Returnal is a third-person shooter roguelike that’s harder than a woodpecker’s lips. It’s going to be the most premium priced, high stakes game of pew-pew that’s kicked your arse in years.
Your repeated destruction is expected. Your rage may be abundant. Hours of progress will get pissed away quicker than a pay packet on St. Paddy’s day.
That said, I reckon you’ll still become powerlessly addicted to its cycle as you “returnal” for more. Like a noobish Tom Cruise in your very own Edge of Tomorrow, you’ll come back again…and again…and again…
A good run in this game needs to be an equilateral triangle of slick hand-eye coordination, sensible risk management and a large blessing from our lord and saviour in randomness, RNGesus. If you have the time, temperament and skills, Returnal will elevate from mere twitch shootin’ to zen-like ultra-violence. You, the Dual Sense in your hands and those Pulse 3D headphones perched on your lugnuts, will all just disappear in the heat of battle.
Returnal isn’t a sleeper hit – it’s an inevitability that’s been gestating. It’s 25 years of 2.5D arcade blaster experience that’s finally facehugged itself to a third-person shooter — a more mainstream-friendly host. The mutant that’s emerged today isn’t the perfect organism, but it sure does deliver (chest)bursts of brilliance more often than not.
So let’s quickly skim over what I feel is the least important part of this game – the plot. Housemarque is a twin-stick shooting king that’s not known for its narratives. I liked this game, but after being exposed to this minimally told, often confusing and at times bloody surreal tale, I still don’t think they’ll be known for their narratives.
The very basic gist is that you’re Selene – a spacefarer who most certainly isn’t Gwendoline Christie, so stop asking. For reasons that won’t be addressed for many, many hours, she’s been lured by a “White Shadow” broadcast that’s emanating from the quarantined planet of Atropos. Selene’s planned a lovely day trip there, but unfortunately, she’s screwed up the dismount and the date she’s selected for a visit happens to be the alien equivalent of Groundhog Day.
That’s pretty much the whole deal. Instead of breaking free of this cosmic shenanigan by finding and banging space Andie MacDowell, Selene must fight her way through an environment that’s teeming with annoying, Ned Ryerson-style xenomorphs.
The good news is that none of these hostile indigenous lifeforms wants to sell you life insurance. Because the bad news is Selene’s already on the most premium plan imaginable – upon death, she restarts back at her Helios spacecraft with not a single dent in her fender. That being said, 95% of all other crap she’s collected will evaporate. Worse, the path she just trail-blazed will completely reconfigure into something else.
You’ll rinse/repeat like that across six different biomes guarded by just as many bosses. You’ll also get just as many first-person moments where Housemarque does its best impression of P.T., though these moments only really adds to your growing confusion rather than inform or unnerve you in any way. Honestly, the bulk of exposition comes at you in one of two ways: two-second-bursts of mysterious imagery every time you die, or via the many audio logs left dropped by the Selenes who came before or after you.
Obviously, I’m not going to say too much about the resolution to this story. I found it to be only satisfactory, a bit ham-fisted in parts. Selene herself is well voiced, but she’s not an engaging or likeable character. She seems to come in two speeds – either very grim and scientifically detached or (in the case of her “NPC” recordings) she’s on the wrong side of the event horizon of madness.
Basically, what I’m saying is: if it was the storytelling element that drew you into Returnal’s orbit, the juice is totally worth the squeeze. Eventually. Just be prepared for a long, drip-fed slog to get any sort of answers. It’s also worth noting that there’s a bunch of stuff waiting for you beyond the end credits. So stick around for that.
As Housemarque fans of Super Stardust, Resogun, Matterfall, Alienation and Nex Machina would expect, the action is the main event of Returnal. Frankly, what’s here is the best work I’ve seen from this studio – the cumulative knowledge of a developer who’s spent a quarter of a century going through bullet-hells and back.
This is balls to the wall action that will ruthlessly punish you if you’re even momentarily distracted. It also delights in a ton of risk-reward opportunities that are always there to give you just enough rope to hang your more stupider versions of Selene.
