I made a mistake. Yesterday, I had to stop playing Returnal, a tough-as-nails action game released last week exclusively for PS5, mid-run to tend to some chores. You know, like shopping for groceries and drinking rosé on my roof. When I returned to my PlayStation 5 this morning, a pop-up notification informed me that Returnal had updated. I immediately realised…that run I was on? Gone, erased, consigned to the dustbin of history forever.
Part of this is my fault. (I’ve played a lot of the game, and should know better by now.) But it’s also the result of how Returnal is designed. Returnal, a roguelike that kicks you back to the start with every death, has no official way to save in the middle of your runs. Developer Housemarque suggests putting your PS5 into “rest mode,” a patchwork solution that creates a whole bunch of other problems at the expense of solving a seemingly simple one. To lift from Kotaku’s review of the game:
A run in Returnal can last hours, especially if you’re combing through every room in every biome for as many resources as you can scrounge up. That you can’t save your game and pivot to something else smacks of a design decision from a prior, less accommodating era of gaming. If, for whatever reason, your PS5 turns off, you’re screwed, out potentially hours of carefully earned progress.
If you switch games, you’ll lose your run. And if Returnal automatically updates overnight, you’ll lose your run, too. The obvious workaround there is to turn the PS5’s auto-updates off. Fair. That said, auto-updates are an enormously helpful feature across the board, and you shouldn’t have to disable them for all of your games just to accommodate one of your games.
The lack of save options is a cold wakeup call for some Returnal players, who’ve taken to the internet en masse to air rightful grievances. One popular Reddit thread thoroughly detailing the matter has garnered hundreds of responses, many of which come from users sharing experiences of how they’ve been screwed by the game’s lack of save options. Today, some users have mentioned the very same issue I ran into, where the game updated overnight, erasing progress. You basically can’t look at the game’s dedicated subreddit without seeing a post about how desperately the game needs a save feature.
Complicating matters is the fact that Returnal, as with any game released in the era of day-one patches and post-release updates, doesn’t run flawlessly. Plenty of players have reported instances of crashes that have spiked otherwise terrific runs. One Reddit post headlined “When you’re on a 4 hour god-roll run with 200% integrity and an inventory full of artifacts, and then the game crashes” caused me physical pain to read. (Duuude, 200 per cent integrity?! Oof.)
During Returnal’s pre-release period, I experienced just one crash, which I chalked up to the game’s early state. Throughout the first region, you’ll come across a mid-century farmhouse, at which point the game eschews third-person shooting for first-person picking-objects-up-and-putting-them-down. At the end of the section, the game zapped me out of the house and into the overgrown forest outside, still in first-person view. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t open the menu. Returnal, it seemed, had soft-locked, so I had to restart, thereby eliminating all of my progress on that run — no big deal that time, as I wasn’t doing so well anyway. A colleague playing the game ran into the same exact bug. Kotaku Australia’s Alex Walker did, too, an occurrence he detailed in his superb review of the game.
Last week, when Kotaku asked why Returnal lacks a save option and if there are plans to implement one in the future, representatives for Housemarque replied that the studio is focused on the launch of Returnal and has “no further plans to announce at this time.” On Friday morning, Housemarque tweeted out a link to a Reddit thread about the lack of save options, adding that there’s “[nothing] to announce now, but keep playing and enjoying the challenge as you can!” Sony, Returnal’s publisher, did not respond to follow-up requests for comment from Kotaku.
The truly flummoxing aspect to all of this is just how easy it is to imagine a version of Returnal with some degree of save functionality. Each region starts with a “safe” room — a chamber devoid of enemies where you can catch your breath (and maybe score a free item or two). An auto-save function in those rooms would absolutely make sense.
There are also machines in every biome called “reconstructor” units — which allow you to create a respawn point in exchange for six Ether, the sole rare resource that is not wiped between runs — that could pull double duty as save spots. That way, Returnal would retain its gauntlet bona fides, where you’re forced to make crucial decisions at nearly every turn: Is that a run worth saving? Or do you save your Ether for a future attempt? Bonus: Using the reconstructors as save spots would root save functionality in the game’s lore. Just spitballing here!
That I lost my run is, of course, not the end of the world. Sure, I had a good thing going — spawned holding a high-damage pistol with the killer Trackerswarm ability, and quickly found a whole bunch of health upgrades — but New York was jaw-droppingly gorgeous yesterday, with bluebird skies and a temperature range in that 20 to 22 degrees Celsius sweet spot.
We get, and this is a generous estimate, four, maybe five of those days a year. The rest of the time, New York is either a swampy morass or a frozen wasteland. It might be a long time until we get another day like yesterday. Also I met a puppy, so I don’t regret stepping away. Still, it would’ve been nice to keep my run. I had a good feeling about it.