Developer: Housemarque | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Genre: Third-Person Shooter, Roguelike | Platforms: PlayStation 5 | Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
A sleek spaceship, knocked out of orbit and careening out of control. Stars, shining bright against a black velvet backdrop. The moon, enormous, looming overhead. Writhing tentacles. A pair of heterochromatic eyes, snapping open. These are just a few of the images that players are confronted with after dying in Returnal, before reawakening to the sounds of rainfall. The images might seem disjointed at first, but give it time. With enough deaths, restarts, and eventual victories, every image in Returnal takes on a haunting significance. On its surface, Returnal is a blisteringly difficult third-person shooter. But its goals are loftier than the average action game. Far more than just another difficult roguelike, this achingly beautiful and overwhelmingly tough PlayStation 5 exclusive is also the first real killer app to make a case for the current console generation.
There is no main menu in Returnal.
Upon startup, the player is inundated with a series of seemingly disconnected images, and within seconds, find themselves exploring the areas around the crash site and beyond. Rather than a splash screen with a “new game” or “continue” option, the action begins anew every time the game boots up. The brief montage of images provides just enough intrigue to propel the player forward. Player character Selene, a spacefaring Scout, is determined to overcome any obstacle in her way, even when faced with the disturbing implications of coming across her own dead body in multiple locations. Trapped in a time loop that’s more Edge of Tomorrow than Groundhog Day, Selene blasts her way through multiple environments in her quest to escape the planet Atropos. But is escape even possible, when the past haunts you at every step?
The world is Returnal is dripping with style, drawing liberally upon sci-fi and horror classics like Alien and Event Horizon. But while some areas have a distinctly Gigerian sensibility, slimy alien pods, and all, there is a wonderment to balance out the horror. Atropos’ six distinct biomes all have their own memorable visual quirks, from bioluminescent ferns that reach out to caress Selene to impossibly high towers made of organic material. While Selene may act like a gung-ho action star, she’s also a scientist, and the world around her begs to be explored and marveled at. While comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the Metroid series’ Samus Aran are bound to occur, Selene is perhaps more closely associated with Annihilation‘s Lena, portrayed by Natalie Portman. Selene is curious, adaptive, and tough as nails. Finding and listening to her Scout Logs scattered across Atropos reveals a character eager to understand the inexplicable, dreamlike world she finds herself stuck on.
Returnal‘s central mystery is compelling: why is Selene here, reliving a traumatic spaceship crash ad infinitum? Who are the Sentients, and what happened to their once-thriving civilization? What the hell is a twentieth-century house doing on a planet millions of miles away from anything resembling Earth? These open-ended questions don’t have easy answers, and players must scrutinize every Scout Log, Ship Log, and Xenoglyph for answers. Returnal isn’t afraid to be vague, and it’s entirely possible to read more than one interpretation into the game’s narrative.
But the draw of Returnal isn’t just the creepy sci-fi atmosphere or the mysterious ancient alien civilization. Returnal is an action roguelike, a genre that’s seen a lot of new entries lately. While mostly the domain of the indie space, this game’s explosive debut proves that when a big publisher like Sony throws its full weight behind a studio, the results can be breathtaking.
Once Returnal begins, it rarely lets up. From the first area in the Ruins to the final confrontation in the darkest depths of the sea, there is a near-endless level of combinations and tactics that can carry players through to the end. Returnal‘s excellent shooting mechanics, combined with its risk/ reward system, take this game to dizzying heights.
Everything starts with the Dualsense. When Selene wakes from the crash, the first thing the player feels is the pinpricks of raindrops on their controller. Aside from Astro’s Playroom, Returnal is the first game to take full advantage of every feature this controller has to offer. Every action feels incredible to perform, and the way the game uses the adaptive triggers is nothing short of brilliant.
Within a few minutes of playing Returnal, the player gains access to alternate fire for their primary weapon. When shooting, players have three options. They can shoot from the hip, without aiming at all. They can zoom in and aim by pulling the adaptive trigger halfway, and activate alternate fire by pulling the trigger all the way down. While the game lets players toggle the functionality of the adaptive triggers, the way they are implemented here feels revolutionary. Other games have used the adaptive triggers, and used them well; the PlayStation 5 version of Control Ultimate Edition springs to mind. But Returnal feels designed with these features from the beginning. Critics have long romanticized the notion of “gamefeel”, a nebulous term that holds great meaning in describing shooters and character action games. With Returnal, the phrase finally becomes literal, thanks to the Dualsense controller.
