Review – Returnal
I have to admit that I was at first worried about Housemarque doing a AAA third-person shooter. I know they have their skills in the bullet hell genre and they have nailed that with expertise. However, moving to third-person adds an additional level of player control needed for fast paced gameplay. Not only that, but a small amount of roguelite games balance story telling with the gameplay, and do it well. Hades balanced story and gameplay, but also had the benefit of being isometric, which helps the player observe more of the battlefield. Fortunately, my worries were quickly washed away because Housemarque nailed just about everything with Returnal.
In Returnal you play as Selene, an astronaut who has crash landed on a very strange alien planet. To escape you must fight your way through hordes of monsters in order to repair your ship and escape. Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as that. You quickly find out that on this world there is death around every corner, and death isn’t so permanent. You’re stuck; stuck in a constant circle of death and discovery. With each death you uncover more and more about the mystery of this planet and hopefully how to leave it.
Returnal is a roguelite game which essentially means that if you die, you must start from the beginning. However, you do retain certain key items that will make each run easier or unlock shortcuts and other paths. In this way there is a sense of progression, so it’s not as punishing as a roguelike where death means a complete restart. Yes, this means you will need to beat Returnal in a single run, but it’s not a very long game, it’s just a hard game.
The gameplay loop itself is simple, but there are many levels of complexity layered on top. The gameplay consists of moving from room to room clearing out the enemies. You’ll have main path rooms, challenge rooms, side paths, and bosses. Simple, right? What makes it difficult is the RNG (Random Number Generator), this gives every item you receive a random stat. This is where player choice and skill really come into play. Very rarely are you going to receive a buff without a “Malfunction”. These are negative effects that are placed on you until you complete a gameplay task to remove it. Do you risk the Malfunction for an increase in health? What if the Malfunction ends up being worse than the buff?
What immediately impressed me with Returnal is how they were able to incorporate very arcadey game ideas into something organic and alien. Instead of random runes or Selene being able to craft, you use the alien world around you. Attaching parasites to you will grant buffs and Malfunctions. Silphium is a fungus looking item that restores your suites integrity. Resources, pods, weapons, all feel organic to this world and makes it feel alive. There is definitely an Aliens vibe going on with its aesthetic and it works very well.
There are five biomes you will explore and each have their very own design and specific enemies. Luckily, after you defeat a biomes boss you will get a key that allows you to go straight to the portal gate if you die. You won’t need to go through the entire biome one and boss if you have the next biomes key. However, I do recommend at least going through biome one again upon each death so you can level up your health, get some parasites, and a better weapon before moving on.
Combat in Returnal is fast, frantic, and addicting. I wasn’t sure how well a third-person bullet hell shooter was going to work, but it works very well. The key to success is enemy patterns and playing a bit aggressive. Knowing what type of attacks the room of enemies is going to throw at you is vital. Unfortunately, this will come with practice and why learning from each death is important. Also, using your dash ability to not only move away from attack, but to move through attacks. More often than not it is beneficial to actually dash into and through an enemy attack rather than back away from it.
Finding a weapon that fits your gameplay style I feel is most important. There is a nice variety of weapons to choose from and each have their own stats, benefits, and negatives. You’ll always start off with the sidearm pistol for a new run, but you’ll quickly ditch that in favor of something more robust. As you continue through the game you will unlock new weapons, which will then always be in the rotation of weapons even if you die and start over. The important thing is to find one you like and upgrade it.
I could spend an entire article talking about the ins and outs of Returnal, but it really is something that needs to be played to fully understand. This level of mystery, discovery, trials, and victories is something not a lot of games bring together perfectly. The way Housemarquee had me actually questioning what’s happening while simultaneously hooking the world’s lore into me is brilliant. They could have easily just let the gameplay be the key driver here, like many of their games before it. However, I wanted to keep digging, keep uncovering, taking risks on mysterious items and I think that is a testament to how well they built this world.
