I can't remember the last time a game forced me to inhabit someone I loathe quite as much as Someday You'll Return's insufferable protagonist, Daniel.
I hate his smug, condescending voice and his icy contempt for others. I hate his agitated sighs and engorged ego, and how he prissily sweeps up the discarded sweet wrappers he finds littering the forest. As they're the only parts of his body I see with any regularity, I hate his fingernails, too, and how he jauntily cries "Refreshing!" every time the arrogant asshat gets the chance to scrub clean his fat, sausage fingers. He's a cold, shallow husk masquerading as a man of integrity and if I could've walked him off a fecking cliff and ended my experience 15 minutes in*, I would've. Game over. The end.
We meet Daniel (oh, you just know he doesn't like to be called Dan, don't you? That if someone mistakenly made the friendly abbreviation, he'd bristle and flash a cold smile - "It's Dan-ee-ul, actually") - and yes, I realise there's a lot of projection here and I've possibly been wronged by a Dan-ee-ul in a past life - but kudos to the writing team. Kudos indeed. Daniel is one of the worst men I've ever met, in-game or in real life, and as such, he's achingly, horrifyingly real.
To be fair, we're not supposed to like him. Daniel is not a nice guy. In games that often means they're a bloodthirsty sadist stepping over as many bodies as is necessary to get what they want, but Daniel's not-niceness is kind of humdrum.
He's a reluctant father and a bitter ex-husband. He's the kind of guy who'd desecrate a burial site and repurpose its solemn wooden grave markers as ladder rungs, even though he is literally standing in the middle of a forest. At first, the voice-acting feels a little off and uneven, but the more I played, the more the performance makes sense. I realise it's not accidental that his smart phone's background picture features a waterfall and not his family. He's rude and opinionated and selfish, and even though his daughter, Stela, is missing, he's not worried as much as he's inconvenienced by the whole thing.
Now, I've been where Daniel is. I'm a parent, and I know firsthand how it feels when your child goes missing. The panic sat on my chest like an elephant - fat and rigid and unmoving, pressing down until it's impossible to think, let alone talk or rationalise - right up until my then 12-year-old skipped into the lounge three hours late to find his parents sobbing to police officers.
Once it's over - once they're home and safe and incredibly embarrassed - there's a brief blast of anger, too. Anger he didn't think to borrow a phone off a mate. Anger that he'd do something so stupid. But you're mostly too relieved to be angry, relieved and down-to-your-marrow exhausted, and you hug them just that little bit tighter when you put them to bed that night.
Daniel? Our Dan glossed right over the panic and grief and jumped feet-first into indignant fury. He's angry at Stela, mad that she's run away again, and furious that his ex dares to ask where their daughter is. About halfway through your adventure, Daniel's asked to describe what his daughter looks like and his response - "Hell if I know", followed by some half-assed excuse about memory problems - epitomises him perfectly. He doesn't even have the good grace to hide it.
Unlike the unreliable narrators of the psychological horrors Someday You'll Return homages openly, Daniel isn't unreliable as much as he's unrelatable. It makes for a curious dynamic, one that makes me even more desperate to find Stela.
By tracking her phone - yup, our Daniel's the kind of man who secretly installs tracking devices on his loved ones' phones - he ends up in the Moravian forests of the Czech Republic, a mysterious place he's known since childhood. Not dissimilar to Blair Witch or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the bulk of this tale unfolds as Daniel sweeps the forest in search of Stela. It looks and feels achingly well-realised - there are even QR codes for you to track the locations in the real world - but it's the game's exteriors that are particularly astonishing. You'll spend a lot of time meandering up the hiking paths and through the treelines, following streams and the subtle, helpful trail markers guiding your way, your journey accompanied by a stunning, natural soundscape.
If you're the kind of player who likes to do their own thing in their own time, you're going to love it here. There are plenty of collectables and goodies secreted in the craggy cliffs, and the semi-open world enables you to do things at your leisure. It can be completed via a myriad of ways, and it's possible to miss certain items - even whole areas and events - if you're not careful enough in your exploration.
The beauty of your surroundings starts to fade, however, when you realise you've walked past this tree trunk three times before. I appreciate this is very much a subjective issue - I have a dire sense of direction - but Someday You'll Return's light-touch signposting feels more frustrating than freeing. At one point, I had three locked doors, two keys, and one hour of zero progress, fruitlessly running around a campsite as I desperately tried and then retried each key. The game's hands-off-ness is admirable, yes, but at times I felt too untethered, irritated by a lack of instruction.
Other times, Daniel is shimmying through damp, dank bunkers with little light and a sickly sense of foreboding. They're terrifyingly good fun but inevitably telegraph that Something Important Is Going To Happen.
Interspersing these action sequences with drawn-out outdoor exploration throws the pacing out of whack, though. A little like Silent Hill Shattered Memories that only sends denizens after Harry in predetermined chase sequences, you eventually lose all sense of peril outside, too; a shame, really, given the game starts strong with some delightfully creepy occurrences.
Later on, though - as Daniel's world melts into a twisted wonderland stuffed with supernatural events - there are stealth sequences. These are tedious, agonising affairs that often end in unscripted instadeaths courtesy of an enemy you didn't even know was there, let alone had a chance to avoid. I hated them in Blair Witch and I hate them, here, too. No, I don't want my horror games to be walking simulators, either - honestly! - but I do want a least a sporting chance; especially if I'm forced to sit through lengthy loading pages every time I'm spotted.
There are other interesting mechanics, too - a potion crafting system, a usable tool belt, rock climbing, a smartphone, a magic totem - but for most, I feel we didn't spend enough time with them before being waltzed off to experiment with another new gimmick. The former, particularly, is interesting (there's a vertigo-curing potion, for instance, and another that enables you to see ghosts of the past). But Daniel's unblinking acceptance of these supernatural elements surprises me. Not only does he apparently believe the claims, he romps around the forest with a fully-kitted herbal apothecary strapped to his back, too. It just doesn't fit with the Daniel we've come to know from his phone calls and text messages; he just doesn't strike me as a wait-I-need-to-stop-and-crush-this-Devil's-Trumpet-with-a-pestle-and-mortar kind of guy.
While I was intrigued by the story and desperate to see it through, these kinds of things kept distracting me. I don't understand why Daniel wasn't more alarmed when his tool belt inexplicably turned up in a graveyard. I don't understand why he never questioned the intent of the mysterious characters around him. The man rarely acknowledged the curious details unfolding via the notes and journal entries he found, and as such, I feel like the developers missed a trick here. The best thing about Daniel is also the worst: he's a dick. As such, I'm a little disappointed he didn't push back a little as his world becomes increasingly bizarre.
More spooky than scary, it's Someday You'll Return's story that'll keep you plodding on, even if its 20ish hour runtime feels a little bloated. I felt like I was hitting the climactic close at around the six-hour mark, which meant for most of the remaining dozen or so hours, I was waiting for it to end.
It feels churlish to complain about a game's length, though - especially when so many of its peers are shorter, snappier affairs - but it feels like it would've been a tighter, more terrifying experience if it'd slimmed down its lengthier sequences. As it stands, Someday You'll Return's intriguing tale is soiled by uneven gameplay and a lack of meaningful momentum.
* Spoilers: you can, technically, finish the game within the opening five minutes - sadly it's not by throwing him off a cliff, though...