In the same way that the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers feel like game-changers, the game’s 3D audio is incredibly immersive. Housemarque recommends playing this game with headphones on, and doing so will instantly help the player understand 3D audio’s potential. The sound design in Returnal is generally gorgeous, but wearing headphones further emphasizes how much work went into making Atropos feel expansive and alive. Hearing a crash of thunder off to one side as a creature screams behind Selene is exhilarating.
But all the bells and whistles in the world wouldn’t mean a thing if Returnal wasn’t fun to engage with. Fortunately, these features are attached to one of the most polished and exciting action games in recent memory.
Bang Bang, She Shot Me Down
A roguelike is only as good as its moment-to-moment gameplay. Games in this genre are designed to replayed over and over again, sucking players into the loop to die, die again until they succeed wildly or fail miserably. There’s a balance that must be struck between challenge and satisfaction. Returnal exceeds expectations in doing both.
The loop of this game is a classic example of easy to learn, tough to master. Players explore biomes by opening doors and moving from area to area. Areas are separated by doors and are often filled with deadly fauna. These enemies will attack Selene on-site, and players have no choice but to dispatch them or die, resulting in being sent back to the crash site to start all over. After clearing a room full of hostiles, players can safely explore the immediate area. Scouring an area for loot is the best way to grow more powerful, and gives players the tools to carve a way towards the biome’s boss fight. Defeating a boss clears the way to the next biome, and after a new biome is unlocked, the game lets move between them without having to battle the bosses again. But that doesn’t mean the game suddenly becomes easier because the player can jump right to the scorching Wastes or crumbling Citadel with ease. Returnal‘s rewarding yet risky gameplay means that every small choice can potentially impact the course of an entire run.
As the player shoots at aliens, they’re constantly making decisions throughout the course of combat. Should they fire off their powerful alternate fire attack at the beginning, or save it for the second wave or enemies? The area is dotted with turrets, stationary but powerful- should she zip from turret to turret hoping not to get hit, or take potshots from behind a massive column? A defeated enemy dropped a consumable healing item, but is that best used now or saved for later? Making choices in the moment feels significant, and after inevitably being defeated down the line, it’s easy for the player to think back on that one missed dodge, or that single artifact they didn’t collect. This makes diving back in for the next run feel doable, instead of like a chore. The momentum of Returnal is tremendous.
Most importantly, Returnal‘s shooting is perfectly polished. Each gun feels distinct and powerful in its own way. Starting every run with the standard Scout pistol gives players a balanced weapon at the beginning every time, and it won’t be long before they find something new to use. Swapping weapons is simple, but players can only use one firearm at a time. This isn’t Doom or Wolfenstein: The New Order; instead, the player is limited to just one gun and one melee attack. But the guns themselves are incredibly varied and swapping one gun for another doesn’t make the first gun disappear. A player can be using the shotgun-like Spitmaw Blaster in one area, and in the next, find the rapid-fire Tachyomatic Carbine. They might decide they actually prefer the short-range explosive power of the Blaster, and can swap again with ease by simply returning to the dropped weapon. How powerful a new gun is, depends on the player’s weapon proficiency level, which is increased by defeating enemies and finding consumable Calibrators. Every weapon has its uses, and each weapon has unlockable perks that increase its utility.
Like Dead Cells, Returnal lets players find and unlock weapons and items that can then be found in future runs. While the first few runs are difficult in the extreme, as the player is limited to just a handful of options, the game becomes much more manageable after unlocking a powerful melee attack and a few different items. Once melee becomes an option, it becomes that much easier to take advantage of the game’s best idea: the adrenaline system.
Every three enemies (give or take one or two, depending on found items) the player defeats without taking damage gives them a point of adrenaline. Each point provides a buff and buffs stack on top of each other. By the time player reaches the highest level, they’ll have an enhanced melee attack, earn extra Obolite currency from defeated enemies, and even a higher weapon proficiency earning rate. But a single hit resets adrenaline back to zero. Dodging attacks becomes a priority, and dancing between enemies, jumping over their energy blasts, and returning fire until the zone is hostile-free is harrowingly fun. Losing adrenaline isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a great, engaging way to train players to avoid attacks while dishing out their own.
