“Returnal” is focused around Selene, an astronaut who crashes on a planet called Atropos and discovers her own corpse. (Later, in what I imagine is meant to be a homage to the film “Solaris,” she discovers a replica of her house on the alien world.) Over six large areas — biomes — players learn about her, and the planet that seems to doom those who visit, to cycles of violence. Procedurally generated environments bring about changes to the environment with each new play cycle. Alas, getting to the first boss was enough to convince me that I didn’t want anything more to do with “Returnal” in its current state. This is lamentable because I appreciate certain aspects of its design like its superb audio design, responsive controls and the haptic feedback that makes moving through the game an unusually tactile experience. But I deplore others, specifically the game’s risk-reward systems, which are unbalanced. If the difficulty level is rejiggered in later updates, I might give it another go.
“Returnal” plays like a cross between a typical third-person shooter and a bullet-hell spaceship game insofar as enemies are given to wide area attacks. Although waves of projectiles can be jumped over or strategically dodged using Selene’s dash ability, physical attacks must simply be avoided. The game nudges players to take on enemies up close because fallen foes drop obolites (small golden globes) which quickly vanish unless one acquires an item that prolongs their appearance across a play cycle. Obolites serve as one of “Returnal’s” two in-game currencies. They can be used at special stations — fabricators — to create items that boost health or other stats. Upon death, players lose their obolites and any nonpermanent stats-boosting items as well as any found weapons.
Ether, the game’s other in-game currency, which is far more rare and can be acquired through exploration, carries over between play cycles. Spend enough hours gathering ether and Selene can spend the hard-earned resource at a reconstructor, a device which will preserve all of Selene’s perishable equipment, as well as the state of the world, for one play cycle when she loses her life. It can also be used to “cleanse malignancy.” As Selene travels about the world she’ll often come across chests that contain valuable items that also carry the risk of imposing detrimental effects if she opens them without first dispelling their malignancy. Malignant status effects can take on different forms such as the inability to pick up new weapons. These effects can be reversed by finding a specific number of items such as obolites.
Parasites are another risk-reward system in the game. Selene can attach a few of the small clingy critters to herself, boosting some effects while draining others. It says something about how punitive their detrimental effects are that I rarely felt like using them. In truth, I was turned off by the number of the game’s poisoned treats — my masochism doesn’t run that way. These days I value games that respect my time and don’t necessitate ascetic dedication.
In theory, as players progress through the game and unlock say, a boss chamber, they can make a beeline back to it after dying, skipping through areas that are not subject to lockdown in which all enemies must be vanquished to proceed. In practice, I found this an untenable strategy. Early on, one can only gain access to more powerful weapons by increasing Selene’s weapons proficiency through killing enemies or finding items that raise her proficiency stat, so I found myself grinding through areas over and over again both to raise enough currency for stat boosting items and to acquire better weapons.
The Souls games famously made death a consequential affair by stripping players of their “souls,” the in-game currency, and giving them one chance to reclaim them by making it back to the spot where they died without getting killed. Crucially, the Souls games allowed players to acquire better equipment that would carry over between runs so future attempts yielded better odds. By sticking closer to a roguelike template that wipes out most of one’s resources upon death, “Returnal” courts frustration in a way I found off-putting. Spending thirty-plus minutes on an area then dying and having little to show for it is not my idea of a good time. (I’d rather play something like “Spelunky 2” or “Dead Cells” — hard games with roguelike elements that introduce new environments at a much faster pace.)
I am certain that “Returnal” will have its partisans. Highly skilled and dedicated players will, no doubt, thrill to its challenges. But there are so many other enjoyable games based around shooting aliens that, for me, struggling against “Returnal’s” enemies for hours on end feels like a questionable use of time.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
Recent game reviews: