This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Returnal.
When you think about it, aren't we all trapped in cycles of one kind or another? Cycles of work and sleep (hopefully not at the same time); cycles of eating Creme Eggs and shitting them out to make room for more Creme Eggs. Perhaps there lies a universal truth in the premise of this week's subject, Returnal, in which the protagonist is trapped in an existentially horrifying cycle of death and resurrection in pursuit of an answer to the overhanging question, "Is it worth buying a fucking PS5 yet?", and the related question, "Is it finally time to have an interaction with an eBay scalper that doesn't end with you picking bits of broken teeth out of the treads of your shoes?" Well, let's not go nuts.
Returnal is, in the simplest possible terms, a roguelite; a game with procedurally-generated maps that you have to start from scratch every time you die. Only, this is a roguelite with AAA graphics and financial backing and, as tends to be the case when AAA gets its kinky fingers into something that indie and retro circles have been playing with since Peter Molyneux still had all his own hair, they're acting like they fucking invented the concept. Why else would they name the game after it? Returnal, as in, "eternally returning"; how droll. The brainstorming meeting must've gone through enough donuts to conceal the entire contents of your mum's bedside cabinet.
Leaving aside the slightly awful name that reads more like the kind of made-up word that would follow a game's main title and a dry heave, Returnal is a nice chunk of good old hard sci-fi that plays like a roguelite version of Metroid Prime by way of the movie Prometheus, and I, for one, am always in the mood for a good hard sci-fi-ing: the kind of thing where it takes a single alien concept that turns everything on its head and see what happens to an ordinary person having to deal with it, like when you sneak psilocybin into someone's breakfast cereal and then watch them go out to collect the mail. In this case, our protagonist, Selene, crash-lands on a monster planet covered in mysterious alien ruins and... well, and monsters, obviously, and soon finds that every time she gets killed, she wakes up back in her ship with the starting gun and all her bits re-established. Also, she keeps finding corpses of other versions of herself and audio logs from a possible future self, who sounds like she's gone two imposing, erect penises short of an H. R. Giger art book.
Returnage very much front-loads its explore-y, platform-y, first-person shooting gameplay, but brings across enough intrigue with its isolated plot elements to keep you wanting to push forward: what is the mystery behind the alien signal? How many times has Selene gone through the cycle? Why does her house keep appearing on the alien planet and making her play a Bloober Team first-person walking simulator for five minutes? Is it real? Is any of this real? Are we even Selene any more? Who did that eggy fart? Wouldn't you like to know? ...I would, too; I kind of didn't finish the game, so I can't answer any of those questions except that last one, and I'm holding onto that for blackmail purposes. Lord knows I tried to finish the game in the time I had available, but this isn't one of those games you'll inevitably beat if you just keep following the objective icon and ignoring the side-quests; it's hard, it's unforgiving, and it doesn't give half a square of raspy, company-issue toilet paper that it hasn't randomly spawned you a decent gun yet. "Deal with these six flying robots with missile launchers, and I hope you learned how to quick-dodge with your trousers 'round your ankles."
I have some slightly cynical thoughts about this amazing new roguelite concept those innovative geniuses at the AAA industry have come up with for us here; it feels like a cunning way to get out of having to balance your game properly when a bonus room could contain three free weapon chests, a cake, and a handshake from the prime minister, or has an equal chance of locking you in a broom cupboard with a furious gorilla and his giant luminescent erection. It's hard to frame that as well thought-out design in a vacuum, but as part of a roguelite, who cares? Die and have another crack, and maybe you'll randomly roll a competently-paced difficulty curve next time.
So, success in Returnaround returna-revolves as much around luck as getting good, even more so than in other roguelites, I'd say; there's this whole "malfunction" mechanic where some pickups are infected with the wibbly-wobbly purple badness juice of legend, and if you pick them up, you'll either get away scot-free or get crippled in some way that you're stuck with until you jump through some extra hoops, like "get a certain number of melee kills or prime minister handshakes", and this is 100% a gamble. But then again, the extra objectives are never insurmountable, and it's kind of fun to have that extra challenge... BUT WAIT! Is it? Fun, I mean?
That's the trouble with randomness: I don't actually know if I'm having fun or if it's just hacked my brain, the way gambling does. You know that experiment they did on birds where one cage had a machine that just dropped food when a button was pressed, and the other had one that only sometimes dropped food when a button was pressed, and after a while, the first cage was fine, but the second one had developed a food dispenser-worshipping evangelical bird cult (or pigeon religion)? That's what Returnorama makes me feel like every time I die, go back to the start, and furiously swear that I'll just have one more go to wipe the smug smile off that faceless collection of glowing objects I died to, and it's more spite than enjoyment that's carrying me.
That said, it doesn't hurt that the core controls are nice and fast and responsive and arcadey; exactly what you need when you're flinging yourself around, trying to avoid a million and one glowing bullet-hell projectiles, made nice and distinctive against the muted, murky environments. Perhaps a touch too murky when, in the heat of the moment, I mistake a murky smoke cloud for a section of murky floor and proceed to pay my respects to Mr. Newton at full, screaming volume.
So, there's that; also, what with the PS5 already being, in my view, "Particle Effects: The Console", every projectile and pickup is a shower of glowing blobs and every enemy looks like a pre-built gaming PC going Super Saiyan, and it's hard to distinguish incoming threats from all the glowy effects flying off the main character as she shoots, especially with the camera hugging her armpits like post-workout body odor. Things might generally be less annoying if the camera could fucking back off a bit so we could see the pre-built gaming PC that just ran up behind us and is about to whip us with its dangly USB cords.
"Oh, come on, Yahtzee; the game's intentionally hard! It's not going to throw up warning signs and lovingly stroke your hair to help you adjust." Yeah, but there's a line between "hard" and "unfair" that Returnaringo skates along haphazardly at times; I know that's the intention - unfair universe, death, death, grim, grim, futility of personal struggle against the uncaring vastness of the infinite universe, "Ooh, makes you think" - so Return of the Jedi pulls off its intentions pretty well. Just bear in mind that its intention is to hurt you... which is fine. Art is about exploring the whole tapestry of emotion; sometimes, you want games that make you feel powerful, and sometimes, you want ones that make you feel like an unacknowledged smear of organic paste on the boot heel of the universe. You know, as practice for when you get a job at EA.
- And over and over and over again: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I was convinced when I first started the game that Selene was played by that tall lady from Game of Thrones but apparently not
- Hot tip: a smear of organic paste goes well on toast as well