Easily The Game Awards 2019’s most surprising announcement was the unveiling of Microsoft’s next-generation console, the Xbox Series X. Rather than spending too much time explaining the minutiae of its hardware specifications, though, head of Xbox Phil Spencer instead let footage of developer Ninja Theory’s Hellblade II: Senua’s Saga do the talking, and boy did it look superb.
It’s the first word we’ve had on a sequel to 2017’s critically-acclaimed Hellblade, a title that began life as a timed PS4 exclusive and now looks set to continue firmly as a Microsoft-only title following the company’s acquisition of Ninja Theory last year.
Immediately following the trailer reveal, Microsoft offered some general commentary on the game’s impressive graphical performance by way of a Newswire article, but in terms of the story, we’re being left to connect the dots ourselves, at least for now.
So as a fan of Norse mythology, Viking history, and folk music like the tune heard in the trailer by Danish band Heilung, I’m going to attempt exactly that.
The first observation I’ll make shouldn’t be all that surprising but may not be entirely obvious to those that don’t know European geography or Viking history: Hellblade II almost certainly takes place on Iceland.
The volcanic activity, the barren landscape, and its proximity to Senua’s home, the Orkney Islands just off Scotland’s northern shoreline, all but guarantee it’s an Icelandic setting.
From a timeline perspective, too, it roughly lines up. We know that Vikings first settled in Iceland around the early 9th century, and though Hellblade takes place in the 8th century it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine some crossover there.
But why would Senua be in Iceland if she’s a Celtic Pict? She’s unlikely to have sided with them given that in the first game she’s mourning her dead husband who was killed by Norseman. My thinking is that Senua herself has possibly been captured and forced into the slave trade.
We know from historical records that Irish Celts were forced into slavery and forced to travel as far north as Iceland, so perhaps Senua’s wound-up in a similar position? She seems isolated, imprisoned almost, in the trailer, as she’s seen stuck within a lonely village.
Of course, Hellblade is centered around Senua’s struggle with mental illness, which could equally explain that sense of isolation, but I think there will be some sort of backstory as to why she’s arrived on the island.
The other explanation is that Senua has integrated into a Viking community. I offer this alternative angle for two reasons: firstly because despite what I said about Senua appearing imprisoned, she’s also seemingly standing in front of a whole village that seems to be performing a Blood Eagle punishment, the gruesome ritualistic execution from Viking folklore.
Senua’s also got tattoos on her face which are completely different to those she dons in the first game. Where before she was painted in blue, the color historically donned by the Pictish tribes she is a member of, here she’s got what appear to be Viking runes branded on her face.
Also, I alluded to the brilliant music provided by Heilung earlier, and I think the choice of artist and track selection is definitely noteworthy. The title of the track used in the trailer is “In-Maidjan,” which according to one translation, means “to change deceitfully” or “to corrupt”. The lyrics more or less describe a servant of Odin asking for their army to receive a sun blessing.
In the context of Heilung’s Ofnir album from which it is taken, the song weaves into the album’s story about a peaceful village being corrupted by having to go to war — and that’s strikingly similar to what appears to be happening to Senua’s village in the trailer.
But let’s loop back to why I’m certain the game is set in Iceland. There’s a symbol that appears twice in the trailer — once etched on a soldier’s shield, and most notably at the end as it encircles the village and forms part of Hellblade II’s logo.
That symbol looks very much like Ægishjálmur, otherwise known as “Helm of Awe” or “Helm of Terror.” This is a magical stave that is very famous in Iceland, found on t-shirts and popular as a choice of tattoo. To quote Guide to Iceland, ” it was used by warriors of old to induce fear in their enemies’ hearts and prevail in battle.”
Their enemies, in this case, seem to be disturbing creatures such as the troll we’re shown awakening. Trolls, incidentally, are another well-known aspect of Icelandic folklore. Given that the enemies in the original game were a manifestation of Senua’s psychosis, I wonder, too, if the “Helm of Terror,” used to “induce fear” might also tie into Senua’s troubled mind.
This brings me to another thought about how the game’s setting and story tie into Hellblade’s most prominent themes. How much bigger in scope is Hellblade’s story and gameplay design likely to be? Because from what we’re seeing in the trailer it would appear as though Senua won’t be completely alone on her plight this time. Are the creatures and troubles the village is facing still a manifestation of Senua’s mind or is this a collective fear she’ll face with others?
Perhaps all we’re seeing here is a tone piece, but I do wonder whether Hellblade II is going to be less of a journey through Senua’s mind and more a presentation of how she copes with her affliction in the company of others. This, I think, would prove a perfect catalyst to examine and further illuminate the challenges faced by those with mental illness.
Guiding Senua to overcome her inner demons was incredibly powerful, but exploring how she has evolved and learned to cope under the weight of material problems might be an even more valuable lesson.
The relatable anxieties and depressions that Senua suffers from are so often brought about by the problems in front of us, and what more potent a message could there be both in raising awareness and attempting to inspire hope in those that struggle than demonstrating how Senua rises to a challenge and (hopefully) overcomes it?