2021 may not have set the world on fire in terms of a huge number of heavy-hitting standout releases like its predecessor 2020 like The Last of Us Part 2, Hades, Doom Eternal, Ghost of Tsushima, Half-Life Alyx, Animal Crossing, Spider-Man Miles Morales, Demon’s Souls Remake or Cyberpunk 2077(which stood out for all the wrong reasons) or what its successor 2022 is shaping up to be with releases like God of War Ragnarok, Horizon Forbidden West, Elden Ring and Breath of The Wild 2. But I would like to make a confession here, 2021 by far, has been my favorite year for gaming in a long, long time. Not only did I officially step into the next generation when I finally managed to get my hands on a PS5 in June, but I also got a lot of free time in the latter half of this year as I quit my full-time job and applied for college, which made me binge on games both old and new. In fact, I ended up getting 20 platinum trophies in all sorts of games, from God of War to Sekiro to Ratchet to Ghost of Tsushima to GTA V, And I am pretty sure by the time this year ends, I will end up getting a few more. In any other year, I would have been more than happy to hit 10 of them.
But in a year where so many games are fighting for my time, one exceptional title kept me coming back to it even after getting the shiny Platinum trophy, and by the looks of it, it won’t let me go from its clutches any time soon. And that game is none other than Housemarque’s Returnal. Returnal from its very first reveal had me intrigued. So much so that I took an enormous leap of faith and preordered the game digitally on PSN despite not having a PS5 at that point of time, and I had no idea whether I would be able to snag one this year or not. But Returnal from the get-go always looked my type of game. Story-driven, fast, frantic, brutal and with an interesting setting and a unique protagonist to boot (which we generally don’t see in games, especially in the AAA space) minus all the fluff and padding of an open-world game. But I like to put my money where my mouth is and want to support the developers who are making games which I want to see more in the industry. And there was a high chance that it could backfire for me, considering it was Housemarque’s first AAA game, and they were a relatively unknown studio. Fast forward to the game’s release, and I still didn’t have a PS5. But Returnal opened to very positive reviews, and I was very happy for Housemarque. But my optimism soon turned sour as I saw most of my friends who purchased Returnal having a tough time with it due to a lack of any proper save system, which resulted in people not being able to save and quit, which also resulted in many frustrated save data losses due to events like power failure or crash which weren’t under anyone’s control. At that point of time, I decided that I wouldn’t start Returnal until it gets all the patches and a proper save functionality, even if I do manage to get a PS5.
Comes June. I got my hands on a PS5 in a lucky restock. Returnal still had no save functionality. I blasted through Demon’s Souls, Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart. Got platinum in both of them. I booted up Returnal because I had to give it a whirl as I spent 70$ on it. Even though I really liked the core gameplay loop, I was pissed off by not being able to save and quit because I was in the midst of quitting my job and had a lot of interviews lined up. I didn’t have the capacity to donate 2+ hours for a run in one go or leave my brand new PS5 in rest mode (Don’t blame me. I was still wary of all those PS5s getting bricked in rest mode). So, I dropped Returnal and went to another game which is like comfort food for me. Sekiro Shadows Die Twice. Playing Sekiro to ad nauseam on PC back in 2019 made my 2021 revisit on PS5 a breeze. Plus, Sekiro also respected my time by letting me save and quit as I could only play for half an hour day. But even as I was slaughtering boss after boss in Sekiro or wasting my time farming for skill points, I couldn’t stop thinking about Returnal. I was itching to go back to that world. Soon I got the platinum in Sekiro, and by that time, August rolled in. And a save and quit functionality for Returnal was still nowhere in sight.
But coming off the highs of the victories of Sekiro and Demon’s Souls, I was determined to see Returnal all the way, through come what may.
Soon, I properly started my Returnal journey. I made sure to play at midnight because the only implication it had was my sleep cycle getting screwed to kingdom come. But I’ll be honest, at that point of time, my sleep schedule wasn’t in a good place, to begin with. I promised myself that I wouldn’t play for more than an hour tops. But promises exist to be broken. 20 minutes to one hour sessions soon became two and sometimes even three. When I wasn’t playing Returnal, I was thinking about playing it. Even in my sleep or whatever I could get off it during that time period, I was dreaming of playing Returnal. At one point, I even dreamt of beating the whole game in the go without dying. Never did I think that weird fever dream of mine would actually become a reality.
The gameplay of this game is virtual cocaine. The movement is buttery smooth. The combat design is so immaculate and expertly crafted that it makes playing Returnal a bliss. Every gun can be a tool of an alien genocide in skilled hands and feel incredible to use with state of the art sound design, and the Dualsense implementation only makes it better. Returnal’s roguelike structure which makes you go back to the beginning upon failure, adds another layer of impalpable tension, which had me on the edge of my seat. At times some of my runs ended horribly, and my eyes were blood red due to all the tiredness of the day and my lack of sleep getting compounded. But there was still an undying itch to start another run. Get a little farther this time. And oh boy, further did I get. Soon after the 24-hour mark, I rolled credits on Returnal.