Not to seem braggadocios, but I did seem to have an easier time with this game than most. During my first credit roll I had only died seven times, which is usually the number of deaths people accrue getting to the first boss. I am a roguelite and bullet hell player, so a lot of the systems already made sense to me. Also, the gameplay does fit to my more aggressive style already. I say all of this because I acknowledge that my enjoyment likely was much greater than some because I didn’t have the constant frustration or difficulty walls that can discourage other players.
I also wanted to bring this up because the topic of Returnal’s difficulty will vary drastically on your skill level and how you approach the game. For me I played very cautious and didn’t risk a lot when I already had a good setup. If I already had the weapon I liked, mods that helped me, a decent amount of life etc. I stopped taking risks on Malignant Chests and other parasites that could give me a malfunction that ruins my entire run.
Visually I am enamored with Returnal. There is a clear inspiration from Alien and Prometheus with the designs, but there is no shortage of originality here also. The moment you take control of Selene you have this feeling of dread and trepidation as you move through the first few rooms. Coming across your own dead body and hearing your own audio logs really sets the tone of everything moving forward. It impressed me just how organic the world feels because from the level and enemy design, down to the items and vegetation, everything feels cohesive.
This feeling of being on another fully lived in world stays solid throughout the entire game and every biome. The enemies, the weapons, the parasites and how they attach to you is a visual treat. It also makes it that much more amazing because of all the particle effects on screen. Combat is a visual splendor as attacks of various sizes, colors, and effects come whirling towards you. The only time Returnal isn’t a complete treat to look at is when you start getting too close to certain environmental objects. The vines on the walls are 2D, the water doesn’t look great, and some textures are muddy. There was also an issue with certain objects not loading quick enough if I was sprinting between rooms. Besides that though, the visuals are amazing while keeping that 60fps gameplay.
Sound design is another aspect that is done extremely well. I played with the Pulse 3D headset from Sony and the audio is quite intense. When you have a hundred different orbs flying around you with different enemy types running around, it can become almost overbearing with how many audio queues there are. That being said, the audio is fantastic and so well done you can accomplish a lot just based on enemy and environmental audio. Various sound effects are all top notch from the enemies to the guns to the flora moving around you.
The only issue I did have, and I’m not sure it’s with the games coding and how it would load certain objects or my headphones, but I would have some audio cut out spinning the camera around. For example, if a waterfall or something with a constant noise was far away, the sound effect would get quieter. This was expected. However, if I was far away and turned my camera away from it, the audio would stop instead of simulating the sound behind me. I’m thinking it had to do with the way the game would load or offload certain objects that were from a distance and that were off screen. It wasn’t a huge ordeal, but was something that I noticed.
Returnal for me is as close to a masterpiece as I think I’ve gotten. Despite a few small visual glitches, nothing that I encountered was game breaking. There were no crashes or any bugs that would force me to start a new run. Once I started playing, I didn’t want to put the game down. I was fully hooked into this world, into Selene’s story, and I wanted to fight my way out of there. If you at all enjoy roguelites and bullet hell games, Returnal is an absolute must play.
Returnal is a very good looking game soaked in atmosphere and mystery. The aesthetics are very reminiscent of Alien and Prometheus, and the biomes bring on that feeling of exploration and trepidation. However, certain environmental textures are lacking.
Roguelite progression mixed with fast and tight bullet hell third-person combat makes sure you’re constantly on your toes. You live and die by the RNG gods, but I never felt it was out of balance. Plenty of challenge but plenty of reward.
3D audio makes the combat extremely intense since there are always bullets and enemies flying by you. Sound design is very well done from the various gun effects to being able to anticipate attacks from enemies. The 3D audio did have a few glitches for me, however.
The intriguing lore of the planet and the mystery of why Selene’s in a loop had me hooked. The balance of non-stop gameplay from the roguelite elements and story focus is very well done. Each death brings you new info, more answers, and introduces more gameplay options.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Returnal is available now on PlayStation 5.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5.