Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Looks Solid, but Microsoft’s Messaging Has Been Questionable

It feels like Microsoft can't decide whether Hellblade 2 is a AAA megaton or an arthouse sequel.

Posted By | On 25th, Feb. 2024

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Looks Solid, but Microsoft’s Messaging Has Been Questionable

Every time we’ve seen Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, it’s looked solid. Maybe it hasn’t blown anyone away, which, to some, might actually mean it’s looked disappointing, but for those who enjoyed the first game, it’s looking like a sequel that’s going to deliver well in similar ways. As Microsoft continues its search to notch up wins for its expanded first-party portfolio, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is the game that both it and its community have frequently looked at, and it does seem like it will make good on those expectations. But while that’s true, it’s been a little strange seeing the way Microsoft has marketed the game, because the messaging has been wildly inconsistent, to say the very least. After being touted as a big, tentpole first-party release for years, the messaging around Ninja Theory’s sequel has, as of earlier this year, abruptly and jarringly pivoted away, with Hellblade 2 now being billed as a smaller game- and the whiplash has raised a few eyebrows, to say the least.

We first saw Hellblade 2 over four years ago, when Microsoft officially announced it at The Game Awards in December 2019, and though no gameplay was shown, it certainly made an impression. For starters, the very simple fact that a game as unique and beloved as the original Hellblade was getting a sequel was exciting, while the game’s debut trailer itself also left quite a mark, what with the promise of a radical technical leap forward. The promise of a Hellblade game that would have the full backing of Microsoft as a big, tentpole first-party release was implicit in that trailer, and in the years that followed, that promises was repeatedly made several more times.

Since Ninja Theory first joined the Xbox Game Studios lineup, many assumed that the studio would be filling a significant gap in Microsoft’s portfolio with big, cinematic, single player action-adventure games, the kind that we see in abundance from teams under the PlayStation umbrella, and naturally, those expectations latched on to Hellblade 2 by default. Microsoft, meanwhile, continued to stand Hellblade 2 up as a major first-party blockbuster to look forward to as well, which further cemented higher expectations around the game, to the extent that many were wondering if a bigger Hellblade experience of a larger scale and with more budget backing it would still be able to retain the singular focus and restraint that made the first Hellblade game as good as it was.

That messaging, however, has changed in recent weeks. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 was one of several first-party titles to be showcased at Microsoft’s Xbox Developer Direct presentation in January, and it was hard not to come away confused about what was revealed of the game. And that’s not because the game itself didn’t look good – no, it actually looks promising, especially if you liked the original Hellblade – but because the messaging around the game has suddenly changed. Hellblade 2 is not going to be the large-scale sequel that many had assumed it would be, nor is it going to be a full-priced game. No, when it launches in May, it will be a digital-only release being sold for $50, and will be about as long as the first game was.

Now, on paper, there’s actually plenty to be pleased about with that announcement, and I’ll get to that in a bit- but the sudden shift in how Microsoft is talking about the game deserves some scrutiny. If this is what Hellblade 2 was always going to be – and there would be nothing wrong if that were the case, for the record – then why have we spent the last four-plus years seeing it being positioned as this big, AAA, tentpole release, one that’s going to serve as a centerpiece in the Xbox Game Studios portfolio? If Microsoft always knew that the game was being designed as another focused, small-scale experience that would adopt a philosophy of focus and restraint like its predecessor did, why did marketing suggest that it was instead going to be a full-priced, shiny blockbuster release- until just a few months before launch?

senua's saga hellblade 2

Now, is it actually a bad thing for the game itself that it’s essentially going to be more of the same (at least based on what we’ve seen of its gameplay thus far)? Not necessarily. In fact, many will tell you that having a wider scope and trying to tell a more large-scale story would probably have clashed with Hellblade’s core sensibilities. A sequel that continues to focus on Senua’s character, her personal journey, and her own struggles is what most fans of the first game would probably want regardless. At the same time, plenty of people will also tell you that in areas like the combat and puzzle design, the original Hellblade had a lot of room for improvement, so hopefully, those are areas that the sequel will address regardless of its scale.

It also has to be said that a major first-party studio’s big, new release being a shorter, smaller game that will be priced lower and will be about 7-10 hours long is incredibly refreshing to see, especially in an industry where issues like rising prices, rising development costs, and bloated experiences are growing increasingly prominent. Of course, we don’t really know how much money was poured into Hellblade 2’s development and marketing – given the fact that it’s been in the works for seven years, we can probably assume that it’s been a much costlier endeavor than the first game, especially with Microsoft’s full backing – but a major first-party studio putting out a cheaper-priced game that will last 8 hours? Yes, we do need more of that, and hopefully, Hellblade 2 will be successful enough to show publishers throughout the industry that there’s value to that business model as well.

Clearly, then, there’s no shortage of reasons to be optimistic about Hellblade 2. The game itself has looked solid each time it’s been shown off, and if Ninja Theory can recapture the magic of the first game while also making meaningful improvements in areas like the combat and puzzles, Senua’s Saga has every chance of turning out to be a major win for the Xbox Game Studios lineup. What has been much shakier, however, has been Microsoft’s messaging around the game. Seemingly unable to decide whether Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is a AAA blockbuster or an arthouse sequel, the company has decided that it’s somehow both, and in the process, it’s muddied the conversation around the game in ways that have had a noticeable impact on its pre-release hype cycle.

Senua's Saga Hellblade 2 - Senua_Unreal Engine

When the publisher itself doesn’t know how to talk about a game, how are the fans, or the potential fans? If you liked the original Hellblade, should you expect a sequel that mostly sticks to what it did, or should you expect something much bigger and grander in scale? If you didn’t like the original Hellblade, should you expect a sequel that you will be able to get into? Thanks to Microsoft, answers to these critical questions have been unclear at best, and it’s hard to imagine how that’s going to be good for the game- even though the game itself is looking like it’s going to be a well-made experience.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.


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