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ℹ️ - Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

Developer: Ninja Theory

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Platform: PC, Xbox X|S

Initial Release: 21st May 2024

Reviewed on PC with a digital retail copy


It's hard to think of any game that manages to deliver visceral emotion better than Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, not to mention its remarkable representation of psychosis. In fact, I'm going to say that there are none, and it was realistically only ever going to be a sequel from the same team at Ninja Theory that would even come close.

Well, almost 7 years later and that sequel is finally here to see a stronger, more confident Senua set out across Viking-ruled Iceland, this time with more purpose and a better understanding of her own condition. Senua's psychosis is now not just something she has to fight against, it is more a part of her, and I love how the narrative leans into this.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

The voices of the Furies are still here of course, as is the phenomenal binaural audio that made them so effective the first time. With the technology applied to the whole game now, this is an even more immersive audio experience – you really should take the loading screen advice and play this game with headphones.

Gameplay feels largely like more of the same with similar environmental puzzles while combat is now more about one-on-one encounters. This could be seen as being scaled back in some ways, or just a more calculated, deliberate, and brutal experience. Either way, the state-of-the-art motion capture again gives it all a very grounded feel.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

By far the biggest upgrade of this long-awaited sequel is undoubtedly in the visuals as the move to Unreal Engine 5 has really helped take the game to another level. It looks nothing short of incredible and the seamless transition between gameplay and real-time cinematics only add to the immersion.

As you might expect, this makes it perfect for virtual photographers, and Ninja Theory certainly haven't forgotten about the photo mode either. With the first game already boasting some excellent and novel features to build on, the photo mode in Senua's Saga: Hellblade II gets some great upgrades that make it one of the best out there.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review
"It's a very impressive setup; one that shows a great amount of thought around how people might actually use it..."

Key Photo Mode Features:

  • Camera freedom during cinematic sequences

  • 3-point lighting system

  • Character positioning

Controls & Implementation:

With a default shortcut on D-pad 🠅, the photo mode is available at any time, and I do mean any time, including during those real-time cinematic sequences. There are a few exceptions where camera movement is locked or limited, but in most cases, you will have the freedom to compose original shots with whatever is on-screen.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Controls

Camera controls use a natural combination of the analogue sticks for lateral movement, pan, and tilt, along with the triggers for vertical craning. If for any reason you don't like that, or just want to invert the y-axis, then the whole control scheme is fully customisable – quite rare for photo modes.

A fairly unassuming tabbed UI houses the 90° camera roll, as well as a camera movement speed option. The 1000% boost is probably not all that necessary given that the range is limited, though still reasonable, but the ability to slow it right down for fine adjustment is great for finessing a composition.

When it comes to the optical characteristics of the camera, things do get quite interesting. The field of view ranges from 12–154° to offer a lengthy zoom or extremely stretched ultra-wide angle, while the number of focus options may need some explaining.

An aperture f-stop value used to adjust the amount of foreground and background defocus and control the depth of field is just the start. Manual focus comes with both coarse and fine adjustments to set the distance, and a very helpful Focus Assistance option highlights the plane of focus with a vivid green line. Setting this to On / Off will show or hide the line at all times, and Auto will have it only appear when adjusting the focus and automatically disappear again after a few seconds.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

Auto-focus is also available with a purple reticle on the screen that will snap the camera focus onto whatever it is aimed at. The reticle is in the centre by default, though it is easily moved around with X & Y axis sliders that let you place it on a non-centred subject.

In case that wasn't enough, there is even a third focusing option called Split Focal Plane. As the name suggests, this splits the plane of focus and shows two separate green lines across the scene. Each of these can then be set to different distances to mark the closest and furthest focal points, giving that extra level of control over exactly which areas of the shot are kept in or out of sharp focus.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

It's a very impressive setup; one that shows a great amount of thought around how people might actually use it, and yet another features emphasis that attention to detail. The lens simulates an effect called "focus breathing" where the field of view changes slightly as the focus moves between near and far. This is a real-life effect and is totally unnecessary here really, but it's a fascinating inclusion and a sign of the level of authenticity that has been aimed for.

Not all optical effects are quite so desirable though, such as the permanent barrel distortion that is easily noticed on the curved lines of the ordinarily straight thirds grid, or the fairly invasive chromatic aberration which cannot be disabled – at least not without modifying .ini files on PC.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

Thankfully, things are more accommodating elsewhere with alternate aspect ratios should you not be a fan of the cinematic 2.39:1 presentation, an adjustable amount and shape of the vignette, and the option to remove the full-screen effects that occur at low health. A large number of filters with variable intensity also go some way to livening up the often-demure colour palette, it is a shame though that they will override the separate temperature and tint sliders found on the first tab.

