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Senua's Saga: Hellblade II: Accessibility Review

Disclaimer

The copy of the game used for this review was provided by the publisher at no cost to the reviewer.

Introduction

Hellblade was, on its release as a PlayStation 4 exclusive back in 2017, hailed by some as an immersive experience like no other. Audio-wise, its use of binaural recording for much of the game's voice acting helped create an engaging narrative atmosphere, whilst the music and sound design fleshed that out with, at times, chilling effectiveness.

With that being said, it must also be acknowledged that the game could not, unfortunately, be played without sighted assistance, in part due to its prominent focus on visual puzzles.

The combat, however, was the most workable part of the game, as the audio design allowed me to tell when enemies were coming at me and when to use certain abilities, for example.

I feel like with experiences such as this that tackle heavy themes, enjoyed or loved aren't words that are easy to use without potentially trivialising said themes and instead, I'd usually say I appreciated the experience, which is definitely true for this first entry.

With 7 years between the original and its sequel, along with the studio behind it, Ninja Theory, changing hands to be under the Xbox Games Studios Umbrella, thanks to a free review code provided by the kind folks at Xbox: Just how accessible is the second entry in Senua's story as a gamer without sight?

First Boot

When booting up the game, after a while of waiting through what I'd presume are logos, menu narration loads in immediately to alert you to the fact that the game has an auto-save system. This is a great start in my book as then I know what I'm meant to press to progress and, more importantly, what information is being presented to me.

Next, content and photosensitivity warnings are also narrated, with all the narration in-game using the system's default voice (not the player's preference).

Then come the accessibility options, though the ability to adjust the speed of narration is not present at this stage (that comes later once you get to the main menu). That being said, it's already obvious that this is an improvement over the original game, with various colour-blind filters, subtitles and text size being referenced already as a part of this initial setup. At this stage, I was already thinking of other gamers who might be able to play this title thanks to these new additions to the series, such as TheWobblyGamer., who is a big proponent of text size as someone with usable vision.

Once you've set everything, with the narration unfortunately constantly reading the position in the list of options (i.e. 1 of 5, 2 of 5) as the first part of its output much to my personal annoyance with no way to change it, you eventually come to the main menu.

The Main Menu

The music kicks in, serene and "floaty" for lack of a better descriptor. Scrolling through the options, I felt a sense of control and much greater agency that I was not expecting from a series that previously offered me none outside of combat, though I was still hesitant to invest fully into this title just yet given I hadn't entered gameplay.

In my efforts to configure everything I could find so that it might suit my needs, I noticed nothing to imply that there would be navigational assistance of any kind, including audio cues, audio description, lock-on etc which, in truth, worried me.

Interestingly though, there were "self-play" options for combat, something that I don't think I'd seen before, where the game would attack and evade for you where it saw opportunities, almost making the combat sequences into a passive cinematic experience (a little more on that later).

With all options configured as far as I could tell, I hit start game.

The Game Itself

You are immediately loaded into a long cutscene that narrates Senua's journey up to this point, a good recap from the previous game, whether you've played it or not. As to whether the visuals are updated copies of what transpired in the first entry, I could not say, but even without audio description, this narration is well-delivered and gives a good explanation of events. This is, as I said, coming from someone like me who has played the game a few times on differing platforms at this point, so it'd be interesting to know how it felt for a newcomer to Senua's story.

With the cutscene done, the music having faded, the issue from here was that I could not tell, in part due to the game's immersive nature and partly because of the default audio levels, if I was actually in-game or not after the end of this narrative recap. A game should not, in my personal opinion, leave you guessing as to whether you're in control or not, even providing an audible cue when you enter gameplay would've helped here.

Moreover, during my configuration spree above, I could not find any information relating to audio cues, suggesting that there would also not be cues for interaction prompts or traversal, something that would have definitely helped in the previous game as well in terms of providing greater agency to gamers without sight, even if sighted assistance were needed to navigate.

Thankfully the game did continue and, after a very dramatic cutscene and some very atmospheric delivery from the voices that also accompanied Senua on her previous excursions, the rain and thunder around me got me thinking if I was actually in-game now. The game's use of haptics implied that I might be, so, with no way to tell where I was supposed to go, but absolutely loving the introduction that I'd just experienced in spite of lacking a full understanding, I decided to try and press onward.

