I couldn’t finish Returnal… And that’s okay.

I couldn’t finish Returnal… And that’s okay.

Hi, I’m Benjamin Wagner, this is my blog and today I… admit defeat… I lost. I couldn’t do it. This game beat me. I persevered. I died. I improved. I died. I fought back once more. And then I died. It wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough to beat the monster challenge that is Returnal. After just under 30 hours with the game, I felt drained, defeated and as if I had been sucked dry by an overly zealous succubus. Boss 3 was my limit. The brick wall in which I could not force myself through.

Returnal, much like the classic BBC game show Hole in the Wall, feels like a futile endeavour much of the time. No matter how much you contort yourself and attempt to force yourself through, if you don’t have the flexibility or skill, you will not beat this game. Or fit through the thin rectangular gap. Do I believe that I could eventually complete this game if I kept trying to force myself through this merciless endeavour? Of course. Yet, as I will pose here, not finishing this game doesn’t diminish the experience I had on the whole and that it is okay to not finish games you have enjoyed. And I will prove this… with maths. I will go into more detail later as I play… Returnal.

Right, here we go. What is Returnal? To answer that question, it’s time for game in a sentence where I tell you what a game is, in a sentence.
Returnal is an action-oriented, 3rd person, rougelite shooter with an atmospheric story and crippling difficulty. Eloquent. Beautifully done. You know what else? Returnal is an excellent game and leads me to my main statement: Returnal is a game that everybody should try, even if you don’t finish it. To do this I will be outlining four big reasons why Returnal is an incredible experience that you should go out and play and maybe even go out and buy a PS5 for.

Reason 1: A story that makes you want more
The story of Returnal places you in the shoes of Selene, the captain of an exploratory vessel that while trying to track down a signal from something known as the White Shadow, ends up shipwrecked on a mysterious planet with no means of escape. And, when she awakens after crashing on planet Atropos, she is promptly struck down and killed… Before once again waking next to her crashed ship. Through audio logs left by previous versions of herself, she learns that she seems to be unable to die and each time she passes on, the planet changes and morphs into something new. Selene then embarks to explore the planet once more and discover the secret of White Shadow and breaking the loop of endless death she is caught in.
And that’s really the gist of it.
On the face of it, the story is simple but the way it is delivered and executed is the real selling point here; with environmental storytelling and using the atmosphere itself to slowly enthral the player and keep them progressing through. Atmospheric storytelling is hard to nail down and, instead of long, expository cutscenes where your characters discuss the intricacies of their lives, the story is told through audio logs and playing on the desire of the player to want to see just a little more. The story is atmospheric, gloomy, and overall, bloody interesting. As I said, I didn’t finish this game, yet the story was the factor keeping me going; wishing to unearth the unknown mysteries of Atropos and why Selene was stuck there.  

In terms of mysteries, nothing elevates the feeling of dread and mystery higher than the haunted house sections. Whilst making your way through the randomly generated planet, you may come across a perfect recreation of Selene’s home in the middle of the alien wilds. These sections move you into a first-person perspective and have you explore the house as little things seem to change around in your environment as you interact with it. The suspense is palpable and creates such an atmosphere that it leaves you wanting more. As the house sections only seem to unlock once you progress to the next area, I was only able to experience a couple of them but they left such an impression on me, despite being a relatively small section of the overall gameplay experience, that it has left me much more interested in the horror/ thriller genre than I ever was beforehand.

Honestly, Returnal is very different to most stories I attempt to immerse myself in, keeping everything PG and steering away from the scary as much as possible but this just goes to illustrate how impressive this story is in delivering its message, in that I am very much suckered in­­. Speaking of delivering, that brings me succinctly onto my second reason:

