Someday You’ll Return review: promising but flawed horror

I heartily enjoyed the first few hours of Someday You’ll Return, a psychological horror game from Czech developers Jan Kavan and Lukáš Medek. It looks beautiful, and it has some clever mechanics and ingenious puzzles, plus I was intrigued to see where the strange plot was heading, as the protagonist Daniel searches for his daughter in an increasingly malevolent pastoral landscape. Yet for the second half of the game’s 15-hour runtime I was just willing it to end, and the only thing that kept me going was a grim determination to see it through in the hope that maybe some unexpected revelation would make it all worthwhile.

A mixed bag, then. But let’s concentrate on the good stuff first.

For a start, I’m hugely impressed with the stunning graphics of Someday You’ll Return, particularly considering it’s from such a tiny studio. We’re presented with a truly alive forest, with nary a repeating asset in sight. And it’s all based on a real slice of the Czech landscape, too, with QR codes dotted on signposts that take you to descriptions of the landmarks you discover.

Just like a real national park, you have to pick your way through the forest by following colour-coded trails, an aspect I particularly enjoyed. If you’ve ever gone hiking, you’ll know that familiar routine of sweeping your gaze across the path, hunting for the flashes of blue or yellow nailed onto trees to show you’re heading down the right route. And there’s that feeling of mild panic when the markers run out, prompting you to retrace your steps in a quest to pick up the trail again, followed by a wave of relief as you come across the friendly flash of blue once more.

And also like in real-life hiking, there’s no magic map that tells you exactly where you are at any one time. Instead you rely on sparsely placed notice boards with helpful ‘You Are Here’ markers; boards that give a welcome chance to reorient yourself among the confusing twists of trees, and that also tantalise you with promises of more landmarks to discover just down the trail. I can see that the lack of a map – and the lack of objective markers, too – could be a turn off for many, but personally I enjoyed the sense of always being on the verge of lost, and the gratification of rediscovering your place in the world.

Someday You’ll Return also introduces some clever and fairly unique mechanics. There’s an emphasis on combining items to solve puzzles, and Daniel has a handy tool belt that you can use to bash nails into wood, loosen bolts and unscrew covers. There’s also a cool mechanic where Daniel will have an idea for something to make, which then appears as a ghostly outline in the inventory that you have to fill with objects plundered from the game world.

Even better is the potion brewing. Near the start of the game you construct a potion-making kit, and you’ll discover various recipes for brews that will do things like reveal hidden text or keep monsters at bay. The different herbs you’ll find in the forest can all be separated into petals, leaves and roots, and the recipes require specific parts of individual plants prepared in a specific way, making for an entertaining mini-game in itself.

The climbing, too, is a fun mechanic that I’ve never encountered before. When faced with a rock wall, you have to guide each of Daniel’s hand to the next crevice, switching hands occasionally to stretch to handholds that are just out of reach. Each wall is like a puzzle, with some paths leading to dead ends and others requiring forward planning to ensure you don’t get stuck and have to retrace your steps. It’s a neat idea, and it works really well.

But now I’m running out of lovely things to say, and I’m afraid the next half of this review will mostly be me moaning about parts of the game that don’t quite work – or that are frankly just abysmal.

Let’s start with the pacing. My first impression of Someday You’ll Return was that it’s like a cross between The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Silent Hill. As in Ethan Carter, you’re given free rein (initially at least) to explore the rural landscape and investigate points of interest, uncovering scraps of information that gradually reveal the mystery of what happened to your daughter. But occasionally the fog will descend and the world will transform into a concrete hellscape, very much like in Silent Hill.

The trouble is that the pacing is all over the shop. Within the first half hour of the game, for a short period, all hell breaks loose and you encounter a supernatural beast, a giant spider and lumps of reinforced concrete raining from the sky. It’s the equivalent of those film trailers that give away the ending. Rather than a slow build up where things get gradually weirder and more unsettling, here you’re presented with the denouement right at the beginning. Action openers CAN work sometimes, but here it sits weirdly with the overall slow pace, and it completely ruins the impact of the later descent into chaos.

And speaking of that descent into chaos, the back half of the game is by far the weakest part. In the beginning I had fun exploring the forest, discovering little scraps of lore and slowly piecing together clues. There are optional side quests, too, that require discovering certain areas by following written directions. But then, about halfway in, the entire forest suddenly becomes a concrete wasteland and you’re railroaded down a set, linear path relentlessly. All that fun exploration is taken away, and I never got to finish the side quest I started because I could never get back to that area.

Frankly, the concrete nightmare-scape is far less interesting and polished than the lush forest it replaces, and it could have been far more effective if used more sparingly. The second half pales in comparison to the first, with far fewer puzzles and endless trudging towards a revelation that you’ve probably guessed long before it arrives. Interestingly, in late May the developers took out large chunks of the second half as a result of similar feedback from players, yet it’s still fantastically overblown and far too long.

In general, the Silent Hill parts of the game are far weaker than the Ethan Carter-style forest exploration. The screeching, hooded enemies and spidery arms emerging from piles of gore look amateurish in comparison to the stunning trees and buildings, hence their scare factor is much reduced. And the stealth sections! Oh my word, the stealth sections.

Sometimes you’ll be presented with a maze-like part where you’ll have to pick your way through hooded creatures that will murder you as soon as they catch sight of you. But you can barely see these black things among the black shadows, so these sections mostly involve moving forward, hearing a blood-curdling shriek from out of nowhere, then dying and starting the section again. The feedback from players was so bad that the designers added a potion called the Devil’s Pact as part of the post-release update to let you walk past these horrors without being detected. This potion is welcome, but it strikes me that it would be better to fix the sections that are so unenjoyable rather than simply allowing players to skip past them.

Also, there’s Daniel, who is the most horrendous protagonist I’ve ever had to control. The man is an absolute bellend from start to finish, with only the tiniest arc of redemption along the way. He is so thoroughly unlikeable that I was loathe to even help him on his quest, and spending time in his company was entirely unpleasant. It’s a bold move to tell a story where the ‘hero’ is such an unequivocal monster, and a tough feat to pull off – and I’m afraid it doesn’t really work here. Perhaps it could have if Daniel showed more remorse, more regrets along the way, but as it was I got one of the ‘bad’ endings and was happy to let Daniel rot by the finale.

There’s also the fact that his reactions are wildly out of kilter with what’s actually happening in the game. Not long after escaping from concrete rain and a huge spider, and while brewing up magical potions, Daniel is sceptically questioning whether anything supernatural is going on. Tonally it’s just all over the place, and the interactions you have with the few other people you meet are similarly uneven.

All in all, it’s tough to recommend Someday You’ll Return. It’s got some good ideas, but they’re overwhelmed by poor pacing and a tortuous denouement that wrings out any goodwill built up in the fun opening hours. Like a Peter Jackson movie, it’s just crying out for a ruthless editor.

Someday You’ll Return was developed by CBE Software, and is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC. We played the PC version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Someday You’ll Return was provided by Evolve PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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