Returnal is a damn hard game. Often, when games are damn hard, they foster a community that's… let's be charitable and say 'not very nice'. Games that only few among us can beat create a lot of elitism and pride, and this can often cause players to lash out. I beat Scrimblebimblehook without help, so why should I help you, scrub? What, you used the sword the game deliberately provides to you right before the boss battle? That's cheating mate. Thankfully, Returnal's community is not like that, and they deserve the Ascension update.
My fondness for Returnal's community has grown even greater in the wake of Elden Ring. Though the game isn't for me, I can't deny that it has been nice to see everyone else come together and agree that this game rocks. Unfortunately, that only lasted for about five minutes, despite the game taking 100 hours to complete – unless you decide to speedrun it in two, of course. If you use magic in Elden Ring, you're cheating – even though the game lets you use magic. If you use summons in Elden Ring, you're cheating – even though the game lets you use summons. If you level up too high, you're cheating – even though the game encourages you to go wherever you like. You get the idea. Also the UX sucks and/or is perfect, and anyone joking about is corrupt, jealous, and bitter.
Returnal could easily have gone that way. Gauging how 'hard' a game is can be a difficult task. Elden Ring lets you explore relatively freely and allows you to buddy up with friends, and if a boss is too hard, you can just keep upgrading until you get stronger. Returnal is more random and linear, and defeating a boss just the once isn't good enough – you have to beat them on every run. Upgrades are harder to come by, but luck counts for a lot more in Returnal, and it’s more forgiving. Not to mention the menus feel designed to help you in Returnal, whereas in Elden Ring they're a scrambled mess of cryptic, arcane puzzles that help immerse veteran players in their dark and mythical world as they giggle while writing 'try finger but hole'. Then there's the considerable distinction that Returnal is a shooter and Elden Ring has third person melee-or-magic combat, meaning your mileage may vary on which is harder.
Elden Ring is not the outlier when it comes to difficult games. Many of its worst qualities (complex menus, lack of assistance) are what, in the eyes of the hardcore, make it great. That does make talking about it sensibly even more difficult, but the fact is most difficult games have fans who are even more difficult to have a pleasant conversation with. Once you're ingratiated into the community, you will see a different side of them, but when it comes to outsiders or those struggling, all you get is a sneer and a 'git gud' for your troubles. Returnal is the outlier, in that most of its fans are nice, helpful, and want to grow the game with new players rather than protect it from interlopers.
Sure, it helps that Returnal is newer than Soulsbourne games as a concept, but it's been out for a year now and that's long enough for a community to have formed and for the hardcore to have forgotten what it was like when they started out. However, the Returnal subreddit is much more relaxed than you'd expect it to be for a game of this nature – perhaps for a game at all. There's little in-fighting, and a lot of celebrations of seemingly minor victories. That's because the die-hards know these victories aren't minor to those who are accomplishing them for the first time, and rather than stomping on small players to make themselves feel big, they're lifting these small players up to share in the glory.
The confirmation of DLC at the Sony State of Play was somewhat minor, but I suspect those who have stuck with Returnal won't mind so much. Adding co-op is a big deal for those still playing it but doesn't offer much freshness, and the new Survival Mode brings a challenge, but no expansion on the narrative or lore as fans may have hoped for. In the run-up to Elden Ring, I wrote about how much the community deserved a great game because of how charming and self-deprecating their attitude had been through the hype cycle. I wrote as much at the time that once it was out, the toxicity would soon flood in, and it's been a shame to see Elden Ring's once joyous community dissolve under the weight of anger – anger that has arrived even as the game picked up perfect scores.
Thankfully, Returnal's community has only grown more welcoming over time, and even if this isn't the beefiest update in the history of gaming, I hope the players can get something out of it.
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