There Is No Winning With The Returnal Difficulty Debate

Another day, another discourse. Housemarque’s Returnal launched last week and was subject to positive reviews from fans and critics alike, although one discussion reigned above all else – difficulty. Returnal is a spitefully hard game, one that can steal away hours of progress if you happen to make a single mistake. I feel it’s designed this way with a sense of deliberacy, not afraid to tell those who aren’t ready for the challenge to walk away.

Its hostile alien world is a hauntingly punishing place, one that forces its heroine to live out the same harrowing events again and again until she can find some form of escape. The player must suffer from a similar level of treatment if they wish to emerge victorious, with many feeling that Returnal should be more lenient, allowing for soft save states and checkpoints that make progressing an easier affair. Since right now, it’s a game that requires immense dedication, and a level of patience that shouldn’t be expected of everyone.

Checkpoints and second chances surface throughout each run, but they’re often located sparsely across multiple biomes and require immense amounts of resources to use in the first place. As our own Kirk McKeand noted in his review, success often feels predicated on luck, and stumbling across the right mixture of items and modifications that will prevent the boss from feeling nigh impossible. There are also bugs and glitches to contend with outside of the challenge itself. I was on a killer run (if I do so say so myself) which was brought to a screeching halt as I stumbled through a cliff formation and found myself falling through the world.

40 minutes went out the window as I placed my controller down in silent frustration. ‘I’ll try again tomorrow,’ I told myself. It is now tomorrow, and it will probably still kick my ass. Issues like this will be ironed out in later patches, and are honestly just occasional hitches that will always surface amidst procedural generation. The world can only go through so many permutations before the cracks begin to show, which in my case, happened to be very literal and game breaking.

But I’ll press on, and Housemarque has told the community it is listening to feedback in regards to checkpoints and difficulty. You could scream “git gud” and call it a day, but I feel the true nature of player complaints surrounding Returnal are far more complicated. Even compared to its previous titles such as Resogun and Nex Machina, Returnal is a truly uncompromising beast. Some simply don’t have the time to master it, wishing for more forgiving combat so they can enjoy the morbid narrative with fewer obstacles.

This goes against the original design of Returnal and the intentions behind overcoming its cyclical method of madness, but I feel pushing that aside so a less experienced audience can enjoy what’s on offer is an exceptional compromise. Those who want to engage with the original package can do just that, while ignoring options that make the ride a little easier on those who don’t fancy getting their asses handed to them. Other games have done just this, with Amnesia: Rebirth removing monsters altogether so the narrative remains the sole focus.

Such an approach wouldn’t work with Returnal, since combat is what defines it, but making enemies less punishing and weapons more capable wouldn’t be the end of the world if implemented as part of a future update, especially if these additions are completely optional. Sadly, the debate around these ideas is already drenched in toxicity. Journalists who talked about the game’s difficulty being hard to conquer ahead of release were labeled as casuals and cucks before the true gamers could emerge and prove them wrong. Turns out we were right and it is pretty difficult – funny how that usually shakes out.

With games like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and The Last of Us Part 2 highlighting the importance of accessibility both in terms of difficulty and other options for players from all walks of life, Returnal feels unusually backwards in the grand scheme of things. I admire Housemarque for crafting a challenging game that isn’t afraid to make you work for your rewards, but these virtual triumphs aren’t lessened by lowering the barrier to entry with optional toggles and adjustments.

If anything, you’re only widening your audience, and I imagine the word-of-mouth discussion around Returnal’s difficulty put more people off than it persuaded. It’s also £70, which is a lot for a game that some might purchase only to get stuck on the second boss. I’m still in two minds about the Returnal difficulty debate. I feel Housemarque needs to maintain its original vision with all the obstacles that come with it, but at the same time, a future update that makes it a more digestible product for casual players would be more than welcome.

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Jade King is one of the Features Editors for TheGamer. Previously Gaming Editor over at Trusted Reviews, she can be found talking about games, anime and retweeting Catradora fanart @KonaYMA6.

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