BEST OF 2021: RETURNAL is the Game of the Year

Video games are the best. Despite the ongoing global pandemic that has been permeating every part of our daily life since early 2020, one thing has remained consistent throughout – a steady stream of excellent gaming choices. Last year, we got instant classics such as FFVII Remake, The Last of Us Part II, Ghosts of Tsushima and the Demon’s Souls remake.  Despite all that goodness, my GOTY of 2020 ended up being the sequel/quasi-reboot Streets of Rage. It was the perfect answer to being couped up in your house with nowhere to go. A beat-em-up that harkened back to the glory days of the Genesis/SNES brawler age. For 2021, there was once again a plethora of amazing titles released into the wild as I continued to work from home, allowing me to partake in more gaming than if I was committing to four hours of travel daily to and from the office. Surprisingly, I was able to narrow my choice between two titles rather quickly for my GOTY. These two are experiences that I came back to again… and again… and again throughout 2021. However, as the seminal movie franchise Highlander always said, there can be only one. This ended up being tougher than I imagined, but one title did something for me that usually signifies that it is one step ahead of the rest. It ENGULFED me. It garnered my attention randomly throughout the year, always beckoning me to come back for one more spin. This came out back in April and I was still opting to play this in lieu of something new a mere few days ago. I didn’t just play it quickly and move on. I became obsessed. My Game of the Year for 2021 is Returnal, the PS5 exclusive developed by Housemarque and published by Sony.

Returnal tells the story of an astronaut named Selene. Her story immediately begins as she crash-lands on an alien planet called Atropos. As she emerges from her ship, her attention focuses on trying to locate the origin of a mysterious signal that drew her to this planet, the signal codenamed White Shadow. This mysterious, consistently changing world she finds herself in will test Selene and her skill to survive at every turn. The twist is that every time she dies on this world, she doesn’t stay dead. She is returned to the beginning, after her ship crashed, to start anew and begin her hunt for the elusive origin of that signal. What is the cause of this all, and what answers will the White Shadow provide in this hostile landscape of murderous creatures and monsters?

I’ve been experiencing a shift in the kinds of games that I get hyper-involved in over the past year or so. It started at the PS5 launch back in November 2020. I was completely obsessed with the Demon’s Souls remake that launched alongside the system. Originally developed by From Software for PS3, and remastered by Bluepoint for the new PS5 version, this is the kind of game that I would typically play for an hour or two and give up. The “Souls” formula of games, ones that are defined by their intense but rewarding challenge, have always frustrated me in the past. I never played any of the Dark Souls entries nor did I finish Bloodborne, and that’s despite it having one of the most horror-infused atmospheres I have ever witnessed. Yet, for some reason, I finally clicked with the style of gameplay and was truly motivated by the extreme challenge. I pulled up my britches and soldiered on, eventually completing my adventure, and feeling immense satisfaction from doing so. Returnal, in a similar vein, is a game that I would normally abandon quickly. Returnal combines two genres of games that usually put me in my place and show me that maybe, just maybe, I am not that good at these video games after all. The first genre is what is termed as “bullet-hell” style gameplay. You are shooting all the time. Every single room is littered with enemies that pepper you with plasma blasts, sonic booms, close quarter mayhem and a constant barrage of anarchy, and you need to keep moving and shooting if you have any chance of surviving. The second genre that is blended in is what has been coined as “rogue-like”. Essentially, there are no checkpoints. No save points to pick up your game later. You need to complete the entire experience in one uninterrupted run. If you don’t, you get kicked back to the beginning of the game, only to start anew. To add insult to injury, the rooms that you came across in your previous run will not repeat. Everything is procedurally generated and randomized. You will get different rooms and different enemy layouts every time, so there is no point in memorizing what will come next because you never know what is through the next door. While Returnal does make a few changes to not make it as brutal as having you start from scratch every time you die – EX. bosses, once beaten, can be skipped in subsequent runs – it still is a true test of your gaming acumen to get through this hellish landscape.

