The first half of 2021 has been slim pickings forowners. Returnal appeared to be the big game in the post-launch window for Sony’s new console, but if you haven’t paid attention to the previews, you might have high expectations that won’t be met.
Developed by Housemarque, Returnal is a roguelite. Roguelites are games that change their level layouts when you die, placing you back at the beginning — potentially with additional, more powerful gear. Think Dead Cells or the award-winning Hades.
In Returnal, you will die a lot. Players control Selene, a space pilot who crash lands on the planet Atropos. When she awakens from her crash and leaves her ship Helios, Selene finds her own dead body. She comes to realize something strange is going on after she dies and reawakens at the same crash site only to do this again and again and again.
If that already sounds like a chore, it’s safe to say Returnal is not the game for you. Roguelites can be frustrating because death is central to gameplay. And when you revive, you start at square one. The gameplay loop of most Roguelites incentivizes death. The idea being that players slowly level up, or acquire new gear that makes the opening section of the game easier. Each run gives you a little reward — a piece of the narrative, a permanent power-up, or some leftover currency to buy better items.
Slowly but surely, the earlier sections become easier and you learn how to progress deeper into the game. But this isn’t necessarily the case with Returnal, which is sure to disappoint players. Returnal’s most glaring issue is the lack of rewards.
Every time you start, Selene has her handgun, the suit whose integrity acts as her health, and the same stats. You proceed through the first biome, with the goal of powering yourself up to fight its boss. Once you take down the boss, you receive a permanent upgrade that stays with you after each death and is required to enter the next biome where you go through the same process again. Doing this over and over again gets you familiar with the area, the enemies, the weapons and available powerups.
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 tougher but can take a lot of time and be risky if you don’t get the power-ups you want. You can rush to the next biome although you’ll be stuck with weaker weapons and not as much health.
It’s this planning and preparing combined with your mastery of the level and enemies that are designed to ease the frustration you experience early in the game. At least, that’s how it should feel, but it doesn’t.
Too many times when I died it felt like a waste. I may have pulled off some dazzling moves, but that means nothing unless you defeat a new boss or find a permanent upgrade. Aside from a few creepy moments and discovering a new item or weapon, most runs will have you reawaken as Selene, frustrated that you have to start all over again.
By the time I reached the third biome boss, I was playing for longer periods of time with nothing to show for it. No permanent upgrades, no unlocked items or weapons. With rewards in short supply, it’s tiring to start over and over and over again.
Returnal looks beautiful with its 4K visuals and its slick frame rate. Alien enemies that shoot dazzling projectiles that light up the area are thrilling to fight at first, but there comes a point where you die and realize not only do you have to start all over again but that the last run meant nothing.
Returnal misinterprets the incremental progress integral to the success of the roguelite. These games are supposed to carry a level of frustration and feel difficult early on in order to challenge players. But Roguelites are supposed to carry a glimmer of hope: Next time will be easier. Next time I’ll be stronger. All too often, Returnal denies players that hope and that makes it difficult to keep going when it feels like all is lost. The game is about being stuck in a time loop, but it’s not supposed to feel like I’m actually stuck in a time loop.
Read more: GameSpot’s Returnal review
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