Last night I made it further than I’ve ever been able to progress in Returnal. With the help of an Astronaut Figure and some key health consumables, I was able to penetrate deep into the desert biome, fending off waves of difficult enemies in the process. I finally succumbed to the attacks of a teleporting alien, sending me all the way back to my ship while wiping away 90 minutes of progress.
As I watched the flaming wreck of the Helios dive through the atmosphere for the hundredth time to crash on the planet below, I took a deep sigh and put away my PS5 controller. At that moment I wondered if I would have the time and energy to finish Returnal. It’s not that it’s really hard, per se. I can deal with difficulty. Nor is it a bad game, as our positive review can attest. It’s more that, in my opinion, the expectations surrounding blockbuster games are an awkward fit for the traditionally lean, fast-paced roguelite genre. Or to put it more simply, I think runs in Returnal take too long to complete.
Returnal is being touted by some observers as one of the first ‘triple-A roguelites’ — a big budget version of the successful indie genre. It features many of the elements that have proven successful in Hades, Dead Cells and other games, particularly in the way that it makes dying over and over again into a storytelling conceit. Considering how popular roguelites have been over the past several years, it was inevitable that some major developer would eventually tackle the genre that has so effectively popularized challenge runs and permadeath.
In its defense, Returnal is much more than a cynical repackaging of established tropes from the indie space. With fewer than 100 employees, Housemarque — until recently an arcade developer — still feels like something of an indie itself. You can feel that arcade pedigree in its bones, from its rapid pace to its love of particle effects and big, fat energy bullets.
Nevertheless, it has a pacing problem, and it’s not just because it lacks an auto-save feature.
Its formula, which sees you playing as a lost astronaut trapped in a time loop who returns to the moment of their crash each time they die, is typical of the roguelite genre, steadily ratcheting up the stakes by holding the prospect of permadeath over your head. The difference is that where a run through Hades can be wrapped up in less than an hour, it takes at least that long or more to explore a single biome in Returnal. What’s more, where Hades slowly ramps up its difficulty over a long period of time, Returnal is very challenging right from the start, heaping loads of powerful monsters into its earliest areas.
I find it, to put it mildly, kind of exhausting. Where games like Dead Cells beg for “just one more run,” Returnal is the kind of game that I put away and don’t return to until the following day. It’s scary and intense in the moment, but when a lengthy run ends in failure, the momentum dissipates.
Returnal Lays Bare the Friction Between Roguelite Genre and Big-Budget Gaming
Returnal’s pacing lays bare the friction between the roguelite genre and the big-budget gaming space. Where roguelites built on less expectation tend to focus on the core gameplay loop of multiple runs, Returnal feels bigger and more unwieldy. When I finished Hades, I played it again a dozen more times to see the final ending, and then a few more on top of that to master all of the weapons. If I ever finish Returnal, it will be because I dragged myself to the credits, bloody and broken and ready to play something else.
When it comes to repetitive experiences like the one in Returnal, I believe the smaller the better. Ideally you should be able to knock out a run in 30 minutes or less. Any more than that and the grind can start to feel acute. I acknowledge that Returnal tries to mitigate its two-three hour-long single runs by allowing you to jump straight to the next biome after finishing a boss, but even that comes with strings attached, as it’s unwise to head straight to a later level without first building up your weapon proficiency and parasites. It can take 15 to 20 minutes just to get to the point where you’re comfortable going on another run.
Considering its $70 price tag, it feels as if Housemarque is under pressure to stretch out the experience as much as possible, thus granting players some nebulous sense of value. Where many games these days at the same price point are open-world, Returnal seems desperate to provide a sense of scope — to avoid feeling too small. It’s ultimately successful, but at the cost of frequently feeling like an absolute slog to play through.
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Returnal certainly isn’t the first big-budget game to face this pacing conundrum. In the sports world, Sony San Diego has spent years trying to get around the fact that a game typically takes up to an hour to complete. Both MLB The Show and Madden have implemented features like March to October and Play the Moment, which are built around bite-sized challenges that can be completed quickly. Monster Hunter Rise is another grind heavy game that has sought to streamline its experience as much as possible without sacrificing its grand sense of scale.
There’s no easy way to slim Returnal down to the size of a Hades or Dead Cells, but there are steps that Housemarque can take to better balance the pace in Returnal. More generous buffs when embarking on a new run wouldn’t go astray, and yes, an auto-save feature so you don’t feel chained to your PS5 lest you lose your run. Returnal doesn’t need to be made ‘easier’, but it would be nice, at least for this player, if it felt like less of an undertaking.
Returnal’s Internal Contradictions
Returnal has very real strengths. For as much as a grind as it can be at times, I still push myself just that little bit further on a regular basis. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an action game as striking as Returnal. It suffers from the roguelite genre’s weaknesses, but it also carries its strengths, particularly its raw intensity. Even Returnal’s opening levels had me sweating profusely as I sprinted through its dank arenas, frantically dodging energy bullets and huge, tentacled beasts. When I beat the first boss, I gasped in relief, then let out an involuntary, “Oh thank god.” Then I put my PS5 in rest mode, because I was physically spent.
Moments like these have made Returnal more memorable than the frequently rote blockbuster action games populating the major consoles, which is one reason I like it so much. I just wish Housemarque had been better able to match the scope of big-budget gaming with the pace that defines the roguelite genre. I love the moment-to-moment excitement of slicing through alien monsters, but in my opinion its strengths too often get lost in its grinding progression.
Regardless, I believe Returnal is a good first step toward truly uniting roguelites and big-budget action games. Now it’s time to take the next one.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.