Returnal Is Everything I Love About Metroid

I was lucky enough to score a PlayStation 5 a month ago after telling myself I would wait a little while before throwing down hard-earned cash on a new console. It had been 9 months since the PS5 was first released, and I had assumed I would buy one(try to, at least) within the first year, before games like Horizon: Forbidden West and the next God of War game were to be released. On my short list of games I wanted to play first on the new PS5 was Returnal – a roguelite, bullet-hell, third-person shooter developed by Housemarque. I had loved the studio’s previous releases, such as Super Stardust HD or Zombie Nation as Housemarque had become known for making primarily arcade-style games. Returnal had been billed as the first “true, next-gen release” for the PS5 and had a fair amount of hype around it as it was advertised as a AAA roguelite shooter. Prior to its release, the discussion quickly shifted towards the game’s steep difficulty curve.

Returnal also came as a recommendation from a friend as “very much my type of game” knowing how much I loved Hades last year….they were absolutely correct. I don’t believe I’ve played a game quite like Returnal, certainly not within the AAA-game space. I also don’t recall being quite this hooked on a game in a long time. It only took 15 days for me to go from my first minutes with the game to beating the game and collecting every trophy. It was over the course of the many many hours devoted to the game that I had something of a revelation – Returnal contains everything that I love about Metroid games.

I first fell in love with Metroid as a series playing Super Metroid as a kid. Super Metroid, Prime, and Fusion are among my all-time favorite games and my time with Returnal over the past couple weeks has brought out some of the same feelings I have with playing Metroid games.

Isolation

ASTRA pilot Selene Vassos crash lands on the planet of Atropos after defying orders not to investigate the swirling anomaly she dubs the “White Shadow”. She emerges from the wrecked ship and proceeds to explore the mysterious, ever-changing alien world. She discovers she is caught in a loop of living and dying over and over again unless she is able to break the cycle and discover the cause of this phenomenon.

One of the things I’ve always found interesting about Metroid games is the sense of isolation. You’re all alone, on an alien world, vastly outnumbered by hostile lifeforms, but you’re determined to make it out alive. Maybe it’s just my antisocial, loner tendencies here, but I’ve always been intrigued by the way games like this can amplify one’s own feeling of insignificance and helplessness. This has been a feeling used in many sci-fi movies and games for decades – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien being notable examples.  In Returnal, Selene crash lands on the planet, Atropos after choosing to investigate the distress signal coming from the “White Shadow”. Similar to Samus, there is no backup and she has only herself to rely on, along with her determination to persevere many, many attempts at escape in order to break the cycle and find her way off the planet. There’s also a sense of isolation as you are contrasted against giant, sprawling environments, such as Death Stranding or even Red Dead Redemption 2. Some of my fondest memories from DS or RDR2 are simple moments quiet solitude while taking in the otherworldly sights of a post-extinction event America or the expansive mountains and plains of the Old West. Perhaps I’m just particular to playing the “lone wanderer” in video games… 

Mystery & Danger

After landing on Zebes, Samus begins her investigation the planet, starting with the area surrounding her ship to reach deeper into the world’s multiple environments. At first there’s a sense of trepidation, as you’re unsure just what matter of lifeforms lie beyond the next area. That feeling of mystery and danger is something I immediately recognized while playing Returnal. Each of the game’s 6 biomes have a set of randomly-generated rooms; you don’t know which room is on the other side of the doorway until you pass through. This deviates a bit from Metroid games, where the world has a set map layout, but once you’ve…ahem…failed enough attempts, you begin to pick up on what to look out for in specific rooms. The first time you come across a room, you are quickly overwhelmed by a dozen enemies waiting to attack and the next, there could be no enemies at all. This means you are constantly on your toes because you never truly know which enemies(if any) lie beyond the doorway in front of you, resulting(possibly) in a very abrupt end to your current run. I honestly don’t know how many times I ran afoul of the RNG gods and came face to face with a horde of enemies or mini-boss(es) merely a couple rooms from the starting point in a biome. “Well…shit. I guess I’m starting this over” was a common phrase muttered over my many hours in Returnal. 