I couldn’t believe myself. A game which I was adamant on not touching because it didn’t respect my time, here was I was sitting at 3AM in the middle of the night after murdering the final boss and still had that itch to go one more time. Looking back at it, that reluctancy of mine was actually a mental safeguard because deep down, I knew I was gonna get addicted to this game. And beating Returnal was just the beginning. It was now time to get the platinum and see it all the way through. And the RNG collectibles proved to be a bane of my existence. I ran into some biomes multiple times just to get that one RNG collectible that might or might not spawn in that run. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy doing it. Soon my efforts paid off, and by the time August came to an end, I had that shiny platinum on my profile. It was over. Running like a headless chicken through the same biome for the 50th time. Never did getting collectibles in a game felt so gratifying. But my tryst with Returnal didn’t end there. I ran through the game 7 more times, and I died a grand total of zero times in all of these runs combined as compared to my earlier first runs where I was having troubles with the earlier biomes. When it comes to progression, Returnal is possibly the most rewarding game I have ever played in that regard. If I ever decide to take up professional speedrunning, this would be the game of my choice.
But this piece would be far from complete if I didn’t talk about other aspects of Returnal apart from its gameplay. First of all, this game is visually spectacular. From the environment to the enemy design to the best use of particle effects I’ve seen from a game, Housemarque nailed the sci-fi thriller vibes which they were going for. The audio in this game is no slouch either. I have already talked about how impressive the sound design in general is, but even the OST hits hard. Without spoiling anything, the moment leading up to a boss fight in the second half of the game is easily one of my top moments in a game, and that wouldn’t have been possible without Bobby Krlic’s amazing soundtrack. Those who have played it will instantly know what I am talking about. And the combat music goes perfectly with the fast and frantic combat of the game and plays a vital role in putting my adrenaline into full gear the moment I get into combat.
Now comes the narrative part. This is a bit tricky to talk about without delving into spoilers, and even with spoilers, Returnal’s narrative is not as easily palpable as it seems because even after you roll the credits, you will probably be left with more questions than answers. The game stars Selene (who is voiced brilliantly by Jane Perry), a middle-aged astronaut who gets stuck on an alien planet and very soon, she notices that her death is just the beginning of her troubles as she goes through her very own Groundhog Day to escape from this never ending hellish nightmare. The premise is simple enough. But it has its unique twists, which takes Selene’s character through a very twisted journey of self-discovery and deals with strong themes such as mental health in a way a story only told via the medium of games can. Housemarque never lays all of its cards on the table, and considering the nature of the story they have tried telling here, it’s all the more better for it.
After all is said and done, it’s finally the time to address the elephant in the room. Is Returnal worth the full price? Normally you wouldn’t even see this discussion anywhere when it comes to games who generally get nominated for stuff like GOTY awards all the time. But Returnal had to climb a giant uphill slope. First of all, it is one of the earlier games in this console generation with an increased price tag of 70$ on top of being a roguelike game (with a relatively high learning curve to boot when compared to most AAA titles), which in itself is a very niche genre. This is why you hardly ever see any developer trying to make a AAA roguelike game. Also, the fact that Returnal’s launch suffered from crashes (which only made it worse as people couldn’t save and quit) didn’t do it much favors. But the developers at Housemarque have been working on this game from Day 1, and when I actually got around to playing Returnal in August, my experience was smooth all the way through, and I had zero crashes during all the 80+ hours I have invested in this game so far. So, for me, it was totally worth the asking price because I loved each and every second of those 80 hours (even the ones where I wanted to bash my skull with my Dualsense). So much so that I am kinda glad that I played Demon’s Souls and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart before (both 70$ games as well) because even though they are both very good games in their own right, I simply can’t go back to them after playing Returnal and if Returnal would’ve been my first PS5 title, I am certain that I would’ve not enjoyed those games as much as I did and probably might’ve felt ripped off buying them. It seems extremely hyperbolic, but I stand by every word I say here. This game is THAT GOOD. And there is a good chance that by the time this console generation comes to a close, Returnal will end up being my game of the generation. Heck, it’s already in my top 5 of all time which is quite a big feat for a relatively small studio like Housemarque to crack a list that is usually dominated by the likes of Naughty Dog and Rockstar. If that is not a testament to the quality of this game, then I don’t know what is.
And as it stands today in November, Returnal has finally got a save and quit-like feature called suspend cycle, which people like me have been clamoring for since launch. So, if you are someone like me who was on the fence because of no option of saving and quitting, now is the perfect time to get this game. I can’t guarantee that you will end up loving this game as much as me. But I can definitely say that if you can manage to see it all the way through, this will definitely be an unforgettable experience. For better or for worse…..
Last year our game of the year was The Last of Us 2 if you wanna read about that click here
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