Hope Springs Returnal
It is undeniable that Housemarque are one of the best developers of addictive arcade-style video games. Despite never truly becoming a household name, games such as Super Stardust HD, Resogun and Nex Machina ensured that the developer became well-loved within the PlayStation ecosystem. Critical acclaim often followed, but a lack of sales forced their hand, with the studio announcing they would no longer develop games of the sort. While this revelation was sad at the time, the promise of an AAA title developed by the talented Finnish team was more than enough to ease the pain. The resultant product of the team’s work is Returnal, a brutal yet brilliant third-person roguelike that is proof that Housemarque is primed and ready to make a name for themselves in the AAA space.
Returnal puts you in the space suit of Selene Vassos, an Astra Scout whose curiosity results in her being stranded on the mysterious planet known as Atropos. After going against the directives of her ship Helios and approaching the white shadow broadcast being emitted from the planet, Helios is destroyed, leaving her no choice but to explore the planet in the hopes of finding a way to escape. Unfortunately for Selene, not even the sweet release of death can free her from Atropos, as it quickly comes to light that whenever she dies, she is forced to return to the moment of the crash, in what is a Groundhog Day-esque time loop of eternal return (thus the name Returnal). Ultimately it's up to Selene to make her way through the various biomes of Atropos to uncover the secrets that may allow for her to break the wretched cycle.
The story does a great job of establishing early on the reasons for which Selene is on Atropos, but there is a constant intrigue present as to why exactly she keeps returning. Is it her own personal purgatory or does the planet have a plan for her? The open-ended nature of the narrative leaves it largely up to you to decide. Despite some moments being up for interpretation, Returnal still has a story to tell, and it does so in interesting ways.
Because of the roguelike nature of Returnal resulting in replaying sections of the game countless times, the story is largely told through audio logs and cutscenes between gameplay moments. The audio logs which can be found alongside the corpses of previous cycles of Selene do a great job of highlighting the mindsets of the various different instances of Selene. Some display a determined Selene noting her learnings of Atropos, while others present a form of Selene who is starting to mentally deteriorate as the constant cycle of death begins to be too much to handle. Each subsequent run will uncover more of these audio logs, which in turn provides more interesting knowledge that Selene has gathered through her various existences on Atropos.
What also serves as a major provider of story content is the 20th century style home that you can find in the Overgrown Ruins and Echoing Ruins biomes. The house which resembles Selene’s childhood home is strangely out of place on a planet that is full of H.R. Giger inspired monsters and alien architecture, but it serves as the ultimate place to go if you want to understand more about Returnal’s narrative. Each visit to the home presents you with a PT-style first-person segment that manages to elicit a similar feeling of unease and fear. In these moments Selene is haunted by an Apollo-Era Astronaut, an apparition that appears in her nightmares as she sleeps. It’s clear that the Astronaut has a role to play in the story, so each return visit to the house has you quivering in anticipation as to what information you may uncover next.
At the end of the day, Returnal’s cryptic narrative makes it hard to fully comprehend, yet at the same time it manages to constantly drip feed intrigue to the point in which you are always craving more from it, even if you don’t exactly know how to piece all of it together. In a sense, the most addictive part of Returnal’s story is trying to piece together what is happening from the information you’ve gathered thus far. There are moments that are a bit more blatant and easily understood, but in order to keep the narrative intrigue intact, I won’t delve into them here.
Important to discuss however is how impressive Returnal looks. With a dynamic 4K resolution (not native but 4K nonetheless), ray tracing and a more often than not stable 60fps frame rate, Returnal both visually impresses and performs well. The abandoned ancient civilisation present on Atropos is a beauty to behold, with its often dark and grungy aesthetic lit up by the colourful projectiles thrown out by yourself and the enemies respectively. Enemy designs are also varied, with numerous types of alien creatures resembling bats, squids and dogs, while other enemies come in the form of menacing red turrets or a glowing blue ball that shoots countless blue energy balls in your general direction. The variety of enemy designs in each biome prevents the world of Atropos from ever feeling stale.