Sloth may be the first sin to do you in. To not sprint about like a headless chicken in an arcade shooter is to invite the grim reaper over for tea and strumpets, but even you veterans might be compelled to slow down or stop in the first few runs. You see, Housemarqe has gone for an unorthodox control scheme that uses the adaptive L2 trigger as a dual function. Using that unfamiliar addition effectively – in tandem with Selene’s ninja-like mobility — can take time.
It works like this: squeeze L2 in 45% or lower and you’ll slide into a zoom fire mode. Pull it to 50% and beyond, and you’ll ready your weapon’s alt-fire function. In your early runs, expect to pause in your tracks (or accidentally interrupt your own bullet output) as you, like some sort of Learner driver, struggle to find the right “shooting gear.” These are the pauses that will wrap you around a tree. Or an alien Ent. Atropos has those for some reason.
Essentially, I’m telling you there’s a very short learning curve before your muscle memory accepts this new L2 — and then it’ll click – and become the best thing since sliced heads. This new control scheme actually demands some physical discipline from your fingers when crap is hitting the fan, and I love that.
In the exact same vein, cool-headed gamers who can squeeze their R2 trigger to fire – not yank on it mindlessly like their proverbials – will live a whole lot longer. There’s an active reload mechanic that starts right after you click empty. If you’re fan-firing and fapping away, you’ll miss a faster reload and overloaded bullets.
Returnal is teeming with a bunch of other systems, and I’ll touch on a few more. You have a basic dash and melee slice, both on a minute cooldown. Selene gets access to a bunch of other Metroidvania, exploration-enabling upgrades that become permanent, too. I’m talking about grapple hooks, translocation tech and diving gear for when the game takes a break from Aliens by going on a holiday into The Abyss.
All of the following bits of gear are equally important, but it’s worth noting that they all fall victim to the dreaded death reset. Firstly, you have a non-regen health gauge that can be slowly engorged to roughly four times the starter size, providing you keep collecting 3 chunks of resin to do it. Likewise, you have a weapons proficiency rating that improves with kills and will effectively make all future gun rolls come with better stats and perks.
While we’re on boomsticks, it’s worth noting here that while your gun will get lost upon death, the mini perks you’ve unlocked while using them will be remembered and get added to the pool of potential perks available in subsequent runs. So yeah, it always pays to swap, experiment with and grind these. And I do love that all of our earthly firearm archetypes get a look in – be they assault rifles, shotguns, ‘nade launchers or RPGs. They’re a good bunch of attitude adjusters, too – everything is punchy and satisfying to use. In the upper echelon of proficiency, they become ludicrously, eyeball-searingly powerful.
Lashing all these bits and bobs together is Returnal’s four commandments: learn your randomly gifted abilities fast, know your enemies, be spatially aware, and fight like a goddamned mongoose. More specifically on that last point: if you’re serious about surviving, you can’t get bitten, not even once.
Returnal has a 5 tier adrenaline meter that stacks incredibly useful, pre-set perks onto Selene. Killing any three enemies will inch you up through these ranks, getting sneezed on resets you back to nada. When that occurs, typically, the slippery slope to your doom begins. Suddenly losing the ability to spot enemies through walls and reload faster creates all sorts of problems for successful interstellar relations.
Speaking of nerve-wracking tightrope walks where one bad decision is death, Housemarque has also instituted parasites and malfunctions. They’re the game mechanic equivalent of a warm hug plus a knee to the groin – e.g. a parasite may give a free key to open a door, but when you pick up the loot within, it’ll inflict damage and kill your Adrenaline meter.
Malfunctions are similar buff/debuffs but whereas parasites can be ripped off your person at these sort of venereal disease eating vending machines, a Malfunction has to be worked off. Collecting 300 obolites (read: space money) might nullify it. Alternatively, you can ignore your malfunctions until you acquire one too many and literally die, at full health, on the spot, for simply opening an “infected” chest. Yep. Infinitely looped life comes at you fast in Returnal.
