Housemarque’s Returnal arrives this week making quite a statement in the seemingly endless debate over game difficulty and accessibility. It shows that when developers want to, they can make an unforgiving but remarkably accessible game. As thrilled as I am that the “git gud” crowd has conclusively been proven wrong with Returnal, I can’t help but wonder if disabled players are being alienated in a way I’d not yet considered by games where the difficulty is the point.
I covered all of the nitty gritty accessibility details in our preview of Returnal, so I won’t go into that here. And before I launch into my criticism of the game, I want to make it clear that I applaud Housemarque for their efforts and love the premise of the amazing game they have made. Their use of the DualSense’s haptics showed me a glimpse of what immersive possibilities Sony’s tech is capable of. What I felt in the haptic feedback while playing Returnal left me very excited for the future of gaming on the PlayStation 5.
I’ve had a full week now with Returnal and I’ve played it every day, traversing a variation of the game’s first biome over and over again. So much so that I think I’ve run out of variations. I unlock different weapons, see new memories, get very slightly better at dispersing enemies quickly and dodging their chains of damaging orbs.
I’m quite taken by how each weapon feels distinctly different and being able to adjust the Adaptive Triggers on the DualSense makes them feel like they were made just for me and every trigger pull feels satisfying. The aim assistance is everything I’ve ever wanted in the feature. It’s not too sticky, not so light that it feels useless. It’s just right. If I could send the developers into every game studio on earth to teach other devs how to do aim assistance, I would.
In addition to feeling great to play, Returnal is simply stunning. I have never wanted a photo mode more than I do for this game world. And while the 3D audio is lost on me, given the quality of everything else in the game, I imagine it’s phenomenal as well.
And yet I will not be finishing Returnal. I won’t even attempt to. My time with the game is ending with my accessibility review (unless they release a photo mode because, I mean…I’m still me.)
Why am I calling it quits on a game I can’t stop raving about? Because I just don’t care enough. I am chronically ill, live with chronic pain, and I’m hard of hearing. Daily life, the majority of the time, is set to hardcore difficulty for me and requires a sometimes tremendous amount of perseverance. Everything I want to do, I have to ask for access to be able to take part in. I have to carefully measure and allot my time and energy so that my body doesn’t throw in the towel halfway through my day. I begin every day with an hour or two of video game time so that even if I’m going to be in miserable pain until I pass out in bed and I’m denied access to 50 different things throughout the day, my day begins well.
By the end of my work day, I’m always telling myself, just one more hour…just 15 more minutes…push through it, you’re almost done! I play video games to alleviate the stress of having to sustain myself in an unsustainable environment. When games add to that stress, I generally uninstall them and forget they exist until someone on the internet starts shouting about difficulty.
I very badly want to see how the story of Returnal plays out. I want to see more stunning environments and biomes and I want to feel even more distinct haptics in every new weapon I happen upon. But I’m not a glutton for punishment.
In the end, Returnal has given me a new perspective on the difficulty vs. accessibility debate. It’s not that Returnal is too difficult for me to progress. The game has incredible accessibility features that allow me to experience the game as it was “intended” to be experienced. The problem lies in perseverance. Every second of my life as a hard of hearing and chronically ill person is about perseverance and overcoming barriers and because of that, I have no desire to sustain that perseverance in my leisure time while gaming.
Returnal’s difficulty is the point and Housemarque has shown that challenging games can be made accessible. But when daily life is in hardcore mode already, do I want to invite more of that in for fun? Not even a little bit.
A review copy of Returnal was provided by the developer / publisher.