How Cyberpunk 2077 broke the Returnal spell
I wouldn’t call myself a “hardcore” gamer, but I’m no noob either. I’ve been playing since the early 90s, but have generally missed the competitive FPS scene entirely. I’ve always been drawn to slower-paced strategy games, where I can take my time between moves. It’s no surprise that JRPG is easily my favorite genre, so what the hell is someone like me doing trying their hand at a game like Returnal?
Returnal was a Christmas splurge for me. It had been out long enough that I had heard of its high (but not Soulslike) difficulty but people couldn’t stop raving about it, so I took a gamble. A part of the decision was that I also wanted to help justify my PS5 purchase to myself by getting a true exclusive, since so many other games are still PS4 crossovers even now more than a year later.
Returnal is a bullet-hell rogue-like shooter, which in addition to being a mouthful to say is a simple premise on paper and one that may have a steep learning curve for many players in reality. Imagine a world of shifting, random rooms filled with angry monsters ready to fill the screen with colored orbs of death. That’s Returnal in a nutshell. It’s Ikaruga but playing as a person. It’s Hades, but every enemy has their projectile attacks cranked to 11. And when you succumb to the energy onslaught, it’s right back to the start with little gained but whatever enemy patterns you were able to work out.
Before I drive anyone else off from buying this game, it’s entirely probably that I am just bad at games like Returnal. I had the same trouble at the beginning of Ghost of Tsushima with my catastrophic lack of timing, and I imagine the same shortcoming held me back in the early hours of Returnal. And continued to hold me back, over and over and over. More than 50 deaths before I could beat the first 2 (of 6 bosses).
I looked online for encouragement, maybe some tips that were more substantial than “git gud”. The most I found was advocacy to keep going, to stick with the game and eventually it would click. And so I did, and eventually the game did click, but not before I almost gave up on it completely several times. I started seeing the (relatively simple) enemy attack patterns and could avoid punishment much more effectively. I found a set of weapons that I liked and I stuck with it. My first major victories were still massively random events and I chalk up to pure luck. On one run, the game just came together for me with the right weapons, the right upgrades and the right (lack of) enemies I was bad at fighting, and I blew through 3 bosses in one go.
By then I was thoroughly hooked, blasting through waves of enemies and scouting for secrets, boldly running into challenge rooms rather than avoiding them and when I did inevitably fall to some new enemy I didn’t know how to combat effectively yet, I was actually looking forward to trying them again rather than dreading it. I eventually worked my way to a skill level where I could make it through the entire game without a single death. I still consider myself only average at best, but if I can make it I believe that almost anyone could, if they have the patience.
There are only so many achievements available in Returnal, and none of them involved insane challenges (above the difficulty of the game itself), so I decided I would try to go for that Platinum, as I have with several games that had captured my heart in the past. I put in the time and effort to get them all in God of War (which involves extra-hard, optional fights), so why not Returnal?
Enter: the RNG monster.
Every biome in Returnal has a different set of rooms that are used to randomly generate the world on each run. In some of these rooms are collectables, used in the achievements. The problem for Returnal, a problem so big that I did eventually give up on the goal of Platinum, was that the world building was random every time you start over. And each biome only uses a selection of the total rooms possible for each run, meaning that some rooms show up each time you try, and some don’t. And unfortunately, it seems like some rooms are rarer than others, and some of these elusive ones contain collectibles you need for achievements.
This massively annoyed me because it meant that no matter how skilled I got at the game, no matter how many hours I put into it, there was no guarantee I would ever even find these things needed for the achievements. I was entirely at the mercy of a randomness algorithm, an algorithm that felt even more unfair than the game itself when I was just starting. If you do manage to find one of these rooms and somehow miss the thing you are meant to collect, it’s entirely possible you may never get that chance again. In nearly 100 attempts, I remember entering one specific room in the second world exactly once. I can’t in good conscience keep playing with no (even reasonable) chance of success, no matter how well I am playing. There is no reward for skill here, only for relentlessly rolling the dice and hoping the right set of rooms will come up. I find this MASSIVELY annoying. I needed to move on, but I also knew I needed something that would grab me, or I knew I would just come crawling back to the Returnal well.
So, I’ve been sitting on Cyberpunk 2077 since it’s very release. I’ve tried it a few times along the way, mostly to see the state of the bugs in the world. The game started out laughably buggy, where patrons of the opening bar scene were floating in the air on one of my first plays. But just as I was reaching the end of my patience with Returnal, Cyberpunk 2077 patch 1.5 gets released. The so-called “Next Gen” patch. So, I decide to give it another try and, so far, it has been massively improved. Is it perfect? Not even close. GTA5 still feels like it has a more “alive” world than Cyberpunk. It’s also closer in gameplay to a futuristic Skyrim than Witcher, but that is exactly what I was looking for in the first place. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it feels like Cyberpunk has to offer, but so far I am having a blast losing myself in a genre I’ve been a fan of since Blade Runner. Catch you later, chooms!