Reason 2: A gameplay cycle that is rewarding as it is fluid
I have never played a shooter that feels quite as kinetic and fluid as Returnal does. Zipping from platform to platform, cutting the native fauna limb from limb never gets old and the game has a sort of feeling that is difficult to describe. If you were to combine the most acrobatic 3D platformer and the most bombastic shooter, you’d get Returnal. Sort of Doom cum Sonic the Hedgehog. Halo cum Super Mario. I have to admit, I’ve played Doom 2016 and whilst the shooting was pretty decent, the movement and platforming did feel a little iffy, resulting in countless deaths due to me falling to my doom over and over again. In Returnal, I always felt in complete control of Selene and her ability to leap around like a newly born lamb. This helps elevate this game away from being just another shooter and into something more special. Most of my childhood was taken up with playing sports games, child-friendly platformers or racing games so I have little shooter experience stemming from this, meaning most shooters need to do something a little more than be beige and be ultra-realistic simulators to entice me into playing them.

One thing that helps me enjoy this over other shooters are the guns. The variety. The whimsy. The way they feel. They are magnificent. The starting pistol is weak, yet you can get a fair way through an area with it if you have the skill. Every gun from this point onwards varies greatly; from the short-range powerful Spitmaw Blaster, the rapid-fire Tachyomatic Carbine, or the eccentric Rotgland Lobber, all the weapons bring something new to the table. My personal favourite was the Hollowseeker, a gun that propels small, needle-like projectiles that, at higher levels, home in on the target and cause lots of damage in quantity rather than amount. I found that this gun worked as well at long distances as it did short and that when you unlock higher-level traits, the gun can feel immensely destructive. This destructivity is only added to by the other weapon you are given alongside your main firearm; a sword known as the Atropian Blade. In early encounters, this close combat skill is incredibly overpowered and tears through the enemies like butter. I did find myself relying on this more than I should’ve done, leading to some hits that cost me a chance of a good run time and time again. This is likely due to my lack of motor skills and general poor ability at playing video games, but the blade makes you feel like a god, for a while at least.
Adding to the game feel are the multiple buffs and one-use items that can be collected and add to the gameplay experience. Further, parasites can add buffs and debuffs to your player and add yet another arrow to the quiver of fun which is the Returnal gameplay loop.
Returnal is a revolutionary and exciting delight. And this delight leads me onto reason 3…

Reason 3: Retina burning graphical prowess and mind-blowing sound design
Me and audio design usually keep each other at arm’s length; with my understanding and appreciation of video game music being fairly low. However, I can quite confidently say that the sound design in Returnal is the best I have experienced in a video game. During combat, the soundtrack kicks in and creates the sort of heart-pounding atmosphere you crave during the adrenaline-fuelled carnage that is the Returnal gameplay experience. The sound fades in whence enemies appear and cuts out once you have cleared a room. These sorts of audio cues are hardly a new invention, but Housemarque have seamlessly inserted these in such a way that it makes them seem like genius sound design technicians. It helps that the music itself is absolutely banging and is reminiscent of the angsty rock you would hear bellowing from a 13-year-olds bedroom. It’s not just the music, it’s the voice acting, which although limited, is incredibly high quality and Selene’s actress in particular puts in a standout performance; truly portraying the fear that the character would be feeling in such a helpless situation. I understand that the game does have 3D audio capabilities, but this is not something I tried as I was already more than blown away playing the game the standard way through my television, but I am in no doubt that it could elevate this masterpiece even higher. The sound is so good it could melt your ears like chocolate.

In terms of graphics and processing power, the PS5 has the power to display some beautiful video games and Returnal is more than in the running for the title of most beautiful video game. In terms of scenery and the biomes themselves, each is distinct and visually impressive as are the monsters and bosses that roam the aggressive planet. In stills and screenshots, the game obviously looks excellent, but it shines the most in motion, with the sparking, colourful projectiles filling the screen as you dash around whilst shooting back. The fact the game runs at a consistent framerate with the amount going on on the screen at once is truly baffling. Whilst looking this good, Returnal can still pull off the more suspenseful, scarier moments in the haunted house areas shows that the artistic consistency that the art designers have managed to create in making such an outlandish sci-fi setting feel grounded and believable. The game is a technical marvel in the way it presents its graphics and its sound design. Speaking of technical marvels, that moves us on to the game’s final success and the final reason…

