I love when games let you explore with a knowledgeable character. Titles like Tomb Raider and Uncharted add so much extra information and context by having the characters provide their knowledge when looking at things. Be it cuneiform or hieroglyphs, ancient tablets or urns, a diorama or massive artwork, Nate and Lara are all too happy to fill in the blanks, to help players understand and get invested in what they are looking at.
Returnal has an aspect of this, but a lot of the heavy lifting is up to the player, or the various audio logs you find while on Atropos. Selene is a scientist and an explorer and her love of Ancient Greek mythology adds some interesting comparisons to the various things she discovers on the planet, and if you know enough about those myths, the various names of things add a nice layer to the adventure. (Just look up Selene and Helios, or the various bosses, or even just how she uses Sylph as the root for naming Slyphium, the healing substance!)
The issue is that we rarely glimpse that analytical, expert Selene while we are in control of the character. Most of the big dialogue sections are from scout logs found on the bodies of other Selenes that died somewhere in this big loop. Whether listening to the one that started going mad, wanting to become like the Severed and look underneath her flesh for secrets, or the scientist that stays alive as long as possible to track what a natural death does to the loop, we hear a lot of the analysis and conjecture from these other Selenes, but not our own.
I wish that our Selene would speak more about the various edifices and statues that she finds, the strange flora and fauna, but mostly it is a one-liner after combat before running around looting stuff. I wish I could press a button or find markers in the world that started Selene talking about how she felt, what she thought a specific room was for, or the like. But because the game thinks you are there to loot things and kill enemies, it either has this on the scout logs you encounter in areas, or you have to dive into the game’s databanks to go and read everything.
I’m not saying that going and reading things is a bad thing. I love reading. I read all the time. But I know there are a bunch of people who don’t like reading, that might be interested in the story being told to them. The biggest disappointment for me was the various archives you find dotted around the various biomes. At each, Selene mutters a single line about what she sees. She barely marvels at their somehow still working holographic storage medium, or why an astronaut is present in some of them.
I am all for games having more content hidden away, just like a good dive into Mass Effect’s codex can give you a wealth of world building and lore. But could we also have a little bit more during the game, with voice acting to boot? Give me a chatty character, or let me prompt them to start talking, because having a reticent, quite scientist exploring alien ruins is pretty much the same as having a witless idiot exploring alien ruins if they don’t share some of that knowledge with me. Not every hero has to be the Doomslayer, though even he had some stuff hidden in the databanks, to make up for never speaking.