Is Returnal Really That Hard?

Or: How Jimmy Nearly Lost His Mind While Playing Returnal.


Since releasing on the final day of April, a lot has been said about Housemarque’s Returnal, good and bad. While the inability to save has ruffled some feathers, there’s just as much praise for the sci-fi roguelike’s fast action and fascinating hooks. You die over and over as a part of the narrative, but does Returnal go too far in making the player sweat? Is Returnal just too difficult, or is it a case of simply understanding its rhythms before you can enter the Fun Zone?

As the quintessential Average Andy of video game expertise, I thought I’d relay some of my findings with Returnal, whether or not it goes past the point of being fun pain into outright pain. I’m a 1.1 K/D, medium difficulty, hold the optional side-bosses kind of player, someone who does alright at just about every game but never excels in them. I’ve beaten tricky “rogueish” games like Sundered, Dead Cells, and Hades before, but called it a day fairly early on in most Souls-likes. I enjoy them, sure, but not to the point where I drag my ego through the broken glass of my shattered dreams to beat some weird penis beast on the fiftieth try.

So, with expectations for success set fairly low and eye drops at the ready for the strain of crying out my gamer rage, I settled in for my first crash landing on Atropos — and the many dozens that followed. Was Returnal really as tough as some were saying?

Well, for me: yes, but not in the ways I was expecting.


Difficulty is, of course, subjective — one man’s N. Gin is another man’s Papu Papu. I’ve heard people claim that a notoriously hard boss is actually quite easy with a straight face, and that it all comes down to practice, getting in a groove and learning the DNA of a game. That rings true for Returnal, though its bosses are curiously the easiest thing about the whole game. You’re going to think this is nonsense, but I didn’t die during any of Returnal’s boss fights.

Not once. Honestly, apart from a hairy moment or two, they were almost like respite.

I think it comes down to how few distractions there are in the boss fights themselves. They get hectic, sure, and the last boss is as busy as Ikaruga meets Dance Dance Revolution in terms of things on the screen, but they have almost your entire focus. As long as you keep moving, shooting, and don’t allow yourself to get cross-eyed, you will win the day after chipping away at their three life bars.

On the other hand, Returnal’s combat arenas are constant little bumps of adrenaline that feel similar to DOOM Eternal as far as enemy density goes. There’s always something to shoot at, some attack to evade, a slice of perceived bullshit that’s really there to teach you a harsh lesson. You better get ready to learn, because this game is going to school you. The fact that the first level seems to funnel you into an unwinnable early encounter feels very much like a callback to the big werewolf of Bloodborne fame, which was intended to introduce you to a fundamental mechanic. Here, it’s to introduce you to the fundamental nature of death.


Returnal’s random nature does tilt it past DOOM in terms of difficulty though, especially if the first arena you leave after Helios is unkind or the build you want just isn’t coming together thanks to the RNG — and it can often feel like Returnal puts the R in RNG.

At my lowest, most frustrated ebb with the game, none of the Parasites, weapons, or augments I used as comfort blankets were coming my way. It truly seemed as if the game went “try some different toys” and kept hitting me over the head with it, but I didn’t want to listen. When I eventually started playing a bit more expansively without my crutches, I finally pushed that boulder over the hill and made progress. And then I died soon after, but still: an inch of progress is better than no progress at all.

Returnal really starts to come alive after you’ve unlocked traits, grinded through past biomes to raise your Integrity pack up, and picked up other tools along the way to get you back to an empowered state. It’s whether or not you can find the resolve to grind all the way back up after a tough to swallow death that will determine your enjoyment of Returnal, as is the case with most games in the rogue sphere. I’ve soldiered through a lot of, ahem, bollocks in the genre before, deaths that felt borderline sadistic in their cruelty, and Returnal pushed me almost beyond that point a couple of times.

Pictured: ahhhhhhhhhh

There’s a biome in Returnal where the difficulty really gets cranked up a notch — or fifty. I’d grown used to the biomes and enemies of the last ten hours of struggle and felt like I was getting into a rhythm, but then the rug was pulled out from under me. Enemies went Super Saiyan, arenas started putting the hell in bullet hell, and it felt like every pickup was Malignant, meaning that there was a chance of getting a negative modifier for just trying to gain health. When the licks keep coming and the loot keeps sucking, it’s very easy to become jaded by the Returnal experience.

It’s worth persevering with, though, because the power fantasy can be truly exceptional, and the sense of accomplishment gigantic. The game is never really explicit with every mechanic, but it soon teaches you that you can use a grappling hook to give yourself a brief window of invincibility, that sometimes it’s worth tanking the negatives of Parasites, and that most of the big boys have some very pronounced weak points. Before long, you’ll be flinging yourself around combat arenas like a roided up chimp in a space suit, blasting away whatever is chucked at you and gurning like a madman when things go quiet and it’s only you left standing.

Look, I’m not saying that I jet-propelled myself from my chair and cussed out pixels on a screen after brushing them aside with the vim of a Thuganomics era John Cena (bad raps and all), but I am saying that there’s no video evidence and you can’t prove it.


But it’s all about getting to that point, whether or not the attrition is worth the payoff. Make no mistake, Returnal is a hard game and anyone who says otherwise is either the second coming of Daigo or a liar, but it’s easy to see where people might get put off — I’m not sure I’d have stuck it out so pigheadedly if I didn’t have to appease the Content Gods, who are never sated.

Sony’s big-budget exclusives are getting a reputation for not being walkovers, with the likes of God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and Ghost of Tsushima all offering a refreshing challenge, but Returnal is honestly a step above. What’s fitting is that Housemarque, who truly deserve their time in the sun, started off the PS4’s life with Resogun, a very tricky, very excellent shoot ’em up, and now they’re back with what’s arguably the hardest PS5 exclusive the burgeoning console has to offer.

Until Bloodborne 2, of course.

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