Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 – Our Accessibility Test

Lecture intro

Since the announcement of the Xbox Series X in 2019, Hellblade 2 has been touted as THE “next gen” game that would be THE visual masterpiece, but we were interested in it for other reasons. Firstly, for its subject because it deals with the psychosis of its main character. Also, because as Microsoft’s in-house studio, we expected special attention to be paid to accessibility.

PublisherXbox Game Studios
DeveloperNinja Theory
Release dateMay 21, 2024
Rating16 years and over

And yet, concern mounted on our community Discord as the game’s release date approached since we had little information on what it had in store for us in terms of accessibility.

You’ll be playing Senua, a Nordic warrior from the 10th century. After having faced the gods to save her lover’s soul, this time, Senua wants to save her people. You’ll travel with her to frozen Iceland to better understand who’s abducting her people and for what purpose. You’ll have to fight giants and their followers who make sacrifices to them to appease them or, to the contrary, to venerate them.

Let’s start with what’s most obvious: the promised graphic grand slam does indeed deliver. It’s impressive in its beauty and realism. The facial expressions, the landscapes, the clothing, everything is of a chilling yet agonizing beauty, given the context. It’s difficult to tell the game apart from the cutscenes as the transitions are so fluid. Hellblade 2 offers a truly immersive and cinematic experience.

In Hellblade 2, as in the first Hellblade, you’ll alternate between different game phases. The combat phases, of course, are quite central. In concrete terms, these are very cinematic fights where the enemies are dealt with one by one, face-to-face.

In terms of game mechanics, you’ll have to observe your opponents and the ways they fight closely. Then, you’ll have to alternate parries, ideally timed to hit at exactly the right moment, and then fight back. You have two types of defense, parry and evade, and two types of attacks, fast or heavy. These fights will require fast reflexes and a sense of anticipation.

You may encounter several enemies in a row, each of them arriving in a cinematic choreography. You’ll feel the adrenaline of the fight as if you’re in the midst of a real movie.

The second type of mechanic in HellBlade 2 is puzzles. Doors block your path, and you’ll have to find a way to open them. Either they’ll be made of symbols, broken up into several parts and scattered around the surrounding environment, or you’ll have to use a mirror world to find hidden stones. You’ll need to closely observe your surroundings and use your analytical skills for this part.

Finally, you’ll also have intermediate exploration phases. The story is recounted during these phases while you travel through this beautiful world. The game is very linear, along a corridor, some would say. The path is indeed narrow. When you take a trail away from the main path, it’s usually to find a hidden element: a totem or a stone face hiding the access point to a tree of life. Either way, the puzzle isn’t essential, but it gives you a little extra challenge to find them all. Plus, it teaches you more about Senua’s world.

We had to wait for its release to test it, so we were eager to see what Hellbalde 2 had in store for us in terms of accessibility. We had some doubts to clear up. So, as we did in our Twitch livestream, we’re going to break it all down for you. So, let’s go without further ado!

Lecture intro

What if I have a physical disability?

8 / 10


The first thing you do with a game is familiarize yourself with it. Hellblade 2 doesn’t require a lot of buttons. By default, you’ll need seven keys and both joysticks to play it. But we’ll go into more detail in the settings, and you can even reduce it to five keys by using “simplified combat .”This is really good news.

For your convenience, you can remap each key as you wish. Each directional key has its own entry, so if you have difficulty using joysticks, you can assign the directions to buttons instead. In case there’s a key conflict when you remap a key, you’ll be asked to confirm. This reminds you to also change the duplicate key.

Regarding joysticks, they can be reversed and finely adjusted over 100 degrees of sensitivity. Settings can be specific to different actions, such as camera or photomode. You can’t adjust the dead zones, which can be a problem for alignment puzzles and photomode.

Finally, you’ll be able to toggle actions on or off or even set them to “automatic.” This is useful for button mashing, sprinting or focus. The latter makes it a little easier to find puzzles. These options reduce long or repeated presses that can be tiring.

