Returnal’s Adrenaline System Is Too Clever For Its Own Good

I’m not entirely sure if I would describe Returnal as a complicated game that simplifies things well, or a simple game that needlessly overcomplicates things. It has a twisting and unsettling story, one that is fed to you in meagre breadcrumbs and at a slow enough pace that you feel like you’re always learning… at least, for a little while. Once you die at the same boss (cough, biome two) enough times, you hit a wall where there’s no more narrative, only pain and death and death and death, and a little bit more death. Meanwhile, the actual gameplay is relatively straightforward – it’s a bullet hell experience where projectiles are constantly filling the screen, and you need to shoot everything in order to survive. There are multiple guns, but you can only carry one at any given time, and each weapon has a range of power ups, but only has one attached. Even if you haven’t played it yet, you’re probably beginning to see what I mean. There’s a lot going on, but the basic gameplay is, well, basic. Does that make it too simple, or too complicated? Is it just right? Is the porridge too hot?

This is where the Adrenaline system comes in. Much like how Returnal establishes itself as the best advert for DualSense by weaving the controller’s functions into the gameplay itself, Adrenaline offers you a boost simply for playing correctly, and isn’t locked to a button to avoid needless distractions. Essentially, Adrenaline is active all the time, though mostly at low levels.

Whenever you kill something, your Adrenaline nudges up a little bit, and every time you take damage, it resets to zero. There are five different levels to it, and for each one, you gain something extra. It’s supposed to represent actual Adrenaline and Selene’s heartbeat, so you might move faster, jump higher, or hit harder. It can be a complicated thing to keep track of with so many power ups,health,tokens, and clip meters on the screen at once, but the overall concept is simple. The more damage you dish out without taking any back, the more you’re rewarded.

I will say it’s not entirely accurate. If your heart is racing from slaying sky squids, their black viscera splattered across your body, and suddenly a lone tentacle reaches down to grab at you, you’re not just going to suddenly relax and get your chill on. I understand though that in Returnal’s logic, Adrenaline is the reward for evading damage time and time again, and so it makes sense from a player perspective, even if not from an entirely scientific one. But that’s not the major issue I have with Adrenaline. It’s built on risk and reward, but that means that too many players – myself included – won’t see the value in the reward, because the risk is too high.

Adrenaline exists to encourage you to be aware of your six and to dodge like hell. This is a busy game – even the first biome feels like playing two games of Doom: Eternal at once – and you can’t simply Rambo the hell out of anything. You’ll need to be constantly on the move, dodging, ducking, dipping, diving, and dodging everything that comes at you. Adrenaline tries to push you in this direction, but because even reaching level three of Adrenaline makes a huge difference, I found myself boosting it as much as I could and then trying to flee to the next room, storing up my excess power for an enemy it might actually be useful for, rather than risk taking minor damage from some cannon fodder and having to start over again. I raced past challenges Adrenaline was supposed to push me towards, I took refuge in caverns and tried to lure beasts to me one at a time, and I tried to game the system a little bit. Returnal is punishingly difficult, so I think a lot of players are going to look for ways to exploit it, and because Adrenaline isn’t really adrenaline so much as it is a free, constantly active power up, it’s a system that doesn’t hold up to people playing the game their way.

It makes sure to let you know what you’re missing out on too, so you’re constantly compelled to chase Adrenaline. One of the first power ups you can find gives you an instant boost right up to max Adrenaline, letting your tear everything in your path to shreds… for about seven seconds, after which you inevitably take some damage and flop all the way back to zero.

I still can’t decide if Returnal does a great job of keeping things simple or does a bad job of overcomplicating things. I know it’s hard, and rewarding, but that’s about it. It’s so difficult it becomes less about whether or not it’s well designed or fun or anything like that – it’s just a thing standing in your way of victory. The Adrenaline system is a brilliant concept, but it’s let down by an insurmountable difficulty that means players will be too afraid to fully take advantage of it.

Next: Returnal Review – Please, God, Just Let Me Die

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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