Returnal is an Excellent Game That I Don’t Recommend

Before you crazed fanboys start complaining to me on Twitter about this, I will preface this by saying, this is not a review so I do not care one bit about your opinion or whether you disagree with mine. And even if it was a review, I still wouldn’t care. With that out the way, I’ve been playing Returnal in the week since it came out. It’s very good but I don’t recommend it. Maybe when it goes down in price or gets a save a feature but until then, this is a great game that I can’t in good conscious tell people they should buy. I haven’t beaten Returnal yet, I’ve gotten to the third biome but I don’t think I ever will beat it because I have other things to do and Returnal doesn’t like it when you have a life outside the game.

Returnal has extremely fun gameplay. It’s a third person bullet hell shooter. You control Selene, shooting aliens and dodging their giant neon colored bullets. It’s all fast paced and fluid. It feels very good. It’s difficult but for the most part it’s not unfair. It’s roguelite nature means that sometimes you’ll be cursed with bad RNG which will make it much more challenging to survive through no fault of your own. For the most part though, death is usually the result of mistakes you made and not because the game was unfair.

At this point you may be wondering, “well this sounds great, why can’t you recommend this Hunter?” As I mentioned, Returnal is a roguelite, which means when you die, you lose everything and go back to the beginning. Now I like roguelites, Hades was my Game of the Year of 2020 but the problem that Returnal has which other roguelites don’t is that death in Returnal is way more frustrating then it has to be and it’s to the games detriment.

Death in a roguelite is always frustrating, always has been and always will be. That’s just what happens when you die and have to start from the beginning of a game. It’s human nature to be frustrated at that. So the best roguelites have to counter that frustration. They have to make the urge for one more run, greater than the frustration of losing and going back to the beginning.

This is usually accomplished by a combination of quick runs and permanent upgrades that make the player stronger on subsequent runs. The upgrades give a sense of progression and accomplishment so deaths aren’t just meaningless slogs back to the beginning and quick runs make each subsequent attempt seem more attainable. If you die after a 20 minute run and are now more powerful, it wasn’t that much time that you devoted and now you might reach the end since you’re upgraded.

Hades, the best of the genre, goes one step further and also rewards each death with new character interactions and story progress so no matter how bad a run goes, you’re always progressing something. Death in Hades is a good thing because it means you get new conversations with characters you learn to like more and get to know with each failure, you’re invested and not frustrated.

Hades rewards death with more story progression

Returnal does have permanent upgrades but they aren’t noticeable or rewarding enough to counteract the frustration. It also has a story, but it’s a story you aren’t going to progress more when you die so there’s nothing on that front to soften the blow of death. But both those things wouldn’t be as much of problem if it wasn’t for the one-two punch of Returnal having extremely long runs and no save function.

Remember what I said earlier about roguelites having quick runs to increase the urge of one more run? Not only does Returnal not believe in this philosophy, they make it agonizing. A run in Returnal can last up to 2 hours before you die or get to the next biome. You can clear Hades twice in that time. This is the game’s biggest problem, runs are far too long for death to be anything other than immense frustration.

The fact that the permanent upgrades aren’t anything special wouldn’t be that big of a deal if a run was quick. But spending 2 hours playing before dying and getting sent back to the start with little to show for it, doesn’t make me want to do one more run, it make me go do something else, like play Hades, or Binding of Isaac. The other problem with Returnal is that there are no saves.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

A lot of roguelites have what’s known as “save on exit”, what that means is that if for whatever reason, you have to stop playing to do something else, it will save where you are in a run when you exit. When you play again, it will load where you left off and delete the save to avoid save scumming to work the RNG in your favor. Returnal does not have this. Returnal has no saves whatsoever, the game even tells you that if you have to go, put your PS5 in rest mode otherwise you just wasted your time. Except rest mode doesn’t work properly for a lot of people half the time and it closes the game. When it does work properly, if you have your PS5 set to auto update, then the game closes while it gets updated and you lost your run even though you did what the game told you to do.

Now, not every rogulite has a save function, but they also don’t have runs that last this long. The excellent Children of Morta doesn’t let you save during runs but it’s not as frustrating as it is in Returnal because a run doesn’t last hours. Returnal’s gameplay is absolutely exquisite, it’s visuals are breathtaking and it’s use of the Dualsense is so good that it makes it genuinely plausible that it’s not an electronic device but some sort of living organism that’s mentally conn to the PS5. None of that matters when you lose 2 hours of progress because the game crashed and there’s no save. None of that matters when the only way to save your game is to change your PS5 system settings so it doesn’t auto update your games.

Rerurnal is an incredible game, but it’s one that doesn’t respect your time. It doesn’t care that you might have a life and responsibilities that mean you can’t play a 2 hour run all the way through. It doesn’t matter that you might want to stop to play some Apex with your friends. It doesn’t care you might want to do other things than play it alone for 2+ hours at a time. So as great as it is while playing it, I can’t recommend it, certainly not for $70 while Pokémon Snap and Resident Evil Village are out and Mass Effect Legendary Edition is out next week. If you even think about playing those for a bit, Returnal will punish you.

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