Fights are intense in Hellblade 2. Fortunately, everything can be automated, whether for defense or attack. By default, there are two defense keys: RB to parry and B to evade. There are two attack keys: X for a fast strike that does little damage or Y for a slow but powerful strike that can break the enemy’s defenses.

The help option simplifies or automates attack and defense. In “simplified” mode, you only have an attack button or a defense button. The game chooses for you whether it’s best to use a fast or heavy strike and whether you should parry or evade.

If you set an action to automatic, the game handles everything. In other words, if you set both defense and attack to automatic, fights become cutscenes. Combat phases can, therefore, be played with a joystick, the camera, and between one to four buttons, depending on your preference and degree of automation.

Parrying and evading require faster reflexes. You also have to make perfect parries, pressing down at the exact moment of impact to break the enemy’s defense. So, if you have slow reflexes, set it to automatic to let you focus on attacks.

In addition to these control settings, Hellblade 2 offers a choice of difficulty settings. This changes enemy resistance as well as your own. That means that an enemy will go down with fewer hits. You can set the difficulty level to “Dynamic” so that it’s always at the right level. That way, the game will then adapt to your skill level in a very fluid way.

During a fight, you won’t need to find enemies; they’re the ones who’ll find you. In fact, fights are series of one-on-one battles with cutscene transitions in between. That means that often, the enemy is in front of you, reducing the need to manage camera position.

During puzzle and exploration phases, you have to find objects in the surrounding environment and line yourself up correctly before focusing on one of the triggers to validate the object’s discovery. During puzzles, symbols are reconstituted, while during exploration, stone faces are found in the surrounding area.

Players who have difficulties with space management and fine motor control will have the most difficulty. In fact, you have to use the joysticks delicately to align puzzle elements and reconstitute symbols, and for that, you need to perceive 3D well to find the right angle.

That’s complicated when you have uncontrolled movements because of your muscles, your nerves, or because of a lack of concentration. We encountered this during our tests with Joel. He has trouble channeling his energy, so it’s much more complicated for him to position the camera with down-to-the-millimeter accuracy.

So, Hellblade 2 offers very effective options for familiarizing yourself with fights and managing them. This can be more annoying for puzzles that require more finesse of movement, but you’re not under a time constraint. If you constantly hold down the focus button, that’ll eliminate the risk that you lose the right alignment if you move when you go to focus. As soon as you’re at the right angle, it validates!

Ivar was able to finish the game by remapping keys on his adapted setup with just the dynamic difficulty. The game should, therefore, be accessible to as many people with physical disabilities as possible.


Lecture intro

What if I’m visually impaired?

7 / 10

From the outset, we’ve been discussing aligning objects, 3D management and so on. I guess you might be a little worried if you have difficulty perceiving environmental details. Rest assured, Ninja Theory hasn’t forgotten you!

It starts with the menus. While some games may have a few options for better menu visibility, this game’s the grand slam! In the “Accessibility” section of the “Interface” menu, you can adjust menu size and color for optimum visibility, including shades of gray for the color-blind.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s a built-in screen reader, in French [sic.], which you can adjust in the menus. [Translator’s note: English-language menu narration is also available.] Finally, the menus are placed over a dynamic background, a scrolling fog. As it’s purely cosmetic, you can disable it if it disturbs your view of the menu.

In-game, as explained earlier, gameplay uses a lot of environmental observation and analysis. HellBlade 2 plays a lot on surprise, with enemies hidden in fog or shadow. In combat, as illustrated in the introductory video, you have to find the right moment to parry. During an enemy attack, if the aura is orange, the attack is normal, but if it’s red, the attack is unstoppable, so you’ll have to evade.

For puzzles, you need a good sense of 3D perception and perspective to align the elements. This is even more necessary during exploration phases, with stone faces blending into the background.

Admittedly, the latter aspect isn’t essential to the game itself, but it’s still a loss of information about the game’s world. So we’re going to need a technique to compensate for all this.