When you take all its myriad systems, story and sadistic-for-a-mainstream-title brutality into account, Returnal is a fantastic game. I’ve made this simile before, but it really is like that one abusive relationship you just couldn’t quit. I’ve cursed at Returnal just as many times as I’ve basked in the euphoric afterglows it’s provided (typically when I’ve flawlessly nailed a challenge room with all the efficiency of Ellen Ripley on methamphetamines).
All that praise being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one experience I had when the no save nature of Returnal bit me in the arse harder than a tentacled alien direwolf. There I was, hours in with the perfect balance of perks and a gun that could one-shot God. This was it. This was THE run that was going to push me past the halfway point and (hopefully) to the end credits. Instead, disaster strikes. Software error. Reboot. You may have heard the horrifying shriek I made from your house.
To add insult to injury, I’d actually spent precious Ether (the one resource that carries from life to life) on a Get Out of Death Free card. The game didn’t recognise that, at all. It just took my monies and threw me back at square one. Admittedly, this only happened once – but yeah, it was almost enough to make to delete the game. If I didn’t have to review this, I may have. Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen to anybody else.
Beyond that unfortunate (most likely isolated) anomaly – and an infuriating scripted moment that dispossesses Selene of many hard-earned gains – Returnal doesn’t really put a foot wrong. It plays, looks, feels and sounds phenomenal.
Let me quickly count those ways for you here. Visually its biomes are stunningly detailed and quite diverse in terms of playspace, colour and slickly animated beasties. Furthermore, everything loads instantly and the framerate never skips a beat, despite pelting a frankly insane amount of enemies and their lethal, technicolour excrement at your face.
Feels-wise, this overtakes Astro’s Playroom as the pinnacle of great haptics expressions and cool adaptive trigger feedback. Housemarque has put a ton of R&D into making all of the guns have nuanced, chunkorific thumps and tickles. There are so many subtle effects in here to feel – some pertaining to Selene’s movement and status effects, others that betray enemy locations before you even visually acquire them.
Speaking of enhanced senses, and while I’m not affiliated with Sony and I make zero cut from Pulse 3D headset sales, this is the game to buy them for and to showcase with. The spatial awareness they provide and the tactical edge they gave me was immediately evident. I won’t get into the technicals of it, but recording gameplay of Returnal forced me to use TV speakers. When I figured I had enough footage in the bank, I slipped on my headset and was blown away by how much better it was. The biggest change: I needed to glance at my minimap nowhere near as often to track my foes – I’d already zeroed them, even if they were above or behind me. With headphones, the length of my lives basically tripled.
Whichever way you choose to play Returnal, be it augmented with fandangle tech or au naturale, what’s here is a bonafide AAA worth your attention. That said, and if I’m being completely honest, I do have some minor concerns. Firstly, I look at that price tag and wonder why we’re coughing up so many obolites. If you clock this, there’s not much replayability to be had, beyond Daily Challenge leaderboards or possibly speedrunning it all over again for bragging rights.
Also and while I myself am a fiend for roguelikes and masochism in general, my instincts tell me that this won’t land for some gamers. I want to believe that players will stick to their guns and laser blades when those firefights get tough, the deaths rack up and the new plot breadcrumbs become rare and difficult to subsist upon. But the realist in me says that a bunch of people may crack the shits and jettison this, because there’s next to no way to make it easier. In short, I daresay the shelves in the pre-owned section of your local game store could see hold their fair share of returnals.
That’s going to be a damn shame for those quitters. Because I’m sold on Returnal – it’s well worth owning and it’s well worth keeping. This is indeed the moment when a small, tirelessly hardworking Finnish developer stopped their 2.5D asteroid blasting, looked up and shot for the moon instead.
They’ve equal parts elevated and mutated their genre of choice to bold new heights. Even the broken mass of defeated players this game will leave in its wake won’t be able to deny this – Returnal makes an important, evolutionary (house)marque on the arcade shooter landscape.
Returnal was reviewed on PS5 using digital code provided by PlayStation.