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The main character of Returnal with the grappling hook Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

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Returnal needs to follow in the footsteps of the greatest roguelikes

There’s a steep hill to climb for Returnal to compete against Hades and Enter the Gungeon

Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

Returnal’s arrival on PlayStation 5 last week was a major milestone. Despite the popularity of roguelikes spiking in the last decade, there’s never been a full-priced, big-budget release for the genre until now. But if Returnal hopes to stand the test of time against classics like The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, and Hades, its obligation to its players has only just begun.

The reason roguelikes have become so popular with indie developers is that they scale well for smaller teams. Once the core gameplay loop is designed, it’s comparatively easy to add new content or tweak variables to improve the experience for players. The makers of games like Nuclear Throne and Hades executed on this strategy, entirely in the public eye, with early access releases followed by countless updates. In Hades’ case, those updates allowed a game to grow from an extremely good action roguelike into Polygon’s game of the year in 2020.

Returnal developer Housemarque went another way, opting to drop the full game at once, with mixed results. While the art design and minute-to-minute action have been praised — no shock, given Housemarque’s pedigree — there are plenty of kinks in Returnal that an early access phase might have knocked out.

A Xenoglyph Cipher in Returnal Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

The one that’s gotten the most attention is the lack of a midrun saving system. Given that Returnal is a roguelike, no one should be asking for multiple save slots, or the ability to reload from the last checkpoint. But runs in Returnal can take three hours, and like many newly released titles, the game has a penchant to, well, fuck up from time to time. Bugs and hard crashes have resulted in runs that are prematurely ruined. I’ve lost two runs myself.

Over the course of 25 hours, that doesn’t seem so bad, but considering Returnal’s punishing difficulty, both of those crashes — which lost me an hour or more of progress — nearly caused me to put the game down and never play it again. Having some sort of backup “shadow” save at the beginning of each area that deletes itself when you’ve reloaded from that point would have provided a nice backstop against possible bugs and crashes.

I’m not saying that implementing a save system is easy, but it’s definitely the sort of thing that would have come up very early in the feedback process had Housemarque opted for the early access route with Returnal. Players have way more patience with a game that’s openly in the middle of development — less so if they’ve just tossed down $70, only to have their hard work vanish before their eyes.

Housemarque has said that it is listening to players’ feedback carefully, but a save system is really just the start of expectations for a full-priced roguelike. Returnal has balance issues at present, with some guns and loadouts performing wildly better than others. Weapons can come down to personal preference, though. A simpler example of Returnal’s imbalance is how the game handles keys.

Atropian Keys are scant resources in Returnal; you may only find five in an entire run, so it’s incredibly important to use them wisely. After 25 hours with the game, I can see no reason to ever use a key on anything but a locked chest. All those locked doors you come across? You can safely ignore them and their inconsistent rewards, saving your keys for chests, which always cough up valuable artifacts. But there should never be a “right” way to spend a resource like a key in a roguelike. Difficult midrun choices that involve weighing multiple potential outcomes make roguelikes tense and exciting. The Atropian Key example is one of several elements (like the game’s implementation of malfunctions, which you should also ignore) that make Returnal feel like it’s in desperate need of a few balance patches.

Once imbalances and bugs are out of the way, there’s still more to do. Other roguelikes have set the bar incredibly high with post-launch content updates. Look to Enter the Gungeon and Dead Cells — two games that saw a staggering number of post-release updates, not only for bug fixes and balance improvements but also for major (free!) content expansions that added new enemies, weapons, and entire areas. Enter the Gungeon is just $14.99, less than a quarter of Returnal’s price, but it has continued to reward players long after their initial, paltry purchase.

Right now, Housemarque’s priority needs to be on addressing bugs and more significant balance issues, and it’s clear the studio is listening to all of the feedback. Initial patches to address bugs and performance have been coming fast and furious. But once the dust settles on the release and Returnal reaches a more stable place, a long-term content support plan should really start materializing. Otherwise, this full-priced roguelike will have a tough time standing toe to toe against games that have stood the test of time (while costing far less).

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