During the Christmas season, I had the incredible good fortune of obtaining the ever-elusive PlayStation 5, and immediately dove into a game that’d been on my mind ever since it released: Returnal. As you might’ve heard (and I quickly discovered), Returnal is decidedly not an easy game. It gameplay is wonderfully fast and fluid, but it pulls no punches in the difficulty department, and, though I am loath to say it), that might just be working against it.
Returnal is a rogue-lite shooter that mixes in enough exploration and bullet-hell style projectile spam to somehow keep each run feeling fresh even hours upon hours later. It constantly pushes the player to become ever more aware, ever more willing to take risks and all the more capable of keeping track of everything going on in combat encounters.
It demands player learn how to manage and prioritize all the different enemies in a given room, and almost outright requires one to spend a lot of time collecting better weapons and gear so as to keep up with increasingly powerful enemies. Returnal also doesn’t explicit tell the player any of this. Instead it goes the old school route and tries to allow its players to come to all these conclusions naturally. This, I fear, is what winds up sending a lot of players packing before they have a chance to really get anywhere.
Back before this modern era of gaming, most games were not nearly a ubiquitous as they are now. They also weren’t so accessible. There were plenty of them out there, but they weren’t all clamoring for your attention all at once. Fact was, when you got a new game, it was probably going to be the only new one you’d be getting for a good long while. You were going to spend time in that game no matter what, and developers counted on that.
Games like Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World and Super Metroid only ever explained the “whats.” They told you what things were or quickly showed you what they did, but there was almost never anything dedicated to mastering the “hows,” much less how to actually apply them. It was the player’s job to learn how to play the game, and that was usually accomplished just by playing it a lot. It was something that worked well considering the environment these games lived in, but I’m not so sure that it works well in the modern space.
Personally, I absolutely love games that challenge me to figure them out on my own terms, but that’s just me. I imagine many players both young and old prefer the modern approach of spelling practically everything out and forcing you to practice it all at least once. Sure, it’s tedious, but it does ensure that one quickly learns how the game they’re playing actually works.
By foregoing this; by not spelling everything out and allowing players to make massive strategic and tactical mistakes, Returnal is simultaneously enhancing and reducing its experience. It’s enhanced for those who stubbornly love conquering gaming challenges, and it’s reduced for anyone who doesn’t have the time and/or patience for it.
The reward in Returnal doesn’t come quick, and it doesn’t come from reaching the credits screen. Rather, just like many older games, the reward comes from achieving a sense of mastery. Completing it the first time is just the beginning; being able to clear a formerly nigh-impossible boss though, now that’s the real goal.
Unfortunately, the high difficulty combined with little to no explanation means that most players who pick it up will never even finish the game, much less start wanting to achieve mastery. It’s really too bad too, because reaching those high heights is one of the best feelings to be found in gaming. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I still think it’s a shame that Returnal won’t get the attention it deserves thanks to its nature of being a hard game. Ah well, give it a try at least if you can.
Are there any games in your library that you feel are limited by the very qualities that make them great? How would you see about getting them further into mainstream attention?
Image from the Returnal Steam page