As is to be expected with a PlayStation Studios release, Returnal makes use of PS5 DualSense Controller as well as the system's 3D audio capabilities. The performance of the DualSense is particularly special, probably only second to Astro’s Playroom when it comes to the creativity of its usage. Drops of rain can be felt in the DualSense controller as they kiss the ground of Atropos, while the amount of pressure applied to the L2 trigger will determine whether you make use of your normal weapon attack or unleash your powerful alt-fire attack. The addition of the DualSense features aren’t required, but they do well to assist in drawing you into the already gripping atmosphere of Returnal.
Narrative and PS5 exclusive features aside, Housemarque games have always been known for their addictive gameplay, with Returnal being no different. At its core, Returnal is a third person shooter with roguelike elements, with the aim being to complete each location (known as biomes) without dying in order to progress further. In typical roguelike fashion, you will lose most of the items you accrue throughout each run (such as weapons or consumable items), however some items will serve as permanent upgrades that will make subsequent runs just a little bit easier, such as a transmitter that allows you to teleport to other teleporters plotted throughout the biome, or a badass energy sword that grants Selene a handy melee attack that can both hurt enemies and cut branches that grant access to otherwise unreachable locations. Fans of roguelikes such as Hades, The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy will immediately feel at home with the core gameplay loop.
You start each run in Returnal with your trusty sidearm pistol and whatever permanent upgrades you’ve unlocked thus far. Each run is procedurally generated, meaning the map constantly changes things up. Although some rooms are the same, each run will place them in different locations. You're free to explore optional rooms in the hope of accruing handy items or gear, or stick to the core path in the hopes of promptly defeating the boss that stands before you and progression to the next biome. Regardless of how you choose to progress through the world, you’ll be killing plenty of aliens along the way.
Returnal’s third person combat is extremely solid, with the shooting as fast and frantic as you’d expect from a Housemarque title. Equipped with a dash that is invulnerable to most enemy attacks and a handy jump, Selene can easily rush around a room destroying anything in her path, with her default pistol, or whatever gun you pick up along the way, such as machine guns, rocket launchers and so on. Guns will replenish themselves with ammunition in a quick period of time without reloading, however if you clear an entire clip the weapon will overheat and require a recharge. Thankfully, each weapon has a Gears of War style active reload known as an overcharge, which can be performed by pressing R2 while the recharge bar is inside the marked zone. Overloads allow for a faster restock of ammunition, granting you more bullets to spray at your alien foes.
Killing enemies will reward you with weapon proficiency, with each level resulting in more powerful weaponry becoming attainable in the world. Obolites will also drop from enemies, which is a currency that can be used to buy items such as augments that can upgrade your overall health amount or damage output, or consumables that can partionally heal or remove parasites or malfunctions (more on those later). There's also an adrenaline level that increases with enough kills, granting you handy buffs such as an enhanced overload and an upgraded proficiency rate.
When not in combat, you will spend a large portion of your run picking up items that can both help and hinder your run. Most of the items in Returnal have a chance to cause Selene’s suit to malfunction, leaving her with a negative effect that can only be removed by completing a specified task. For example, a malfunction may make enemies leave a pool of acid upon death, with the task to fix that malfunction being to collect a specific amount of obolites. Malignant items often come in the form of chests which can contain items or weapons. The items can be cleansed by using a certain amount of Ether, another currency attainable throughout the overworld. Deciding whether or not the pro of a health upgrade or additional obolites is worth the potential malfunction, or expenditure of precious ether, is just one example of the risk versus reward scenarios that Returnal forces you to weigh up.
