When I was a nipper, sometime in the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t so easy for me to play video games. Oh sure, I had a mate with a Commodore 64, and another with an Atari 2600, but those wankers didn’t like it when I lobbed over uninvited and kept wanting to play this thing called “sport’, which was downright baffling.
This was a few years before I managed to get a Nintendo Entertainment System, so if the urge to play games hit me – and it did, often – I had to go down to the local fish and chip shop to play whatever game they had. The game could be anything, Wonder Boy in Monsterland, Altered Beast, Golden Axe – whatever – it was frequently rotated and would almost certainly be a belter.
And it would always, always, be surrounded by a cadre of local teenage gronks, oozing with acne and adolescent disdain, standing at the machine, their twenty cent pieces piled high. You’d eventually get a game, sure, but you’d spend the whole time being aware of the skinny bloke with a rattail glaring at you, a pack of durries tucked into his shirt sleeve.
I mention this because the experience of playing Returnal is, in some weird ways, very similar to those formative pseudo pinny parlour experiences. Like the twenty cent-gobblers mentioned above, Returnal is a cruel mistress, causing you to start over again and again and again. And while you don’t have to deal with the bleary, piggy little eyes of Hendo and his mates, the barrier for entry is high. Perhaps, at times, too high.
Returnal is a third person shooter roguelike (or “roguelite”, depending on your definition) where you play the astronaut Selene, who has crash landed on the mysterious planet Atropos. As Selene, you’ll find you’re stuck in a time loop where you’ll dash through six biomes, fighting increasingly difficult enemies and die over and over again. And after you die? You start right back at the beginning. And even after unlocking shortcuts and new abilities, every death means a new slog to try and get back to where you were.
Hosuemarque’s slick sci-fi bullet hell is gorgeous, the graphics are superb and silky smooth, the gameplay addictive and finely honed. When you’re having a great run, everything feels so right. The haptic feedback from the PS5’s controllers adds an extra layer of immersion and clever, if minimalist writing keeps the story compelling. However, when you go for a forty minute run, get killed right before the boss and then have to start all over again, with very little of value unlocked, it just feels… cruel for the sake of it.
Repetition is clearly an important part of a time loop game, but would the overall package really have been made worse by being able to fast travel back to a new level once you’d unlocked it? Purists would say yes, but honestly, for this old time gamer, there’s a reason we stopped bowing at the altar of those cruel twenty cent hoovers, and adopted things like save points.
Returnal is a beautiful game, and those who have no fear of steep difficulty spikes and frequent restarts will no doubt engage fully with the impressive package Housemarque have delivered here. For me, though? I’ve spent enough time having ciggie smoke blown in my face by greasy monsters while I’m trying to enjoy a game session and Returnal just feels a bit too much like that. Plus, you can’t even get a chiko roll straight afterwards to soothe the sting.