Being uncertain as to what I might have to do to progress, I was merely listening to hear if Senua was moving, as well as to the voices around me who sometimes provide useful information. However, there were large chunks of time where there would be no auditory feedback even from them, meaning that much like Senua in the first game may have done, I felt lost.

Eventually, having spent a while pressing buttons and moving both analogue sticks around in an only partially successful effort to progress, only getting past one initial climbing sequence by complete luck, as much as I was enjoying what I'd seen in terms of sound, I was stuck without any recourse. With no audio cues to guide me, that I could hear at least, with an inability to hear my character's footsteps at the default levels, it really felt like I'd fallen at the first hurdle through no fault of my own.

As a result, disheartened and frustrated that this experience would likely be another I'd have to add to the list of unplayable titles that so many others would be able to enjoy releasing in 2024, I resolved to get sighted assistance to see what I was missing out on and to verify if I was indeed as stuck as I thought.

With Sighted Assistance

Changing audio mode to speakers thanks to the menu narration, I loaded back in and resumed where we'd left off previously. For the record, even turning down the ambience (an option I appreciated was present and arguably should be more common) did not seem to reveal any additional audio information that I could use to my advantage.

When asking my sighted co-pilot, they said that they were of the opinion that I wouldn't know where to go either with the information the game was providing, which is a common occurrence in many titles.

Utilising Xbox's co-pilot feature (arguably one of the most useful tools for these kinds of reviews), I listened to the dialogue as the game turned into, essentially, a movie for me, passive and nowhere near as immersive as it might have been to play through for yourself.

Credits appeared as we traversed, with no cues as to how to proceed, at least through audio. However, it seemed like mostly a forward progression with occasional presses of the interact button, my best guess from what I was told and any haptic cues that came to me through the viewing experience.

Remembering focus being a core mechanic from the first game, in part from the information I'd seen in the settings menu, I was curious to see if any haptic information had returned in the sequel as a method of cuing the player. When we eventually got to the first point where focus could seemingly be used, I was pleased to be informed via a haptic cue that we were looking at the correct object. However, I wasn't sure if there was an audio equivalent to this cue, given we were playing using a full 5.1 surround setup at the time.

There were points throughout the hour or so I was able to play via assistance when even my sighted co-pilot admitted that they would be feeling extremely lost and be stuck in an area for ages, were they playing alone. They persisted to get me through what we could of the game in that short interval of time.

Eventually, after some pretty harrowing sequences, as well as attempting to solve a puzzle which was only helped by my knowledge and insight into the previous game's mechanics, the moment came where I hoped I could shine once again... as we entered our first proper fight of the game.

Combat

In the first Hellblade game, the enemies had distinct telegraphing that made parrying possible and working with patterns at least plausible. I was hoping this game would improve on that formula, with weighty impacts and fluidity backed by what was already a solid score and intense environmental audio.

Unfortunately, from what I've seen, at least in terms of the telegraphing point above, this is sadly not the case for a variety of reasons.

The enemies have comparatively little windup in terms of audio for light attacks, even with the ambience and music turned down. Coupled with the fact that even early game enemies can kick you as well, which also has little to no telegraph and you might spend more time rolling/evading than you do actually striking at your foe. Even if that is the point, it's interesting that you feel like less of a warrior than you did at the end of the previous game, though that could also be explained away narratively.

With all that said, battles do sound solid in terms of impacts and the visceral nature of the violence even during QTE sequences is fantastic.

Blocking now has a haptic cue with a gap in it, though whether that gap is for parrying, or what a true parry might sound like as there was a cue for this in the original game later on, I could not rightly say. The closest I could discern was a different cue when I or my opponent were staggered, for lack of a better term.

This loud metallic clang, I realised, gave me a window for a couple of light attacks before I had to resume blocking and waiting for my opponents to make a move that I could counter, should I choose to adopt that style. It also allowed me to hit a heavy attack instead, but I only figured this out after a save put me right before a battle I could use as a test, with no sighted assistance needed to get into said encounter.

Self-play

Self-play is an interesting concept, with the game taking over for you where you otherwise might not be able to accomplish certain tasks. Even down to options like QTE autocomplete, this principle has been around for a while.

