Housemarque’s Returnal exists within a rare segment of the gaming populace. A space also inhabited by FromSoftware’s revered Souls and Sekiro titles. Primarily speaking, these are games that are so unabashedly themselves, even at the risk of alienating others.
The comparison between Returnal and Souls titles is not one I make lightly. In fact, I believe it to be apt, in part, to an area which overlaps between the two. Of course, this area being the sense of accomplishment both games manage to evoke within the player.
However, personally, this point is shifted into overdrive with Returnal. Despite how rewarding taking down Soul of Cinder or Nameless King might have been for me, Returnal delivered this sensation to such a degree I’ve yet to experience in gaming.
Life & Death
Returnal can easily be compared to a seesaw. In which, this sensation lives and dies by the length of your run. For instance, if you find yourself in the midst of a hour and a half run and die to some grunts, it is easy to imagine what immediate emotions will find a home in your head. Anger, regret, wanting to give up, and pure depression, chief among them. To be frank, it is demoralizing and that is just one way the seesaw can land.
On the other hand, let’s say a Biome requires a lot more time from you to complete. For me, although I did not die, I ran through Biome 2 and 3 in a single run, which took me over three hours to complete. I cannot possibly fathom how soul crushing it would have been to die then get sent back to the beginning.
So, this inherently places pressure on the player. Every shot fired, every dodge, every encounter, and room entered must be approached with the upmost caution and deliberation. Every choice with coming across parasites and malignancy, matters that much more. Internal discussions occur which weigh these choices on a set of scales.
More often than not, these are the choices between life and death. Yet, if caution is maintained with these choices, then these longer runs may just end with you overcoming a biome. Thus, the other side of the seesaw, the side you so desperately wish to sit atop of.
Returnal and the Definition of ‘Tense’
Everything comes to a head with the bosses lying in wait at the end of every Biome. After a long run, they act as the punctuation mark to solidify this sense of accomplishment.
They are the true test. Everything rides on being able to bring them down, lest you wish getting sent all the way back to Biome 1. That knowledge hangs in the back of your mind, once again adding to the idea of growing pressure. Every choice the player makes, mattering to an even larger degree.
It is the very definition of “heart pounding,” tied together because of the difficulty in Returnal. Your hands begin to clam up and sweat percolates on your forehead as you progress deeper into the fight. You wonder why in the world is the bosses health bar dropping so agonizingly slow? Did I bring the right gun with me? Doubt seeps in as your health drops dangerously low and you remember you already used your only health consumable on the previous phase.
It is a battle of endurance now – who can outlast who? In the end, you persevere. Drenched in sweat, hands sore and heart nearly ready to burst from your chest as you finally see this boss go down. You let out a huge sigh of relief as the reassurance that your two hour long run was not for naught, is realized. You chipped into the game’s armor and you are ready for more, ready for anything.
For me, Returnal exceeds time and time again in these instances. The moments when you are seemingly presented with a Herculean obstacle, then scratch and claw your way to perseverance, regardless. Ultimately, leading to an unrivaled sense of accomplishment that will see you leap out of your seat from pure joy. It is the kind of sensation I have definitely experienced in other games. Overcoming something that has previously beat you into the ground over and over.
Yet, I can not shake the difference with Returnal in both the physical and mental journey I am subjected to with each and every boss encounter. The sensation is far more tangible. It is the rare occasion where immersion and investment meld together to form something truly memorable.