All that training comes into play against the epic boss battles. Reaching the final areas of a biome is tough enough, and once players know where the boss room is they have a tough choice to make: do they continue to explore the biome, for the potential items and upgrades to be found? Or do they take the plunge and use what they have to defeat the boss? There is risk in either tactic; it’s easy to be killed by even the most basic of enemies, but the boss fights are absolutely no joke. Every boss has three increasingly difficult phases to battle through and without adequate preparation players can go down in literal seconds.
Risks and rewards aren’t merely limited to boss battles. In any biome, players come across Malignant items. These items have a chance to bestow a Malfunction on the player, generally a massively debilitating effect that requires the player to do something specific to cleanse the malignancy. The player might have their melee attack power reduced by fifty percent until they kill three hostiles with melee strikes, or take damage every time they pick up an item until they collect 200 Obolites. Players might be able to resist the temptation to pick up a Malignant item, but in later biomes, these infected items are the norm rather than the exception. Taking on too many Malfunctions will destroy a held item, so it’s important for the player to clear Malfunctions when they can or risk losing something helpful. The price of greed is high, but sometimes the ends justify the means.
Adding to the complexity of Returnal are Parasites, creatures native to Atropos who glom onto Selene and bestow one positive and one negative effect. One might reduce repair efficiency, while also lowering the Obolite price of shop items. Players can have five active Parasites at a time, and deciding whether the costs outweigh the benefits of a particular Parasite is one more thing to consider.
The way online interaction is implemented feels particularly brilliant. Using online services lets players come across the bodies of other defeated Scouts, and players can choose to salvage their equipment or avenge their deaths. Choosing to avenge triggers an incredibly tough battle, and coming through the other side is a rush that also yields huge rewards. These encounters are kind of a cross between Demon’s Souls and Persona 4 Golden, where if the avenging player succeeds, the defeated and or avenged player gets a bonus on their end as well.
Every defeat in Returnal is heartbreaking but the game does a great job of making the player feel like they’re constantly progressing. During a run, players can find Ether, a permanent currency that can be used to unlock new items at the start of a run or be spent to cleanse a found item of Malignancy. Store up enough Ether and items found in later biomes can be picked up without any adverse effects.
All of these factors mean that the player is constantly juggling different tactics to progress. It’s supremely satisfying, and hard as hell to master. There is no one universal strategy that will take players to the endgame; instead, working with what’s available and being flexible within those parameters is the best way forward.
Dreams of Flight
Housemarque, the Finland-based developer of Returnal, is practically a household name for diehard fans of arcade action, especially on the PlayStation family of consoles. From Alienation to Resogun to Materfall and all the way back to Stardust, the studio has carved out a legacy of mechanically interesting arcade-style shooters that push hardware to its limits. Returnal is no exception, carrying this legacy forward to the current generation. But Housemarque has also taken a page out of Hades‘ book, crafting a narrative that expects players to die hundreds of times. The question becomes: is there enough here to keep players in the loop? Does this game justify multiple playthroughs, or does it peak after seeing the credits roll?
Thanks to the power of the hardware and the unique features of the PlayStation 5, this game certainly marks the first truly high-fidelity attempt at a roguelike. On both a technical and gameplay level, Returnal is a stunning success. Every run feels unique and once players uncover every traversal option, every biome becomes a treasure trove of secrets. What Housemarque has achieved feels singular; the screen can be filled with an overwhelming amount of different-colored energy blasts, while music surges and players manipulate Selene to do the impossible, and the console stays completely silent. It feels like the PlayStation 5 has been optimized in the extreme, and provides hope for future major releases, particularly from Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Returnal is broken up into three acts. Finishing the first act unlocks the second — and much more difficult, set of biomes and boss fights, and after completing this second act and the final boss, the player can move between the first three biomes or the second three to find additional collectibles and fill out the codex. The central mystery of the game cannot be solved without dozens of playthroughs, but the game more than justifies itself in that regard. Returnal is difficult in the extreme, but satisfying in the way that only a toweringly tough arcade-style shooter can be.