The first half of 2021 has been tight forowners. The return seemed to be the great game in the post-launch window for Sony’s new console, but if you haven’t been paying attention to the previews, you may have high expectations that won’t be met.
Developed by Housemarque, Returnal is a roguelite. Roguelites are games that change their level designs when you die, placing you first, potentially with additional and more powerful gear. Think of Dead Cells or the Hades awarded.
At Returnal, you will be a lot. Players control Selene, a space pilot who lands on the planet Atropos. When she wakes up from her accident and leaves her Helios ship, Selene finds her own corpse. She realizes that something strange is happening after her death and wakes up at the same crash site only to do this over and over and over again.
If that sounds like a chore already, it’s safe to say that Returnal isn’t the game for you. Roguelitas can be frustrating, because death is central to the game. And when you revive, you start from the starting point. The game loop of most Roguelites encourages death. The idea is for players to slowly level up or acquire new equipment that makes the opening section of the game easier. Each race gives you a small reward: a part of the narrative, a permanent power-up, or some money left over to buy better items.
Slowly but surely, the previous sections become easier and you learn how to advance further in the game. But this is not necessarily the case for Returnal, which is sure to disappoint gamers. The most obvious problem with Returnal is the lack of rewards.
Every time you start, Selene has her pistol, the outfit whose integrity acts as her health, and the same stats. You advance through the first biome, with the goal of preparing to fight its boss. Once you take down the boss, you receive a permanent upgrade that stays with you after every kill and is required to enter the next biome where you go through the same process again. Doing this over and over again familiarizes you with the area, enemies, weapons, and power-ups available.
This is where strategy comes into play. Do you want to grab each and every possible item and upgrade available in the opening biome? This makes Selene difficult, but can be time consuming and risky if you don’t get the power-ups you want. You can run to the next biome, although you will be stuck with weaker weapons and not as much health.
It is this planning and preparation combined with your mastery of the level and the enemies that is designed to alleviate the frustration you experience early in the game. At least that’s how it should feel, but it’s not.
Too many times when I died, I felt like a waste. He may have made some dazzling moves, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you defeat a new boss or find a permanent upgrade. Aside from a few spooky moments and the discovery of a new item or weapon, most races will have you reawakening as Selene, frustrated at having to start over.
When I got to the third biome boss, I was playing for longer periods of time with nothing to show for it. No permanent updates, no items or weapons unlocked. With meager rewards, it’s exhausting to start over and over again.
Returnal looks beautiful with its 4K images and elegant frame rate. Alien enemies firing dazzling projectiles that light up the area are exciting to fight at first, but there comes a point where you die and you realize that not only do you have to start over, but the last race meant nothing.
Returnal misinterprets incremental progress integral to roguelite success. These games are supposed to have a frustration level and feel difficult from the start to challenge players. But the roguelitas are supposed to have a ray of hope: next time it will be easier. Next time I will be stronger. Too often the return denies players that hope and that makes it difficult to move on when it feels like all is lost. The game is about being stuck in a time loop, but I’m not supposed to feel like I’m Really caught in a time loop.
read more: GameSpot Return Review