Have you ever wondered what Doom’s frenetic gunplay would look like in third-person? Maybe throw in the punishing learning curve of the Soulsborne games? And then just for kicks, do all that and then somehow make it a roguelike?
No? Well, neither did I. And yet here we are, that’s more or less what you’ll be getting from Returnal. For better and for worse.
At its core, Returnal is a Roguelike, meaning that other than story items and ethers (one of the game’s two major currency systems), you don’t get to keep anything else between deaths. Or for the sake of the game’s lore, “returns”. This is important to note because you’re going to return– A LOT.
And that’s also where the game gets interesting.
This is where the fun begins
Returnal gives you plenty of items to pick up and purchase during each run, with a strong emphasis on player agency and requiring you to make trade-offs.
As you progress, you can pick up Artifacts that give you an effect or stat boost, different guns which you can swap out to change up your playstyle, and Parasites that boost one of your abilities or stats at the cost of weakening one of your other ones.
The initial portions of the game annoyed the hell out of me as I had no idea what most of the items did. Still, with some practice and numerous returns, the game eventually opened up possibilities to creatively stacking items and weapons-making for some memorable and fun runs.
I need a weapon
At its best, Returnal has some of the most satisfying gameplay in an arena-style shooter. The Tachyomatic Carbine, a high precision long-range rifle, and the Hollowseeker, a target-swarming submachine gun, are amongst some of the most enjoyable weapons to use in a modern video game.
Along with some fantastically designed levels and Selene’s (our heroine) dashing, jumping, and sprinting abilities, Returnal’s moment-to-moment gameplay makes for some of the most gratifying in recent memory.
Oh, and did I mention that she’s got a shiny, retractable katana to boot? Yeah, it’s as cool as it sounds.
I sense a disturbance in the force
Perhaps Returnal’s greatest achievement comes in the form of its strong atmospheric presentation. By combining its brilliantly dark and foggy visuals and dissonance-heavy audio design with the haptic feedback of the PS5’s Dualsense, the developers succeeded in creating a persistent feeling of tension and anxiety every time you pick up the controller.
From the pitter-patter sensation of raindrops to the thump after landing every jump, to the hard, panic-inducing vroom every time you get struck by an enemy, DualSense’s immersion brings you ever so close into this unforgiving world.
The game also finds cool ways to incorporate Dualsense’s adaptive triggers by mapping both zoom and alternate weapon fire to L2. If you pull the trigger down halfway to the click, Selene will aim down sight. If you pull the trigger down all the way, Selene will aim her alt-fire weapon instead.
A blast from the past
Fans of Housemarque’s earlier arcade endeavours like Resogun and Nex Machina will be happy to see the studio’s arcade shooter DNA shine through in many of the bullet-hell combat segments. This legacy takes centerstage during boss fights, where wave after wave of kaleidoscopic projectiles swarm you in distinct patterns.
It takes a while, but learning how to read and understand enemy attack patterns, then developing your own counterattacks is a big highlight of the game. Across your adventure on Atropos (the alien planet Selene finds herself trapped in an eternal loop on), you’ll become familiar with the game’s world, its enemies and all its mechanics. Mastering all this by the end of the game will make you feel like a Grade-A badass.
When it lands all these blows simultaneously, that’s when Returnal is at its absolute best. Unfortunately, just like Selene flying Helios (her ship), the game doesn’t stick every landing.
Does this unit have a soul?
Inside Returnal’s cutscenes and audio logs, there’s a story in there somewhere that starts off fascinatingly with the mysterious alien world of Atropos and a story about the Sentients. This seemingly ancient race used to inhabit this place. However, in my experience, the story’s presentation is hindered by the game’s roguelike design combined with its extremely difficult learning curve.
Since much of the story is presented usually after clearing a biome (think a world from Super Mario Bros) or beating a major boss, by the time I made it halfway through the game– I was so exhausted from just making it to the fights and beating the bosses that I had no idea what was going on in the story anymore.
It’s not that the story’s pacing is poor per sé; it’s just that the story’s pace is tied to how fast you are at “getting good”. And for an averagely-skilled gamer like me, there was a lot of yelling in frustration and tears before I got good enough to make any reasonable strides in story progress. My interest in the story was eventually lost somewhere in the eternal loop that Selene finds herself stuck in.
Hurt me plenty
Speaking of “getting good”, this game has a very steep learning curve. And it’s hard. I had runs where things were going well for about an hour or so before my focus waned slightly. Next thing I know I’ve been smacked around by a cluster of enemies, and then BAM! Helios is falling out of the sky again. And I’m back to exactly where I started.
If you’re looking for something relaxing to play at the end of a long workday, this is absolutely, most definitely NOT the game you’re looking for. At times, the game was so intense I had to listen to something else while playing just to calm my nerves.
On top of the punishing difficulty, and unlike recent roguelike darling Hades, Returnal gives you very little incentive to start a new run when you die. And given how mentally taxing each individual run can be, having no reason to start a new run after dying will likely lead to many players dropping the game altogether after having dedicated several hours only to have it wasted when you get smashed to the ground by the glowing, tentacled-inhabitants of Atropos.
Oh, and one last thing
During its first month of release, I played the game, and stability issues were leading to crashes on several occasions.
At least twice, I lost progress after making deep multi-hour long runs that led to me putting the controller down and calling it a night (and crying myself to sleep). For a roguelike game that has no save states, that’s immensely frustrating. Hopefully, future patches will address this issue, but it’s best to take note before making a purchase decision on the game for the time being.
Overall, Returnal isn’t a perfect game by any means, but it is indeed a strong showcase for what the PS5 (and Dualsense can do), and when it fires, it’s usually on all cylinders. While flawed, the game also demonstrates that Housemarque can make a lot more than just small, polished arcade titles.
I wouldn’t recommend this game to just about everyone (really! It’s hard as hell), but getting that fist pump-inducing satisfaction at the end of a good run and sticking it to a difficult boss makes the struggles well worth the time. If you’re looking for that high, maybe this game is for you.