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Hellblade 2 is more Hellblade, but disappointingly, it’s also less

Hellblade 2 manages to elevate so much of its presentation, but I can’t help but feel it’s sacrificed too much of its gameplay on Xbox.

Hellblade 2 gameplay impressions: Senua staring out to the ocean next to a close-up of her face

On Tuesday night I logged off from work and made my way down to my Xbox with a skip. Hellblade 2 had just launched, and I had mentally, spiritually, and emotionally prepared myself for another audiovisual masterclass from Ninja Theory. Fast-forward six hours and change, I watched the credits roll with a bemused expression. Hellblade 2 is certainly more Hellblade, but I’m not entirely sure it’s managed to iterate positively on its predecessor beyond its presentation. Warning, spoilers ahead.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the best games I’ve had the pleasure of playing in recent years. Though it never had the flash of, say, Stellar Blade’s combat, or the extensive runtime of some of the best open-world games, it managed to take me on a remarkable journey through some of the most horrifying psychological setpieces around. By the end, I was completely lost on what was real and what wasn’t, fully immersing myself in Senua’s inner psyche.

While the tension is still very much palpable in Hellblade 2, the scariest part of it for me was the fear that I wouldn’t make it past the first couple of hours – the pacing is so slow that I nearly completely disengaged from it. Whereas Senua’s Sacrifice quickly introduces me to bosses, combat, and puzzles, I’m left traipsing through the Icelandic wilderness for an uncomfortable amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, the photogrammetry and expert deployment of Unreal Engine 5 makes for a technical masterpiece, but there are only so many pretty rocks you can look at before your brain begins to resemble one.

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This is only further compounded by the speed at which Hellblade 2 hurtles towards its climax. After you figure out how to defeat the giants the Xbox exclusive really hits its stride. However, I accidentally blinked and found myself at the final boss encounter, which itself is… meh. Though there is good reason for the biggest bad appearing as a human rather than a giant, it’s certainly anti-climactic. If anything, I felt robbed of a Hela-esque encounter in terms of grandeur, and it felt at odds with the ones preceding it which were pretty darn good.

Speaking of encounters, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed Ninja Theory’s creative direction with combat setpieces. The choreography is on point, and the decision to go full John Wick in the way it throws Senua into duel after chaotic duel is absolutely fire. However, I don’t really understand the need to remove the ability to bash enemies. Hellblade 2’s combat is reduced to ‘slash, slash, focus, kill’ and repeat as a result, and though, yes, every battle feels like a bitter struggle, navigating them quickly gets repetitive.

Another major area of repetition in Hellblade 2 is its puzzles, though I’d consider these to be more like ‘interactive obstacles.’ Senua’s Sacrifice didn’t exactly push the boat out when it came to conundrums, and Hellblade 2 has done very little to improve on this. While the presentation of its bubble-based puzzles is incredibly smart, I found Hellblade 2 to be lacking complexity overall compared to its forebearer.

Hellblade 2 gameplay impressions: Senua looking out onto the Icelandic landscape

Collating my thoughts, it feels like Ninja Theory has skewed the balance between audiovisual finery and gameplay even further toward the former. Though this would be fine if it had the narrative oomph to carry it, peculiar pacing and a disappointing finale had me putting the controller down feeling hollow. Though, once again, it has been a privilege to see the studio’s love and craftsmanship on full display, I dearly hope it can elevate the substance to match the style in the next stage of Senua’s story.

While these are just my feelings, it’s heartening to see so many other players reveling in everything Hellblade 2 has to offer – art like this will always be polarizing. Though I can’t see its arrival on the list of Xbox Game Pass games pushing the subscription numbers up nearly as much as the publisher would hope, it is the perfect game for Game Pass. This is because it’s the kind of game you have to play for yourself to pass judgment on, and with this much of a mixed response, I can’t see many folks forking out $50 for the privilege.

If you’ve just polished off Hellblade 2 and are looking for your next binge, then check out our list of the best Xbox Game Pass games. If you’re looking for an intense experience more specifically, then give our best horror games guide a whirl.