Reason 4: Utilisation of the Dualsense Controller
The dualsense controller is a technical marvel and so far, mostly untapped in terms of potential uses. Apart from the Astro’s Playroom 3D platformer tech demo, no game has come as close as Returnal to making a game more immersive and enjoyable through the use of the controller itself. Rumble has been a key part of the gaming experience for over 2 decades at this point but the way that Sony has revolutionised this fairly standard feature and made it one of the best parts of using their system is a testament to the amount of ingenuity and revolutionary thinking still goes into the video game industry, despite the graphical leaps not being as pronounced as they were in the era of the PS1. Each gun feels unique to control, as mentioned before, but the feedback the triggers give feel really, really good. I’ve never shot a gun because I’m not a criminal nor an American, but if real guns vibrate like this and feel as adaptive and responsive as they do here, I might become an American.

Yeehaw.


Furthermore, holding down the left trigger all the way allows you to use your alt-fire, a special attack, whilst holding it down half of the way allows you to zoom in and aim at your foe. This sounds like it could be unintuitive and cause troubles in the heat of battle but instead, this works beautifully and creates an experience that is unlike any I have played through before. The Dualsense is my favourite video game controller and Returnal does a stand-up job of using it to close to its full potential.

So, this game is pretty awesome. The five aforementioned reasons to play Returnal are massively enticing and are the reasons that I think this is one of the best games of the year 2021. One of the best I have experienced on the PS5 so far. So, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t finish it. For that, I will now work through the few areas that the game came up short. Although the positives vastly outweigh the negatives, they were enough to stop me from playing the game through to completion so please bear that in mind as I moan for a little while.

NEGATIVE 1: No mid-run saving and crashes

Returnal, being a game that requires you to be online almost all of the time whilst playing the game, comes with a rather large caveat that you cannot save mid-run. If you quit, you lose your progress and have to start once again at your ship, back at square one and as weak as a new-born fawn. Some of these runs get rather long, especially if your are trying to beat the Area 3 boss for example, as you want to grind some within the first area to get maximum health increases and better weapon proficiency for the challenges that lie ahead and then take on the 3rd area and the boss; meaning runs can last an hour or maybe even more before my inevitable defeat. This is a lot to expect from a player and left me feeling drained and completely defeated when I once again came up short and the last hour of my life was deemed completely pointless as the disgusting titan destroys my dreams for the 20th time.  This makes the game into much more of a slog than it should be and really does begin to drain fun away from the experience. I’m not saying that save-scumming should be an allowed feature and I get that this can be hard to prevent in a single-player experience , yet I can’t imagine the ability to save your game would be much of an issue if they implemented a generous auto-save feature into the game. This problem is made even larger by the fact that the game does crash from time to time, and it did result in me losing my run progress. In a game that expects the player to be perfect and tests you as much as it does, this really can be a dealbreaker.

I wrote most of this before the 2.0 patch was implemented in-game.
The 2.0 patch has added the suspend cycle, meaning there is an option for a one-off save file which is deleted once it is opened. This does fix most of this problem, but the high stakes still don’t allay this concern as much as I’d like. Plus save scumming actually became possible and that really isn’t what I was asking for here, despite it making some of the challenges that much easier to overcome. A valiant attempt by the developers but one that doesn’t really help me with my problems.
The implementation of a fair save system would also allay much of my second criticism:

NEGATIVE 2: Crippling difficulty level, Rougelite trappings extending run time, occasional unfairness

Returnal might very well be the most difficult game I have ever played. To reflect on this, allow me to briefly outline some of my histories with the medium of video games. I am not proficient in 1st and 3rd person shooting games and these make up a small part of my gaming history. I was always drawn to more interesting JRPG’s, sports games or platformers and shooters always took the back seat. Because of this, I suck the big one at it and often found myself outclassed. I tried Overwatch once and was schooled by the easy AI. Furthermore, bullet hell games are also a genre I have rarely dipped into and certainly never finished one. And my final clarification is the fact that I like playing video games on the easy difficulty setting. Some may argue that this makes me a filthy casual that should slump off back to his dungeon and consume some humble pie, yet I argue that, with the number of interesting games out there in the wild, any help in consuming more of them is something I appreciate. So thus, my proficiency has been laid out. This leads me to the claim that Returnal is difficult. And yes, it is hard. You are supposed to die as you learn; for that is the way of many games in the wake of Dark Souls but could also be claimed as a call-back to the cruel arcade games of yore where games would be deliberately hard to con you out of your money. Returnal isn’t like that. Returnal feels fair.