You have several interesting options, including filters for all three forms of color blindness that also apply to the menus. This is important because red is used a lot, especially for puzzles. The pieces to be aligned are often in red to make them easier to see. Yellow is also used, but it’s a less problematic color. In puzzles where the world is mirrored above you, elements that differ from your world appear in greenish hues.

In addition to filters, the game has several clues to tell you that you’re approaching a piece of a symbol. You’ll find pieces floating everywhere in the air, you’ll hear a special sound and the joystick will vibrate.

These clues are often accompanied by music. There’s even a game phase where you have to move from one shelter to another or risk getting hit by a flame. Here, the music comes in handy to help you know when to jump from one shelter to another while running. If ever you have trouble noticing these color variations in the flames, the rhythm of the music will help you.

As for playing with low vision or being vision impaired, we looked at information in the environment. The camera always remains behind you, and it’s not static. In case there’s an obstacle, Senua stops walking, and the sound of her footsteps stops, too. But when you reach a ledge or a step, sometimes the race goes on.

In the exploration part of the game, areas that can be crossed over and zone exits are often indicated by white chalk marks on the step or ledge to be crossed. And they aren’t identified by any sound. This lack of certainty will make the game difficult. If you don’t see any visual cues, you may go in circles in the zone.

All other aspects of exploration are just impossible. Faces hidden in the surroundings and symbols aren’t signaled by any sound as you approach them, so you’re bound to miss some.

HellBlade 2 natively offers in-game solutions like music and vibrations, but the most interesting things are found in the settings, notably color management. The game should, therefore, be playable by a lot of people, but it’s still lacking in some aspects. Admittedly, exploration is secondary, but a few sound markers would be enough to make it accessible.


Lecture intro

What if I have hearing loss?

9 / 10


If information being essentially visual was a difficulty in the previous chapter, it’s clearly a positive thing for players who depend on it.

In fact, in most of Hellblade 2’s mechanics, gameplay information is reinforced visually or through vibrations. As we’ve seen, for combat, flashing lights tell you when and how the enemy is attacking and how to respond.

There’s one game phase we haven’t mentioned yet, and that’s “dream labyrinths.” At times, Senua finds herself projected into her own mind and confronted with that of her father. During these phases, you have to explore areas with several exits, one of which is the correct exit and several which are fatal. You’ll be guided in your choices since the environment turns red when you head down the wrong path.

So, on the auditory side, the problem will mainly be following the story and verbal exchanges. In this respect, you can fine-tune the volume and audio source mix from the “Audio” menu. This helps reduce disturbing sources like music, or environmental noises like rain and wind.

Next, you’ll need high-quality subtitles to follow the story and discussions with other characters. In HellBlade 2, you have a wide range of settings. You can adjust font size and color and add an opaque background. A rarely-seen option is that the game proposes copying console settings! In fact, you’ve most certainly set the console’s menus to suit your needs. Hellblade 2 will use the same settings with just one click.

Note that you can add a slight outline to the letters. This is an interesting option to help dyslexic players by enhancing each letter’s contrast. You can also add speaker direction. When this setting is turned on, the subtitle box’s corner turns white to indicate direction. But it’s very subtle and not very visible in the midst of the game.

Beware, too, of Senua’s particularity: she constantly hears voices. The voices talk a lot and come from many overlapping sources, both external and internal. These three different voices are placed in three clearly identified spots. Both internal voices comment on everything you do and alert you to dangers. They appear in the bottom banner of the screen, one on the left and the other on the right. Actual discussions with other characters are displayed in the subtitle box. So, that’s a lot of text to read at the same time. The internal voice subtitles are short and scroll through very quickly since there isn’t much room in the lower banner.

Senua is facing a magic door. Nobody's speaking in-game, and yet there are texts on-screen. The environment displays what you can hear (screams), as well as Senua's two inner voices, at the bottom left and right. Both encourage Senua to "Look for the signs."

For most of the game, visual support allows you to play without too much difficulty apart from surprises from enemies jumping you, but this is the case for everyone. They’re meant to startle you without betraying their arrival.

Lecture intro

What if I have a cognitive disability?

