We had a close encounter recently with advanced code of Returnal, Housemarque’s bold attempt to evolve beyond its arcade shooter roots. The team’s new trajectory? You can basically forget about a rehash of their fairly mindless (but insanely polished and ultra addictive) pew-pews, like Matterfall, Alienation, Super Stardust and Nex Machina.
Returnal is going big on dark sci-fi narrative, spooky exposition moments, a shifting first/third-person perspective and, well, yeah… still a shitload of incoming bullets and outgoing explosions.
To start things off, Creative Director Harry Krueger sets the scene for us. Our main character, a lone astronaut named Selene, has ignored a whole bunch of warnings to subsequently crash-landed on the hostile alien planet of Atropos. Think of it as a constantly re-configuring fun-house that’s like all of H.R. Giger’s wet dreams come true. This is a literal tourist trap that ensnares its visitors in an infinite cycle of death and rebirth.
Diving into the action, the first couple of areas we’re shown are remarkably polished, considering everything is procedurally re-generated whenever Selene carks it. Some basic enemies appear and to our mind, they conjure thoughts of those squid-like Mimics from Edge of Tomorrow. As Selene unloads the gunishment™, it’s clear from her core moveset that Returnal is designed to be a challenging and rewarding experience where mobility is key. The longer you can survive, the more you’ll need to utilise your full tool kit. Anything less, and the life of our Mediterranean blooded, Ripley-esque heroine will forever be some sort of infinite Greek-American tragedy.
Want to live? You’d best wrap your head around the pros and cons of collectable “alt-fire” modes. In this regard, Krueger showcases Lightning, which is great for crowd control. As Selene makes a sea of freaks ride Old Sparky, we notice that her adrenaline meter pumps up (a horizontal line represented just south of the aim reticle). Think of this as a combo system that will reward flawless shooting with increasingly powerful perks.
A single hit will reset your adrenaline perks to zero, and dying (obviously) takes everything else away. That said, you can secure yourself some permanent abilities that mysteriously defy the time loop. One of these, the Translocator, is effectively a means to teleport upward into the impossibly high tree canopies of the first biome. Aesthetics-wise, it’s a place that makes the lethal and drab planet of Dagobah look like the merry old land of Oz.
On the topic of deep and dark, Returnal goes big on intense action and exploration, while also delivering a sci-fi/horror narrative. Frankly, what we’ve seen thus far just screams Ridley Scott. Krueger and his team also love to tell a non-linear tale by way of a collectable series of “other Selene” scout logs.
One memorable diary entry comes from a future Selene. She’s wrestling with a new moral concept – having to kill one of her own corpses. Apparently, it was still functional and hostile. But did she just cap another version of herself who was frightened and merely trying to escape?
Whatever the case, Krueger moves on and we get a peek at the crafting system. Killing enemies adds to what seems to be a three material stockpile that hangs off the mini-map. Providing Selene can discover a shop device – phenotype technology called a Fabricator – critical injuries can be reversed. Don’t expect any sort of health gen. You either scoop up a medkit in the field or “bush mechanic” one together from alien guts.
Incidentally, resources can be earned through exploration and by blasting aggressively (keeping your adrenaline meter up will maximise your overlap gains). You’ll get no magic pockets, either – Selene starts with a paltry one consumable slot. Unlocking more is possible.
There are reportedly thousands of permutations of the biomes in Returnal, each of them with new surprise to wrong-foot you. You might get lucky and stumble onto a big altar that holds a new weapon like a Spitmaw Blaster. It’s of alien design, but it seems some good ideas are universal – even E.T. loves a good shotgun archetype. Interestingly, as soon as Selene scoops said boomstick up, the room goes into lockdown and xenos start coming out of the goddamned walls.
Returnal clearly subscribes to the Throw You In the Deep End philosophy of tutorials. That said, the ambush is thwarted by nimbly dashing through incoming bullets and using this close and personal attitude-adjuster as intended.
Other rewards Selene stumbles across aren’t so beneficial. The local fauna consists of parasites who will hitch a ride if you let them, and then these little buggers will give you a positive and negative status effect. You can track these freeloaders by going into a dedicate sub-menu (which reveals that Selene can be infected by six parasites at a time).
Interestingly, Krueger says that there are practically hundreds of different combinations for players to discover. Experimenting with various collectables can affect your runs in drastic ways, forcing you to adapt and make some tough decisions as the stakes get higher. It also seems to us that Selene is making a trade-off here – sacrificing her humanity for a better means to kill the bosses barring her way. We’re quite keen to see if our “all aboard approach” to aliens will shape her fate.
As you’d expect, every new discovery you make is tracked in a central data bank. You can study weapons you’ve acquired, and we also spied an ‘enemies encountered’ list whose sizeable scroll bar hinted at a wide variety of beasties. Lastly, Housemarque will reward the curious with tons of lore and world info, plus a fully interactive map. Expect to pore over that, because this ever-changing madhouse is always littered with “side paths” and rewards that’ll be worth the risk.
The main course of Returnal is still intense combat which holds true to the Housemarque modus operandi. Matching your weapons to enemy type, while also managing crowds and distance, are key. The increased verticality of a jetpack featuring a third-person shooter obviously adds a new layer to your desperate limbo dance through bullet hell. Selene seems to be capable and responsive. The ‘Housemarque dash’ that seems to permeate all of their titles elegantly returns here, too.
In all honesty, however, I’m most fascinated by Housemarque’s attempt – their very first, by the way – at weaving a captivating, compelling mystery for us to piece together. Surprisingly freaky moments occur when Returnal takes a leftfield turn out towards Silent Hill, or perhaps more accurately P.T.. Your perspective will shit into Selene’s spacesuit as this planet fabricates what appears to be an old residence of hers.
Cue: a whole bunch of clues to a very traumatic past, along with poltergeist-like object displacement and general mind fuckery. I’m not sure what’s got me more intrigued: the “White Shadow” signal that Selene’s obsessively chasing after or the awful memories she’s desperately running from.
To be perfectly honest with you, I personally think that Returnal is about a fifty-fifty mix of sure-thing features and unknown quantity experiments. Excuse the Stardust metaphor, but while Housemarque appears to have the makings of a great narrative, they’re charting a course into an asteroid field that even the best find difficult to navigate.
That said, what I’m almost certain of is that the gunplay is going to be insanely tight, addictive and it’s been confirmed that there’s a permadeath mode that will eventually break me. When it does, despite everything sci-fi horror has told you about the acoustics of space, you’ll hear my scream from your house.
And you know what? Minutes later, I’ll probably dislodge my DualSense from the living room wall and dash right back in for another go.