Weapons & Abilities

Another one of my favorite moments in a Metroid game usually occurs late in the game. You’ve survived wave after wave of enemies and gigantic boss encounters, slowly building your arsenal of weaponry. There’s a turning point where you no longer feel afraid of this imposing planet and its violent inhabitants – you’ve gone from FEARFUL to FEARLESS. By the time you get the Screw Attack upgrade, specifically in Super Metroid, you merely laugh as you annihilate the grunt enemies blocking your path to the final area of the game. Bloodborne is another good example of this, you begin the game feeling underpowered and running past the foul beasts of Yharnam before you begin to truly feel like an accomplished hunter. In Returnal, there’s a similar feeling of transformation as you progress through the game. It differs slightly from the above games as any weapons upgrades only last your current run, the same as any artifacts or parasites you acquire. Due to the roguelite nature of the game, any feeling of power in Returnal comes almost entirely from studying and understanding the attack patterns of your enemies – you’ll be seeing them a lot so perception is critical to success here… 

I wouldn’t say Returnal borrows much from Metroid gameplay-wise, as there isn’t a lot that would be typically considered “Metroidvania territory”. The game is first and foremost, a roguelite game. One that incorporates elements of bullet-hell shooters, but set to a third-person perspective. This makes it feel very reminiscent of the shootouts in Control(strange coincidence, as both Housemarque and Remedy Entertainment were founded in Finland). It does however hit a lot of the same notes in atmosphere and mood that I’ve always loved since first playing Super Metroid as a kid…

Returnal feels every bit as addicting as Hades was just a year ago(and then some). There’s a layer of atmospere and mystique that I love, which gives way to an absolutely satisfying(and brutally difficult) gameplay loop. The sense of accomplishment in getting the platinum trophy(or simply beating the game) makes this an unforgettable experience. I feel like the past few consecutive games I’ve played through will all be on my list of favorite games from 2021 when the year is over, but I’m even more confident Returnal will sit among the top spots on that list.

Thanks for reading!

Here’s a video of one of the boss fights I uploaded recently…

Monster Hunter: Rise – Understanding The Hunt

Monster Hunter has been a popular game series for some time now, starting in Japan after its beginnings on the PlayStation 2 in 2004 and eventually becoming more and more popular in the West as time went on. And what’s not to love about a game that tasks you with hunting down dangerous monsters with oversized swords and axes, along with an assortment of tools and potions at your disposal? It wasn’t until very recently that I could say I finally began to see the level of enjoyment to be had in Monster Hunter after it failed to sink its claws into me in several previous attempts.

My first experience with Monster Hunter was on the 3DS. Shortly after trading in my original, “fat” Nintendo DS towards a 3DS XL, the newest iteration at the time, I happened to look through the eShop and decided to download the demo for Monster Hunter IV: Ultimate. I had known of the MH games for quite a few years, primarily from seeing the original PS2 as well as Monster Hunter Tri on the Nintendo Wii, but had never attempted to play any of them. I remember playing a few of the quests in the MHIV demo and having a fair amount of fun, but there was definitely a learning curve there. My initial perception of the series was an interesting game that seemed to require a certain level of commitment to fully grasp the game mechanics…along with other friends to play the game with. The fact it contained an overwhelming amount of items and resources that were difficult to access due to the game’s UI and inventory system feeling a tad on the counter-intuitive side(for me, at least).

Cat puns were never the difficult part of understanding Monster Hunter

A few years later, Monster Hunter: World was released and after hearing the amount of praise for series’ newest release, I decided to make another attempt to run around and hunt some monsters. Unfortunately, the same learning curve hindered most of my progress in the game. I had a difficult time getting the hang of the game’s slow, deliberate movement and controls, along with the crossbar inventory that still felt very difficult to navigate while avoiding ferocious monsters. Compounding this was the fact the matchmaking in the game is likely the most obtuse, counterintuitive process I’ve seen in a modern video game. Most of the time spent playing the game with my brother was simply trying to get paired up in the same quest. I did play MH:World a few times by myself and felt like I made some very slight headway, but still felt like I didn’t “get” the game yet…or if I ever would.