The other item type that will have you comparing the pros and cons is the Parasite items. Parasites are little facehugger-like Aliens that will attach to Selene’s body, providing her with both a buff and debuff. Many a time I’d find myself leaving Parasites alone through the fear of what the con would do to me in the long term, however sometimes the con can be so minor that it doesn’t matter. For example, if the pro is that dropped obolites last 1.5 seconds longer and the con is that it will increase the malfunction probability when picking up malignant items, the parasite might be worth attaching if you don’t plan on picking up malignant items. If you find yourself with a parasite you regret attaching, they can be removed if you are lucky enough to find a Parasite Extractor or find one of the few parasite removing consumables. Returnal quickly becomes a game of working with pros and cons, with the key to success being to find the combination of items that suits your playstyle best.
Although dying will send you all the way back to the beginning of a run, which in some cases can take a few hours depending on how meticulous your approach is, Returnal never feels particularly unfair. Taking your time to clear out each enemy room and making smart choices when it comes to upgrades is the best way to go about things if you aim on making significant progress through Atropos. Deaths can be extremely frustrating, but they are often a learning experience on how to better approach the run in the next cycle. Whether it be gaining a greater understanding of which weapons and consumables do and don’t work for you, or discovering the specific types of rooms you want to visit or avoid, there are positive learnings that can be taken from each death.
Boss encounters are where the game gets the most intense, with the bullet hell nature most evident in these moments. They aren’t insanely tough but they do require proper attention to attack patterns, something that can get easier in subsequent runs. Overall, Returnal provides a very deep roguelike experience full of challenging but rewarding moments. For more action, you can try out the daily challenges. Trying not to take damage in order to rack up as big a score as possible and appear prominently on the leaderboards is peak Housemarque gameplay, and boy does it feel good to see your name amongst the upper echelon of Returnal players.
While Returnal is addictive and enthralling to play, it does still have some issues. Firstly, the frame rate isn’t as stable as it really should be, leading to moments where it stumbles when the action gets a little bit too intense. Even though the frame drops aren’t severe enough to actually impact the gameplay experience, they are disappointing to see, especially when the game runs so smoothly for the majority of the time. Secondly, the game appears to be pretty buggy. Not once did I encounter any run-ending bugs, nor was I victim to the game crashing and robbing me of my hard earned progression, but I did notice a fair few hiccups throughout my cycles through Atropos. Enemies would sometimes spawn inside of objects in the environment making them visible on the minimap but impossible to kill, while the promising multiplayer feature that allows you to avenge or scavenge fellow fallen Astra Scouts for items appeared to go missing after completing the first biome. Again, the issues I encountered were not at all gamebreaking, but akin to the framerate, the noticeable lack of polish took me out of the experience.
Lastly, I do feel that the game needs a feature that allows you to save mid run. Returnal does save automatically whenever you collect permanent upgrades or when you die, but there are currently no options that allow you to save your progression in an ongoing run. With Returnal cycles easily capable of lasting hours at a time if you are making decent progress, the fact that there is no option that allows you to preserve it between play sessions is bizarre and borderline unfair.
Yes, the PS5 Rest Mode will allow you to technically put the system to rest and continue your current run at a later date, but this won’t save you if you decide you want to play anything else on your console between Returnal’s rewarding but daunting grind. Making matters worse is the fact that resuming the game from rest mode seems to break trophy progression, which is terrible news if you fancy trophies as much as I do. Even though I was never in the situation where I needed to put a run on hold, the lack of a save option is a questionable and frustrating oversight.
Returnal is undoubtedly Housemarque’s greatest game yet. It manages to transition the frantic bullet hell gameplay that their earlier titles were known for into a supremely confident and well executed third person shooter with strong roguelike elements. At the same time, it manages to provide an engaging narrative that constantly keeps you eagerly anticipating its next move. While the ruthlessly unforgiving nature of roguelikes will make it a deterrent for some, Returnal establishes itself as one of the most intense but rewarding roguelike experiences I’ve played in recent memory. Every death may hurt (especially when runs can last for hours), but they ultimately make the taste of victory much sweeter when you manage to pull off a perfect run.