4 / 10

Cognitively, Hellblade 2’s approach is really going to be totally different depending on what you’re comfortable with. It begins with understanding a game in English [sic.] with subtitles. It isn’t easy to follow if you’re not comfortable with reading.

Especially since, as we said, you often have to read three texts within a few seconds: what the characters are saying AND what your two inner voices are saying. Texts often appear at the same time, so you have to scan all three texts very quickly.

However, there’s a narrator available for the menus, which allows you to fine-tune the game. But for everything else, it’s going to be a big problem for players who can neither read nor understand English [sic.].

Then there’s context. HellBlade 2 is a very grim game. Senua is going through hell, and you can feel it every moment. Pressure is high, and the game plays on sudden surprises to make you jump. So, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, beware, because there aren’t any settings to warn you or disable the shocking parts.

I have a thought for Zizou from our team, who jumps 15 meters every time and is pumped up on adrenaline half the time. I even proposed he take a break a few times, but he held in there!

In terms of game mechanics, as described above, you’ll have plenty of fights. These require fast reflexes and call for you to react at a moment’s notice. For part of the blog team, fights proved to be very complicated in normal mode.

Fortunately, you can adjust the settings to simplify fights. You can reduce the overall difficulty of the game, but above all, you can partially or entirely automate fights. If parrying’s too hard because of reaction time, just set it to automatic and focus on attacking.

Not many buttons are used. The default setting is seven buttons and two joysticks, but simplified combat reduces that number even further. Once in-game, however, they don’t display those keys on-screen. You’ll need to learn them and remember them throughout the game.

In addition, from the moment the game begins, it’s easy to see that guidance in Hellblade 2 is very limited. It was a design choice to create a cinematic experience in total immersion. So that means a total lack of interface in-game. The tone is set from the beginning, and you only have a start screen showing you controller actions, without showing you how to use them.

But more than fights, it’s the puzzles that’ll cause problems. They require careful observation of the environment and a very good understanding of space in 3D. You’ll have to find the exact position for your character AND at which angle to reconstruct hidden symbols. And there aren’t any general hints, either. When you get within a few meters of the right spot, a symbol appears in the air and vibrates. But with fairly large and sometimes complex search areas, you already have to get near the spot! The team had a hard time of it.

The “mirror” puzzles are even more complex. You enter a double world, yours and its mirror version above you. But there are differences. So, by focusing the trigger on “nodes” in your world, you can reverse worlds. You have to analyze both worlds to figure out how to move forward, what’s blocking you, what you need to reverse, and in which order you need to do that to achieve your goal.

“So there, I have a hole in front of me, but there’s a bridge above me, so if I use the mirror that’s here, it’ll switch the bridge with the hole, and I’ll be able to cross… But once I’ve crossed over to recover the stone on the other side, I’ll have to switch back.” This process requires good analytical skills.

Exploration is a little bit less problematic since it isn’t compulsory, and you’re often guided by the presence of marks on the ground.

HellBlade 2 is, therefore, a game that leaves you to your own devices, with very few in-game hints to guide you. Add to that the violence of this world and the need to read several texts simultaneously. For these reasons, you may judge for yourself according to your own abilities, but we would advise against it.


Lecture intro

    What We Think

Let’s start with the obvious. The scripting of fights makes them very cinematic. The atmosphere is moody and often oppressive in devastated settings, with excellent work on the lighting. Facial expressions are impressive. HellBlade 2 is indeed the graphic grand slam that was announced. The price of this graphic excellence is the game’s short duration since it lasts only six to eight hours.

It’s clear that accessibility has been taken very seriously, and there are plenty of very good things for a great many players. But the immersive element and the lack of a French version [sic.] will be a very big problem for people with cognitive disorders.

We’re particularly sensitive to this in the “physical” team, the one that meets every week since this is their case, and they had trouble finding their way around. They were inevitably disappointed that their problem was not addressed as thoroughly as other players’ needs.

Review Scores

  • moteur - 8
  • visuel - 8
  • auditif - 9
  • cognitif - 4

We'd love to hear what you think! What difficulties have you encountered with this or other games?