In Hellblade II, the combat self-play (which I tested with the same battles as above) seemed pretty effective, even if it was not as efficient as a human player. I used it as a metric for what combat could look like, giving me the opportunity to examine how the enemies and Senua fought and moved, almost in a dance of sorts.

Being able to see this highlighted my own inefficiencies, which I then attempted to refine by putting the difficulty on hard. Having the autocomplete option on for mashing sequences also helped me, as it meant I could focus on the fight and not rapidly tapping buttons when necessary.

I really feel like this option could be great for those just wanting to experience the narrative in a more passive manner, as well as of course those who can't overcome the motor barriers that might be placed in their way with the relatively fast-moving combat system, especially as there is no game speed modifier here. Self-play is a great option to see that I'd love to see expanded in other games, maybe to incorporate playstyles that the player can choose from at any time during battle, almost reminding me of giving AI companions orders. As much as I like being a part of the action, if I couldn't overcome a boss for instance, it could be a very useful extra tool to work with.

Battle done with, that was where my initial session stopped, but I wished I could've played more on my own. Combat discussed, let's talk about an aspect I've referenced throughout though:

Audio and Atmosphere

With any frustration out of the way, however, Senua's Saga sounds as good as it looks (at least I've heard it looks good from multiple sources). Whether using headphones or speakers, the game sounded stellar, with it feeling like it might as well be raining in the space I was playing the game in.

The bass thundered, the combat score was a driving force and the voices that inhabit the world moved around eerily, creating a wonderfully immersive atmosphere.

Much like the first game, the quality of the vocal performances was not to be underestimated. The powerful delivery from all involved gives off a strong sense that you are not just playing a game, but almost a part of the world yourself.

An Unusual And Interesting Issue

A point that I'd not really considered up to now, but should've been perhaps obvious with the way Hellblade and its sequel are built, is that the use of binaural footage that is pre-recorded means that said footage may not be able to accommodate the player's camera movement to rotate around the space. This means that if you wanted to, for instance, go towards an NPC or someone who is speaking, you can't because they are in the binaural environment and their audio cannot pan to follow where you are looking or listening (in my case).

I am aware that, due to the game's nature, some of the voices heard are not directly present in Senua's external physical environment, but the fact that I couldn't use NPCs for navigation in the instance I tried it was an extra frustration that I knew I'd have to be aware of. This is particularly relevant given the NPC that I'd attempted this with sounded like they were outside, a relatively short distance away from me.

This could certainly be an interesting element to look into in future; how to get great sounding audio (i.e. like binaural in this game) with the addition of being able to move the camera and have it recognise that, making sure that it can be easily implemented into games in a standardised manner, to create immersive experiences that do not require head tracking for movement but instead can use game controllers.

I definitely appreciated what I was able to experience and was sorry that I wouldn't get to see some of the set pieces from the trailers first-hand, at least not for a while.

Summary

Pros

Cons

Conclusions

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II has the potential to be an accessible entry in an IP that strives to be inclusive and tell a hard-hitting story. However, what it seeks to do and what it actually manages to achieve are very different.

I would have very much liked to be able to say I played through this start to finish, particularly given Microsoft's track record in increasing accessibility in previous years in various genres, but sadly, this is not a game I can recommend gamers without sight purchase at all.

Ninja Theory have certainly made improvements over the previous entry in this series and that is not to be ignored. What improvements have been made will certainly be of use to some (I'm thinking of the self-play or contextual elements that might allow players to get past difficult combat sections), even if they do not directly benefit gamers without sight like me. Even adding in text size can be the difference between someone being able to play a game or not.

However, this game still shows a focus on visuals as one of its core pillars, even in the marketing (which admittedly was accessible thanks to judicious use of alt text which was greatly appreciated), but the narrative is resultantly off-limits to those who do not have the ability to utilise vision in any way, at least at present.

With Xbox's recent announcement of various accessibility-related endeavours like the proteus controller and the workshop toolkit, however, I still hold onto a small amount of hope that gamers without sight might see something fully playable from Xbox. In light of recent developments in the industry though, what that'll be and how long it will take to come to fruition are now anybody's guess.

All things said and done, Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is a well-crafted, passion-fuelled project; visually stunning and aurally atmospheric, though without the accessibility features that it would need to be truly said to be pushing the envelope for accessibility without sight, which would allow even more people to gain a connection to Senua's world.

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