Platforms: PC (reviewed) PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Can we please put a moratorium on Firewatch-alikes until devs learn how to make them? CBE Software’s Someday You’ll Return profoundly misunderstands the genre and misses the mark as a result. It’s not enough to create an attractive environment to wander through. You need to fill it with memorable characters, a compelling narrative, and excellent voice acting performances. SYR cuts all three of these corners, creating a lifeless experience.
In Someday You’ll Return, you play as a father trying to track down and rescue his daughter from the Moravian forest. Supernatural stuff is happening, he’s having visions, his sanity is imperiled, maybe this is Czech Silent Hill, yadda yadda yadda. The barebones story is a fig leaf over boring gameplay, and well-executed jump scares aren’t enough to keep me playing.
Writing and voice acting
This game’s script reads like a product of Google Translate. I get that good localization isn’t cheap, and not everyone has the privilege of being a native English speaker. But if you’re making a walking simulator, the story and dialogue need to be sharp and compelling. It needs to move the player, build the world, and make you care about the characters. But SYR’s writing is painful. The main character is trapped in a burning building, and his response is “I must get the fuck out of here!” Not “I gotta!” or “I need to!” No one swears this way.
When you encounter a locked door, barring your exit from this raging inferno, the protagonist says “Locked!” with the same vaguely annoyed tone he does when you’re not about to burn to death. It’s the exact same voice clip. This is just laziness.
CBE is a Czech studio. They could’ve hired Novak the janitor to do the voice acting in Czech and used English subtitles and the game would’ve been better. Even awkwardly translated subtitles would’ve been better than the weak English language voice acting we got.
I’m not a Boy Scout.
Someday You’ll Return subscribes to the design philosophy of free roaming open world realism, which is a pretty way of saying that CBE chose to not program in an objective waypoint system. The game hands you a few intentionally bad maps and tells you to figure it out on your own. The game world has trail markings, but it’s not enough. This was frustrating and confusing, to the point that I couldn’t figure out how to get to the next section of the game after Chapter 3, and gave up.
I suffered through this in Kholat; I wasn’t happy to see it again. I spent way too much time wandering around, doubling back, and searching for visual waypoints that I couldn’t find. Sometimes realism in games can be fun. This isn’t one of those times.
After ranting about SYR to a colleague, he summed up my feelings well: “Being scared requires immersion. Being frustrated precludes being scared because it means you’re no longer immersed.”
Some of the puzzles actively involved finding your way through the forest in order to discover a hidden item; I see how an objective waypoint system would’ve ruined those puzzles, but those puzzles weren’t good enough to justify its exclusion.
I think SYR’s designers also profoundly misunderstand why getting lost in the woods is scary. It works in horror movies because there’s usually some kind of ticking clock - limited water and food, an injured friend who’s getting worse, or something hunting you down (sometimes all three!). In SYR, there’s no pressure, only a missing daughter that the game’s given you no reason to care about, and a big annoying forest maze barring your progress.
I think SYR could’ve been better and scarier if the trails were much easier to follow, but one of the game’s monsters is stalking you the whole time. They could’ve placed safehouses throughout the map where you could rest, resupply, and save your game before venturing out into the woods again.
The game also included an awkward climbing simulator and a dull herb gathering and potion crafting system. “Lack of gameplay” is a common complaint about the walking simulator genre, but ill-conceived systems that gate advancement through the story are worse than not having no systems at all.
There was also a fiddly workshop / crafting system where you could assemble and disassemble items you found lying around. There wasn’t much to this; once you had all the necessary items, a blueprint item appears, and you clicked and dragged items from your inventory onto the blueprint. I felt neutral about this system; it didn’t add anything but it wasn’t so badly implemented that it took anything away.
The stealth elements had the chance to be great. Every so often, you get sent to an alternate dimension (think Silent Hill’s dark dimension), and have to evade monsters. There is genuine tension here, and I love the feeling of being hunted by monsters in a horror game. The sound design, which was lackluster elsewhere, was key here, and when the monsters found you, they emitted a nails-on-chalkboard screech that was chilling. However, the monsters don’t seem particularly intelligent, and the stealth elements don’t introduce enough interesting choices into the gameplay. Like a lot of things in SYR, there was potential but the game devs didn’t seem to have the time or budget to polish these elements.
Presentation - that’s a nice forest you got there.
SYR does have one beautiful forest. While the lighting is slightly dreary (this is a horror game after all), the actual color and vibrancy of the forest is nice. It’s a testament to how far game engines and art design in games have come that a three-person team can put together an environment that’s this beautiful.
But I wish it was a bit easier to navigate. If CBE was going to go “no-waypoints” they should’ve given me a jump button and a machete and let me hop and hack my way through the forest rather than forcing me to trudge up and down every ramp and around every shrub.
Sound was a weird corner for SYR to cut. Anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie could tell you that this is a critical component of the experience. There isn’t much music to speak of, which normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but there isn’t much in the way of mood ambience either. A few birds here and there, but not enough to provide immersion.
Some sound implementation is just sloppy. At one point, you use a burning gas canister to blow open a door, and there’s barely any explosion sound at all. I don’t know if the sound effect glitched or it was just badly implemented.
There are areas, demarcated by a graphical swirling effect, wherein you can stand and hear voice clips. I think this is supposed to reflect the protagonist’s fraying sanity, and it was meant to be strange and eerie. But since the voice clips are just reversed syllables played back with no digital signal processing, the entire effect feels more like a game glitch than an intentional aesthetic addition.