PS5’s ‘Returnal’ Sparks Yet Another Debate About Video Game Difficulty
Returnal is now out in the wild on PS5, debuting to generally solid reviews across the board, but if there are any criticisms of it, some have taken issue with the game’s difficulty.
This, of course, has sparked yet another chapter in the “video game difficulty debate” where gamers go after game journalists or less hardcore players and tell them to “get good (git gud)” and deal with whatever difficulty problems they may claim exist in a game.
This saga has many chapters, most famously “Should Dark Souls have an easy mode?” which touches on questions of creator intent and accessibility, but this Returnal debate is a bit different.
From what I can tell, the conflict here isn’t really around difficulty in the traditional sense. Most critics are not complaining that the game’s combat is too tough or it’s too easy to die. Rather, the complaints stem from the extremely long roguelike runs with no way to save mid-run.
Runs in Returnal can be two hours or more, depending on your tactics, and unlike other roguelikes, there’s no in-game way to halt a run and come back to it later. Combine that with the game getting more glitchy as you get deeper into it, and a single bug or a crash can delete an hour or two’s worth of progress instantly.
To me, I think there’s separation between “combat is too hard” and “the structure of the game is punishing.” For instance, you could design say, a Destiny raid that has incredibly tough encounters and takes 20 hours to beat (some have). But if you design that same raid with the stipulation that a single death on your team sends you back to orbit to start the entire thing over again, that to me is the wrong type of difficulty.
I suppose it depends on the genre, but Returnal stands out among other roguelikes who aren’t quite this punishing in demanding runs this long with no way to save or stop progress at all. The developers have even commented on this conversation, though they don’t have anything to share yet:
My guess is that maybe at some point they’ll put in mid-run save options, but probably not for a while.
To me, this is less about difficulty and more about accessibility. Demanding two unbroken hours of a time for a single run is just not realistic for many players. You have disabled players who may not be able to play for that sustained amount of time, and you have the more common situation of simply…parents, who have to mange children and demanding 1-2 hour blocks for each session is just not in the cards. Again, no one I’ve seen is asking for checkpoints, as in you die and respawn at a certain point in the run, which is counter to the whole concept of a roguelike, but simply the ability to suspend a run effectively. And then just the general commentary that maybe 2 hour runs are a little on the long side at baseline.
To me, this issue is less complicated than the “Dark Souls Easy Mode” debate, since it’s not really about difficulty in the traditional sense. The ability to stop a run and resume later isn’t really controversial and shouldn’t take away from the game. And the idea that a 2 hour run is may be a bit long in this genre seems reasonable as well.
But this is the gamer internet, so commence the yelling.
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