Earlier this year, I spent a fair amount of time watching a few bloggers within the WordPress community play Monster Hunter: World on Twitch(shoutout to Frostilyte and DanamesX) and had hoped to learn a thing or two. I had also been paying loose attention to Capcom’s updates after announcing Monster Hunter: Rise, which was to be released as a timed-exclusive for the Nintendo Switch(a PC port is expected early 2022). A release date for Monster Hunter: Rise was set for March 26, with Capcom releasing a demo on the eShop a couple weeks prior. Once again, I decided to download the demo and see if something would finally click – it didn’t. The Rise demo played well enough, but it still felt in many ways, like the intimidating wall of weapon sharpening, traps, and endemic life previous games had been.

Monster hunter in training…

Monster Hunter: Rise received a great deal of praise after its release and was one of the most-played/talked about games on Twitch and Twitter. I don’t know whether it was a greater amount of sheer determination or FOMO, but I decided to give MH yet another chance and picked up a copy of the game. Due to it being a little more streamlined than previous entries, I kept hearing Rise was the most accessible and best point of entry into the series. I had already been toying with the idea of playing it, when my brother happened to buy two copies of the game and give one to me with the intent(again) of playing some co-op Monster Hunter. You ever have a game that it seems like you just wake up and inexplicably feel like playing? That’s all it really took this time around…

I’m don’t know precisely what it is about MH:Rise that finally started to make sense of the series for me. It might be the fact that the game has been scaled down in size, making it a little less of a daunting task to play through, or the in-game tutorials seemed a little clearer than they had in the past(?). Another possibility is that I simply exercised a bit of patience and restraint in not charging into every monster encounter so….recklessly, which I could point to playing through Bloodborne a few months back as an example of learning not only what to attack, but WHEN to do so…

It only took me a few hours of playing and I started to feel as if I could confidently take down every menacing behemoth in the game all by myself, as I learned some of the ins-and-outs of not only the general combat, but utilizing the endemic life around the area for attribute buffs, along with your Wirebug maneuvers and the array of tools and traps any competent hunter has in their repertoire. Since first playing it a mere month ago, Monster Hunter: Rise has been the game in which I’ve spent the most time. The game credits roll upon finishing up the five-star quest “Comeuppance” which finds you facing off against the storied Magnamalo, which destroyed Kamura Village during a Rampage fifty years prior to the main story. The past few Saturdays have mostly been spent playing Monster Hunter, with one particular Saturday being spent doing little else as I worked toward completing the five and six-star Village Quests before I’d consider myself having “beat” the game.

There’s something incredibly satisfying about hunting and slaying(or capturing) the giant predators terrorizing the lands surrounding Kamura Village, especially when utilizing all the weapons and tools at your disposal. I’ve spent most of my time using the Switch Axe, which opened up a lot of combos to inflict maximum damage once I got familiarized with switching between axe and greatsword form while attacking. Monster Hunter as a series has historically had a greater depth than…let’s face it, a lot of the game I play and love. I’ve put 30+ hours into the game thus far and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface as there’s many other weapon/armor combinations to try out from here. I want to experiment with some of the other available weapons, such as the Bowgun(s) or Hunting Horn.

the fearsome Magnamalo lies defeated at the feet of Lenny…

My experience with Monster Hunter had always felt like it was bound to be hampered by the fact I have typically spent 99% of my time gaming by myself. I never really had many friends to play games wit other than a younger brother, and any progress playing Monster Hunter: World was greatly affected by the game’s baffling matchmaking setup. I had always had the perception of MH games being closer to an MMO where it’s certainly possible to play the game solo, but the optimal enjoyment comes from playing with others.

I don’t know if I’d attribute it more to a lessened learning curve and greater understanding of the mechanics or sheer stubbornness, either I’ve been loving my time with Monster Hunter: Rise and it has become one of my favorite games I’ve played this year. Some games, regardless of complex gameplay may not resonate immediately, and others may never. I’ve mentioned in the past that it wasn’t until Ocarina of Time that I felt like I finally began to “get” the Legend of Zelda games, but I’ve loved them ever since. Sometimes, all a game needs to finally click is the right time and place…

Thanks for reading!