Returnal is easily one of the PlayStation 5’s best exclusives. Its combat is explosive and fast-paced, its graphics and art design are phenomenal, and its story – while scarce on the details – is an engaging and emotional tale. What really struck out to me about Returnal, however, was the way it balanced risk, reward, and opportunity cost.
So much in Returnal comes with a price. One of the game’s best mechanics are parasites, fist-sized insectoid creatures Selene attaches to her body. She can carry up to five on each run, and they come with various benefits. They can increase Selene’s max integrity (re: health bar), cause enemies to drop more obolites (the game’s currency), or make keys useable a second time, among other benefits.
There are many ways parasites can benefit Selene – and an equal number of ways they hurt her. Parasites can harm Selene by damaging her when removed, increasing malfunction probability (more on that in a sec), or reducing melee damage. Some parasites even cause enemies to leave pools of acid upon death, which… sigh definitely ended one of my runs prematurely (note to players: be careful where you dash).
I quickly learned to avoid parasites that would cause the cooldowns for melee and dashing to slow down. Not being able to dodge quickly enough cost me a few runs (and hours) and I didn’t want take on a boss with my movement hindered.
In a couple of the game’s hectic and high-blood-pressure-inducing boss fights, I was only able to stay alive because of my parasites. The best one auto repaired Selene’s suit when at low integrity, meaning I could take way more hits than I should have been able to as my health bar would regenerate before Selene could die – that is, if I could stay out of the line of fire for long enough. I was able to beat four of the game’s five bosses on my first attempt against them, and two of those successes were due in very large part to my auto repair parasite. I’m sure you can guess what parasite I had attached to Selene when on my fifth attempt I finally beat Ixion of the Crimson Wastes.
Malignant items work very similarly to parasites. Some chests or pockets of silphium – what Selene uses to heal – may be covered in malignancy. Opening a malignant chest or picking up a malignant item runs the risk of suffering a suit malfunction. Some malfunctions are really rough – having a random artifact, which can boost Selene’s stats, be disabled is always tough – while others may not be that bad, like obolites disappearing a couple seconds faster. Malignant items can be cleansed using ether, but ether can be rare to find and serves much more useful purposes, like purchasing artifacts or choosing where to respawn (instead of starting at the beginning of the game for the umpteenth time). Malfunctions can go away once certain criteria are met, but if a malfunction requires you to collect 200 obolites and there’s only one room of a few enemies between you and a boss, are you sure you want to carry a malfunction into a boss battle?
Again – no reward without risk.
Risk and reward also play a part in how much of each level, called biomes, you explore. Once you’ve reached a boss for the first time, a shortcut will appear about halfway through a biome that allows you to teleport to the boss. However, by skipping half a biome, you run the risk of missing out on better weapons, more consumables, or useful artifacts. Continuing through the level then increases the chances of taking hits and not being healthy enough for the boss fight. What do you do if Selene loses half a health bar with only malignant silphium to heal and not enough ether to cleanse it? Probably throw a controller, but those things are expensive.
On more than one occasion I’d kick myself for gambling too much during a run. I’d take too many hits, use health consumables I wanted to save for a boss fight, find guns worse than the one I was using, and come away with malfunctions I hoped to avoid with no reward to show for my extra exploration. Not every gamble paid off, but I had a helluva time making them.
But that challenge – that constant gamble around every corner – is what drew me to Returnal in the first place, and the game wouldn’t be the same without its risk/reward systems. I reveled in the challenging gameplay and wanted more biomes to power through. Sure, having to start at the first biome each cycle could be beyond frustrating, but the satisfaction and joy of completing a level and beating its boss – and eventually beating the game – was worth every gamble.
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