Combining those two genres into one hair-pulling, headache induing nightmare of a video game trip would have turned me off in the past, but it didn’t this time. Housemarque has crafted one of the most beautifully realized alien planets I have ever witnessed in gaming, all running at a nearly consistent 60 FPS no matter what displays of carnage and bullets are raining down upon you. Every one of the six biomes/levels are distinct in their atmospheric feeling, the enemies that inhabit each biome, the multi-layered environments, and the interesting and brutal challenges that each have waiting for you. Playing from a 3rd person perspective, controlling Selene as you bob and weave across the dangerous biomes is such a pure joy of speed and adrenaline. Despite the breakneck pace the game is designed around, you always maintain complete control of the character and her actions regardless of the mayhem that ensues due to the tight and responsive controls. I’ve never moved so briskly through a hellish battle with multiple monsters with such ease and grace. I always felt in complete control, and any deaths that befell me, of which there have been HUNDREDS, are completely of my own failures and not anything related to technical or controlling aspects of the game itself. Selene comes across a variety of upgrades throughout her journey that add great advantages and increases to your character’s integrity, heath bar and damage output. While most of these are lost once you die and restart, some items you acquire are permanent on subsequent runs as you pass certain major objectives, such as the Atropian Saber (a super helpful sword) or the Icarian Grapnel (a grappling hook to launch yourself to rooms and levels previously unattainable). She also can use a litany of great and varied weapons across your journey that are distinct enough that I have developed a certain love and affection for specific weapons. Personally, I gravitate toward the Hollowseeker, a frenzied purple plasma blaster, and the Electropylon Driver, a crazy weapon that shoots pylons at enemies that conduct damaging electricity between them, which is extremely useful if you tend to want to hang back in fights (yeah, it’s cheap but the challenge of this game is unwavering so take any advantage you can get). Each weapon in the game in upgradable through added attack modes or increased strength as you continue to use them, but also, once again, you lose that all once you die and restart from scratch. This game doesn’t care for feelings. For those players who would also like a little story with their brutal gameplay, scattered audio logs and xenoglyph ciphers are littered throughout the six biomes, with the ciphers giving you clues to the world and the creatures that inhabit it while the audio logs give the player insight into Selene’s dark and mysterious past and how long she’s been on this world, dying and dying, over and over, again. There’s also multiple story-focused sequences set within an out-of-place ranch-style house that you come across in each biome (and it switches to 1st person in these section..so awesome), but I will not say anything more than that to avoid spoilers.

So, why does Returnal stand out above the rest for my GOTY of 2021, despite it being a mash of two genres I am not exactly adept at? There is just something about this game, where all the stars align in my head to completely hook me. I haven’t been obsessed with a game at this level since maybe the Resident Evil 2 remake back in 2019. It’s all I have thought about since April. The perfect blend of flawless controls, speed demon gameplay, beautiful environments, tough but rewarding battles and epic boss fights have created an experience I love coming back to again and again. I beat this game officially a few weeks back, but realized I was only a few trophies away from getting a Platinum Trophy – the prize for achieving all the gold/silver/bronze trophies that are available for a single title, which tend to deal with a combo story driven and side mission objectives. Usually, I would just brush that away and move on to the next game since I don’t have enough time in the day to linger on one single video game. That wasn’t the case here. I kept coming back and grinding for those final few trophies, looking for various ciphers and logs on the way to my goal, which is to see and experience it all. Despite wanting to move onto the next gaming experience, I still found my way coming back to Atropos. It all worked out in the end. At 3:26pm on December 17th, I got my Platinum trophy. I sat there on my couch like I was in the clouds. Ecstatic. Satisfied. Excited. Sad that I had nothing else to conquer in this masterpiece. That is why Returnal is my Game of the Year for 2021.

strong>Runner-Up: Resident Evil Village (PS5/4, XSX/S, Xbox One, PC)

The Resident Evil franchise is my favorite video game series of all time, and the newest entry in the franchise didn’t disappoint. Since the glorious return of the franchise with Resident Evil 7 back in 2017 (after the clusterf**k that was RE6), the franchise has been on a roll with the RE2 and RE3 remakes. Released back on May 7th, Resident Evil Village continues this winning streak with a great amalgamation of horror and action, taking our RE7 protagonist Ethan Winters to the middle of some small town in Easter Europe looking for his newly born daughter Rose, who has been abducted. This snowy and cold sequel combines the best elements of the franchise, whether it be the pure horror of the Beneviento House sequence or the blend of terror and action of the Dimitrescu Castle. There is literally something for everyone in this nail-biting entry. What this series always manages to accomplish, to varying degrees, is to always FEEL like a Resident Evil game, and this is no exception. Hardcore fans of the series, such as myself, have a wealth of story and easter eggs to keep us theorizing and amazed while newcomers can enjoy the variety of enemies and locations that are presented to this player across the 10-12 hour adventure. This would have been my easy GOTY but Returnal’s unique gameplay elements and addicting nature of “more, more” just beat it out. RE Village is a rollicking good time from moment one to moment last. Resident Evil is in top form, and I love it.

Eric Mayo
Horror Hound / Playstation Guru
Graduated from Queens College with double major in film and media studies. The 1st horror movie he fell in love with was Evil Dead 2, which is still my favorite. My favorite horror video game is Resident Evil, and I have a specific love for the old school pre-rendered glory of the original Playstation trilogy. My goal is to live life by my rules, enjoy the hobbies and activities that I deem fun and NOT what the world expects of someone my age.
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