Housemarque’s ambitious PS5-exclusive roguelike shooter Returnal is out today, and while it’s received plenty of praise (including from us) for its haunting atmosphere, clever story, and shooter action, it’s also sparking discussion about its considerable difficulty. And now, the game’s director has weighed in too.
On Next-Gen Console Watch, game director Harry Krueger and marketing and business development director Mikael Haveri both affirmed that Returnal’s challenge stems from Housemarque’s “arcade roots.” Housemarque has historically incorporated arcade systems and styles in its games since its origins in the 90s, and while it declared years ago after Nex Machina that “arcade is dead,” Housemarque clearly isn’t abandoning that spirit in its newer titles.
“We started development four years ago, and I don’t think the vision has changed that much. Housemarque games are known for their, let’s say… challenge… there’s usually a difficulty to them,” Haveri said. “Nex Machina for example, you can go through the game on Easy, but you’ll never get to the last level, and then there’s other unlockables, and so on. So there’s an ‘easy to learn, but hard to master’ mentality at work there.”
Krueger agreed. “Without a challenge we don’t feel like you can have that strong sense of accomplishment, you know? The closer to the verge of frustration you get, the bigger the feeling of triumph when you do eventually prevail.”
He added that while Returnal does have more traditional difficulty options, Housemarque wanted players to feel that every new run was completely unique. Hence the roguelike formula, which allowed for “a lot of unpredictable swings” in how a session might play out even with difficulty options in place.
“So as we were saying before […] if you take one too many gambles, you get a little bit overconfident, you might end up digging your own grave, so to speak,” Krueger concluded. “But if you play a little bit more conservatively, try to play it safe, you can kind of “tune” the difficulty of that particular session to your desired skill level. So we’re hoping that can act as a bit of a pressure valve for the times that you hit an impassable obstacle. Next time you try them, there will always be something a little bit different, something that gives you a little bit more of an edge so you can overcome that next time.”
Returnal follows the story of space explorer Selene Vassos, who crash lands on an alien planet and begins searching for the source of a strange signal. However, when she inevitably dies on her first expedition, she’s returned to her ship as if nothing had ever happened. As she continues to explore the planet, Selene discovers that each failed expedition results in her being looped back to the beginning as the world shifts around her.
Difficulty aside, Returnal has come under some criticism due to the length of its runs (at times 2-3 hours) and the inability to save, turn off the game, and resume play from where you leave off in the middle of a run, making it doubly challenging for those who cannot commit to play for that long a session. Housemarque has responded to this concern saying there was “nothing to announce now” but that the studio was listening to the community.
We also found the length of each run to be a barrier in our review, but aside from that, we found Returnal’s challenging gunplay and intriguing story compelling, calling it one of Housemarque’s best games to date. If you’re playing too and struggling to figure out where to start, check out our guide to the 20 Things to Do First in Returnal, as well as our tips guide on all the things Returnal doesn’t tell you.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.