Until it doesn’t.

Often, in the heat of battle, a dodge would end just before I would anticipate it doing so, allowing me to take a hit and lose my perks or a swing shot wouldn’t connect in the way I had anticipated, and it left me falling into the abyss. In Returnal, with the difficulty as merciless as it is, one hit can make or break a run and when you feel like this might not be your fault, it really does start to impact your fun. Granted, some of this can be chalked up to me being bad at video games but some of it, I am afraid is simply by design. If the designers had wanted to, they could have implemented difficulty levels or sliders to allow the player to tailor their experience to their needs. For better or for worse, they have seen their vision through, and I can respect that. It doesn’t mean I have to like it. I really, really want to see this game through because the high points are Everestianly high. Yet, with the skill barrier being as thick and hard as it is here, it really will turn people away from this game. I’m not arguing that the game should be easier, as difficult games have their audience of skilled players, what I am arguing is that this game is so good that I wish more people could experience it. Heck, I want to finish it but simply couldn’t muster the strength to keep going. Returnal is mercilessly hard, and, to my disappointment, I doubt that this will ever change.

The Crux of the Matter

And it’s with this bemoaning of difficulty we come to the crux of the matter. I didn’t finish this game. And that’s okay. You can still experience a lot of fun with a game without playing it through to completion. And, as promised at the start of the video, here is the math. Only 40% of Returnal players completed Act 2, the supposed first ending. The true ending, the end of Act 3, was only completed by 28% of players. By the by, I stopped playing just before activating the trophy for completing act 1, beaten by a brutal boss that kept making me his bitch. Only 48% of players achieved this. That’s less than half. So, what can we learn from this? Did everyone who failed to finish this game hate it? No, of course not. It’s just that some games land with people better than others. Some people have little free time to sink into such a demanding game. Others have many other games to play so choose to hold off on forcing through. Some decide to take the enjoyment they had without trying to force through and sour the memory of the previous fun. I strongly feel that if I were to continue playing this game, my opinion would not be as high as this because I would have had to grind my way through challenges that the current me just isn’t capable of and the expectation to play through such long runs in pursuit of this is inherently off-putting. I do wish the game came with some options for players like me to help them push through, but I have more chance of becoming a model and becoming conventionally popular before that ever happens. I believe that when the effort to play a game is more than you are getting out of it, it is time to call it a day. So I did. I may dip back in sometime soon (I already have, in fact), but not as my primary gaming experience. And that truly is a shame. So, with the mathematics finished, all that is left is the final score.

Returnal, much like an intricately constructed 15- course Chinese meal is a joy to consume but a pain to fully finish. I enjoyed the first 7 courses whilst consuming them and the memory of it will stay with me for aeons to come but to force my way through this experience would sour the tangy garlicky aftertaste that is currently lingering. Why force myself to eat the Peking Duck, if I am already satisfied by the Spring Rolls. In a nutshell,  Returnal is a very fun and exquisitely designed game that everybody should play, but maybe not finish. The difficulty impacted my ability to finish the game but not my ability to appreciate it. Returnal is very fun.

And with that, another story comes to an end. Thanks for reading. What is your opinion on difficult video games and the convention of finishing video games? Does not finishing a game diminish your opinion or enjoyment of a title. Let me know in the comments below. I am Benjamin Wagner, I didn’t finish Returnal, I’m okay with that, and I endorse this message.

9.1/10- An immaculate and enjoyable game… that was just too hard for me to beat.

(After writing this, I have gone back to the game multiple times and am still stuck in the same area, somewhat justifying my decision of stopping it being my primary game.)

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