Hellblade II confounds expectations

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II (HB2) is one of the most fascinating games of the year. At its core, it’s a linear “walking simulator” like Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, made with AAA levels of polish. Creative dissonance between initial expectations and the final product has fueled a polarized reaction to the game across reviews and social media.

A debate over HB2 felt inevitable with how fundamental gameplay is to most games and how strongly HB2 deemphasizes traditional gameplay mechanics. Pick any title at the top of sales charts; gameplay elements are almost always pivotal to their success. Elden Ring has best-in-class action RPG controls. Fortnite allows high degrees of player customization while providing many game variations, from battle royale shooters to Lego building and car racing. The Last of Us is best known for its post-apocalyptic storyline but is also lauded for its stealth action combat.

However, HB2 takes a deliberate approach by limiting gameplay options to focus on characters, setting, and mood. The majority of HB2’s runtime is spent guiding the protagonist Senua through an environment, allowing players to absorb the scenery and engage with the dialogue. There are no fail conditions or choices, just a linear journey from point A to B lasting about six to eight hours. While combat battles and puzzles exist, the action is straightforward (some argue outdated), repetitive, and easily skippable.

That’s not to say the experience isn’t captivating for the right audience. I found several set pieces in HB2 to be sensational, thanks to some of the best graphics and audio I’ve ever seen or heard in a game. The sense of immersion is often unparalleled. Whether it’s controlling an injured Senua as she walks through a rain-blasted encampment or guiding her scurrying around with a torch through a claustrophobic, The Descent-inspired cave sequence are the kind of singular gaming experiences I rarely experience. Those highlights made the overall journey worthwhile, even though I had challenges with Senua’s character arc and found the combat sequences a slog to push through.

Then again, I’m an ideal target for this kind of game, given that I already enjoy other walking simulators and gravitate towards dark art house movies. For gamers more used to Call of Duty, HB2 will likely be infuriating. One gaming podcast host summarized his feelings well: “I was just holding up on the left stick for thirty minutes straight!”

I get it; HB2 will always be an acquired taste. Polarized opinions, soft financial performance, and limited engagement in a service like Game Pass feel inevitable. Yet the game had a larger than average marketing campaign, including multiple splashy trailers at high profile events like the Game Awards. Xbox went so far as to recently show a full page popover ad when players booted up their consoles, encouraging players to check the game out.

It’s one thing to build a game that confounds expectations for players, but another when said game is given this much care and attention from its parent platform holder. In a 2024 Xbox post-ABK acquisition that increasingly wants conservative, mega hitmakers, HB2 feels like an outlier.

The closest parallel I can draw is that of Netflix in the late 2010s or Apple TV Plus these last few years. Each service bankrolled expensive prestige films from acclaimed directors like Martin Scorsese or Alfonso Cuaron. Films like The Irishman, Roma, and Killers of a Flower Moon weren’t big money makers or meant to pull in a big tent audience, but they were part of a deeper awards push to attract other creative talent and bring in a fresh set of subscribers.

I hope Xbox sees a game like HB2 as a similar artistic gateway for Game Pass. These smaller, more artistic ideas were always the promise of the subscription service; revenue from a Call of Duty or Diablo IV can fund many passion projects for niche tastes. However, in light of the recent Bethesda studio closures, I question if Microsoft’s corporate strategy has enough space for such divisive experiments that don’t tear up engagement charts. As I mentioned in my last post on the subject, we’ll have to fast forward a year to see where the landscape ends up. Here’s hoping HB2 isn’t the last of its kind, but a salvo along with titles like Pentiment, that show an Xbox that can juggle a truly diverse first party library.