren’t really there. The story revolves around this condition. And she must fight the demons known as Draugr, who are spirits of the dead who inhabit corpses, whether they seem real or not.

The back story of what makes Senua special

Senua’s face in Hellblade II.

The game has a five-minute catch-up video about the story so far, from Senua’s Sacrifice: Hellblade, which Ninja Theory brought to the market 2017. It was my favorite game of that year. And I marveled at the creative approach of grounding Senua’s character as a person with psychosis, who might see or hear things that other people can’t. Since that time, Ninja Theory was acquired by Microsoft’s Xbox gaming division, and it seemingly had all the resources and time to make the sequel.

Ninja Theory included a 23-minute video about Senua’s psychosis, narrated by Melina Juergens, who explains how Senua sees the world differently. The video has interviews with consulting patients who live through psychosis like Eddy, who describes his struggles. He said he hears voices in his head of God, “the opposite,” and angels. He thought he would never get better but he improved.

As it did with the first game, Ninja Theory enlisted the help of Paul Fletcher, a doctor who treats people with psychosis and a professor at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He describes psychosis as a shift in the appearance of reality or perceptions.

Cast in a realistic manner from this real world research, Senua sees significance in symbols and meeting people. She experiences an altered state of reality. To her, what she experiences is real. She goes onto experience amazing feats of courage. Eddy can relate to what Senua is going through.

“They might see or hear things that other people can’t,” Fletcher said.

Combat is visceral in Hellblade II.

To the person, it feels like their reality. To begin to understand psychosis, you have to consider how to the brain makes sense of the world around you, Fletcher said. That means the brain leans on what it knows and its own predictions so that it doesn’t have to process a sea of inputs from the real world, much the way a baby is overwhelmed by the sensation of the world.

Your brain can help you rely on what you know, rather than just what the world around you is telling you, as that may be unreliable. Fletcher notes that things like illness, stress, sleep deprivation can send you into a state where you only believe what you see in your mind, not what you see in reality. That leads to suffering, and misjudgment from others who see you as just a “crazy” person.

In fact, Ninja Theory’s premise is that people like Senua are special, and they can pull resilience from their inner struggles to deal with threats, real or imagined.

Admirable improvements

A view of the real Icelandic landscape.

The game’s imagery is gorgeous, whether you’re looking at the realistic rendering of Iceland or the super-realistic eyes and skin of Senua’s face.

The game has six episodes in six different sections of Iceland, a barren wilderness battered by the weather. You start out in Reykjanesta, on the beach full of shipwrecks. Then you move on to the village of Freyslaug, and move on to Raudholar, Huldufolk, Bardarvik, and finally Borgarvirki. Each environment is amazingly rendered and unique. It looks hyperrealistic, thanks to the developer’s careful use of Unreal Engine 5.

Senua crawls through a narrow cave.

One part of the world is full of stormy weather and post-storm debris on the beaches. Another place is a village befouled by the massacre of villagers in pools of blood. Another part of the world is a subterranean cavern, full of luminescence and waters that seem lit by the Northern Lights. And there is the snow-bound world at the end where you can barely see the enemies in front of you.

This diverse landscape is a welcome change from the non-stop horror of the previous game, which had images like bodies hanging from a giant tree engulfed in flames.

I liked how there were moments that the developers found to convey the sense of determination and struggle Senua must marshal to move onward, like when she has to crawl through a cave with claustrophobic effect.

Is it scary?

The giants are something to behold in Hellblade II.

The challenge of making a sequel, particularly in the horror genre, is that the developer has already used a lot of tricks to scare us in the first game. If they use them all again in the second game, we’re immune to it. I felt that way as I played the second game. I expected horrifying images like the bloody piles of bodies in the villages.

But because Senua herself is in a different state of mind, she can go into places like underground caverns and appreciate the sensation of beauty. She isn’t scare out of her wits all of the time. But when she is faced with horror and powerful enemies, she steels herself. That kind of confidence rubs off on the player, and you can meet those horrors without being afraid.

She needs that courage to deal with something more terrifying than what she encountered before: giants. These creatures are loud and thunderous, yet the confrontation with them stops short of being completely satisfying.

Things I didn’t like

Solving puzzles in Hellblade II.

The game has some flaws, like how short it is compared to the original, which, ironically, seemed overly long. The combat scenes are shorter and fewer. You spend more time walking or engaging with the story than fighting, and that will disappoint the action players. We’ve heard these familiar criticisms before.

Senua goes through the same kind of struggle that she did in the original game, but the problem with this interesting character in the second game is that they don’t give her enough to do. The problem translates to the player not having enough to do but listen to the story that happens around Senua. It’s definitely a story that violates the notion of “show, don’t tell.”

The game still has satisfying and visceral combat. Yet on the default setting, the combat was also a lot easier than the first game, which seemed to have a default setting that was extremely difficult. I would die many times over before defeating enemies in vicious swordfights. The game is on rails as well. For the most part, you don’t get lost.

There was one part in the original Hellblade where you are in the dark, fighting a giant dragon-like beast. The light comes on or flickers off, and you can only hear the growls of the beast. That was scary, but there is no beast or moment like this in the second game.

The puzzles are easier to solve. All of these changes might seem like good things. They make the game more accessible to a wider group of players, which will help Ninja Theory get its important message out. But to the hardcore players who enjoyed barely surviving the first game, this feels like a letdown.

I felt like the variety of enemies was limited too. There were tough human-like enemies, dubbed Draugr, who could come at you with a spear, ax, sword or flames. You have to react in a different way to deal with each kind of enemy. That takes some skill, but I do think it was easier fighting. If you block enough blows, your powerup lights up and you can savagely turn the tables on your attacker.

This was not all bad, as the fight scenes become cinematic and you remain in the moment of combat, where one enemy after another comes at you in a relentless wave.

Should you play it?

Senua’s Saga took about 7.8 hours for me to play.

I have my own issues with the game and I empathize with those who want to be angry that the game is a Walking Simulator, it lacks that feeling of nonstop action, and that it is disappointing for a well-financed triple-A title. But that’s not enough this game as important.

You have to play the game with headphones with binaural audio to get the full effect of the voices inside Senua’s head. It is an admirable attempt to portray people with psychosis and treat them with dignity. We can learn so much from games that takes us down this kind of path.

I hesitate to say that the game needs to be longer. It took me about 7.8 hours to finish the mature-rated game. I’ve seen the toll of that mentality on the game industry in the past year, where ever-longer games mean so much more work and costs.

This game took seven years to make, even though it is a relatively short game. Its visuals are so much more realistic than the original title, which was gorgeous for its time. Now, thanks to Unreal Engine 5 and technologies like Nanite, it is amazing. Yet we don’t necessarily need 100-hour games because that is an unsustainable way of making games, according to Shawn Layden, former head of Sony’s game studios.

I would give this game a four out of five, which is lower than the rating I gave the original title. But I think you should definitely play it, as it is an abbreviated work of art.

Disclaimer: Microsoft provided me with a copy of the game which I played on the Windows PC.

Four stars

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