To have a bit more of a significant effect, a host of special effects can dramatically alter the rendering. Each one includes several different parameters to play with and can be used in subtle or surreal ways. My favourite is perhaps still the returning Shatter, but I must say that the psychedelic Magic effect is also a lot of fun. Just don't be afraid to try them all out because you will get different results in different circumstances.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

A little more grounded are the brand-new character options that go well beyond a mere visibility toggle with full 360° rotation and 3-way positioning on the North / South, East / West, and Up / Down axes, as they are called here. The range on these isn't huge at just under 20 cm on each, but it's still great to have the option to make subtle adjustments and fine-tune the position of characters. It's available separately for Senua, her allies, and enemies too, in case you were wondering.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

3-Point Lighting:

The most obvious upgrade for Ninja Theory's new photo mode is the addition of a full 3-point lighting setup. Split across 2 tabs of the UI, this lets you add up to 3 lights to any scene with variable intensity, hue, and saturation.

Lights are visualised with big bulbs and are freely moved around or though objects for easy placement. They are omnidirectional though, which can be a problem sometimes, but a couple of extra illumination modes are included as an alternative to directional spots.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

The default mode lets light fall onto everything as you might expect, while Characters Only does exactly as it says to remove any unwanted illumination of the surroundings. The third option is called Ignore Fog and disables the volumetric lighting effects from that added light – useful for avoiding the unnaturally visible cone of light that can be created by the otherwise invisible light source.

Again, it's things like this that show an understanding of how these tools will be used and it doesn't even stop there. Softness and Range given more control over how harsh and far-reaching the lights are once placed, and an option to attach each one to the camera lets you move your whole setup around with it as you reposition for a slightly different angle or shot.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

It is hard to find much to criticise really. I suppose the Recentre function on each light is a bit weird; it works as a percentage slider, presumably in case you just want to reset the position of a light a little bit but it's not something I've found a real use for.

Actually, the photo mode lacks any sort of reset function and that can get genuinely annoying, especially given the slow speed of the setting sliders, but that's a small quality of life thing really. One thing I do miss is the ability to change settings while the UI is hidden, and I hate the fact that it resets to the top of the list every time!

On the whole, this is an excellent photo mode and one that can let you take full advantage of the outrageous visuals.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

Photographic Opportunity:

Senua's Saga may be the best-looking game in existence right now; it's certainly a compelling demonstration of the capability of the UE 5 engine. Everything is lit with outstanding realism thanks to Lumen real-time lighting, both in-game and in the photo mode, the rocky Icelandic locations make great use of Nanite geometry, and character models are so impeccably detailed that they stand up to even the closest scrutiny.

Things look so good in fact, that some shots could easily be mistaken for being real, or at the very least as something from a stylised FMV sequence. In some ways, I guess that's the point. The full motion and facial captures are at the cutting edge of translating real-world performances into the game, and this is a great chance to capture them photographically.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

Detectable body language and facial expressions convey the believable struggle of combat or lend some profound truth to the intense emotions on display. Just as was the case in Senua's Sacrifice, that access to raw emotion really sets this game apart when it comes to its potential for stirringly powerful shots. Add in some of the interesting effects and render modes too, and there is a huge scope to capture surreal imagery that plays perfectly into the narrative around mythology and affectations of the mind.

It's important not to overlook the significance of having full camera and photo mode access during cinematic sequences too. Not only does it allow occasional peaks behind the curtain at how some scenes are created, but it ensures that photographers have creative access to the most well-crafted moments. The downside of course, is that you might end up seeing a lot of shots of those same moments.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review

Still, in-game photography is at its best when it can be used to make derivative art from anything and everything that the game has to offer. Having that creative freedom all of the time is a crucial aspect in embracing the full potential of the art form and releasing it from limitations that are commanded by gameplay itself.

Ninja Theory seem to see the bigger picture.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review


It can be hard to identify true milestones in the development of an art, but this feels like it might be one. A photo mode that is not just a marked improvement on its predecessor, but one that shows an understanding of how and why it is going to be used.

By giving people more of the tools they need, the resulting work will have more freedom and creativity. Simply put, other studios should be looking at Senua's Saga as an example of exactly what a photo mode should be.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II Photo Mode Review
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Full Feature Set:

Access & Control

Photo Mode Access: D-Pad

Camera Movement: Free camera with bounding area

Horizontal Pan: 360°

Vertical Tilt: 180°

Roll: ± 90°




Lighting (1)

Lighting (2)



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