Senua’s internal struggle with psychosis is seamlessly integrated into the very fiber of the first Hellblade, making for one of the finest representations of mental illness to grace the medium. Conversely, it’s her external ones that let Senua’s first outing down, as the clunk and jank of its combat struggled to reach the same standard as other aspects of the game. Fortunately, there’s “all new” combat on the way for Hellblade 2 and, thankfully, it looks to be steering clear of the chaff.
During the recent Xbox Developer Direct, Ninja Theory VFX director Mark Slater-Tunstill said that Hellblade 2’s “brutal” combat will make you “feel [Senua’s] struggle in every step of her journey.” He also described the combat as being “all new”, which would perhaps indicate that we’re in for new weapons and abilities to help Senua on her journey. However, nothing we’ve seen so far suggests that’s the case for one of the year’s biggest Xbox exclusives – and to be honest, that’s a good thing.
In both the Xbox Developer Direct showcase and the trailer that aired at The Game Awards 2023, we can see that Senua is still primarily using the Odin-forged Gramr, alongside the magical mirror given to her by Druth – Focus looks to be back on the table. The only time we see Senua handling any other weapon is during an execution sequence where she yoinks the axe of an assailant and drives it squarely into their forehead.
Admittedly, she does chuck a few spears in the TGA 2021 trailer. But I don’t expect her to carry one around with her – spears are a logistical nightmare in cramped caves and so forth.
So where’s the “new”? The answer lies within the expansion of Ninja Theory’s motion capture operation, as well as the huge amount of work that’s clearly gone into smoothing out and diversifying combat animations. “We spent a lot of time planning the motion capture shoots,” Slater-Tunstill explains, “thinking of what events would be good to bring into this fight – how can we make this fight feel different from the previous fight?”
The result is as visually striking as it is physically. From everything I’ve watched and rewatched of Hellblade 2’s action setpieces, there’s a real sense of polish that wasn’t there before. Even if we’re still given the same suite of slashes, kicks, and parries that we had in the original, I’m fine with it as long as the drama and tension of combat harmonize with the rest of the game.
As Slater-Tunstill says, “Senua isn’t a superhero.” While she’s set to take on the role of a leading light for those around her in Hellblade 2, she’s still human. When it comes to combat, I need to see that sense of bitter struggle better conveyed this time around – I want to feel like every basic enemy that comes my way is a challenger for me to fight to the death.
What I don’t want is a convoluted stack of weapons to sift through, never getting to fulfill their potential in Hellblade 2’s condensed playtime. And I definitely don’t want more god-killing powers that’ll cheapen the experience. I want to immerse myself wholly in Senua’s story at every level, and combat is a major part of that.
Though Hellblade 2 has been in the oven for quite some time, I get the feeling that Ninja Theory hasn’t wasted any of it. I will, of course, have to reserve my final judgment until May 21 when the game arrives. But my early impressions are that the studio won’t disappoint, finally giving the series’ physical battles the same care and attention as its psychological ones.
For more of our post-Xbox Developer Direct thoughts, check out my musings on why those bemoaning Hellblade 2’s price tag are wrong. Alternatively, Jamie’s thoughts on why Contraband should’ve been the surprise game, as well as Sam’s words on why he can’t wait for the new Indiana Jones game despite its dated looks make for excellent reads.