Describing Returnal almost feels dirty. It’s a 3D shooter’s take on a roguelite, with bullet hell and horror elements liberally sprinkled throughout the game design. None of these descriptions really convey what it is like to play Housemarque’s PS5 exclusive, however. That feeling is an entirely unique experience that can’t be told through game genre alone.
Hectic combat, eerie music, Lovecraftian visuals, and a surprisingly well told story kept me captivated at every moment of my thirty-hour playthrough. It’s a major disappointment then that finding the motivation to attempt multiple runs is the hardest part about this otherwise excellent attempt at expanding the roguelite genre.
Returnal is available now on PlayStation 5 for your regional pricing. (As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.)
Story – Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
What makes Returnal’s story so strong isn’t its overall plot and characterisation (though these are solid elements), it’s the fact it has a focus on story at all. Rougelite, bullet hell shooters are primarily played for their gameplay. So Housemarque’s secondary focus on establishing and maintaining a mysterious plot, and diving into protagonist Selene’s backstory is a rarity within the genre, and a welcome one at that.
The repetitive gameplay is skillfully worked into its core narrative. You play as Selene Vassos, an interplanetary scout who crash lands on the alien planet, Atropos. She starts exploring in search of the source of the ‘White Shadow’ broadcast, but soon encounters corpses of herself scattered throughout the landscape. Selene eventually dies, but is brought back to the moment she awoke from her crash. It becomes clear she is stuck in a time loop that will keep returning her to this crash site every time she is bested by the hostile creatures inhabiting Atropos. It’s a quietly clever way to fit a need for multiple runs into a sci-fi narrative.
After this revelation, the rest of the game has Selene investigating the reason behind her repeated revivals, and also has the player trying to work out the personal backstory of Selene. Why does her house keep appearing on this distant alien planet? Who is the Astronaut that stalks her visions, and what exactly drove Selene to investigate this mysterious signal on Atropos?
I was completely hooked on Returnal‘s mysteries. Every fight had added weight, because I was one step closer to unraveling these questions with every enemy killed. The flashes of images that appear onscreen after every death had me musing over their meaning, and I welcomed any clue found to these narrative puzzles. A small example of these clues are the audio recordings found on Selene’s corpses. The planet has sent previous iterations of her insane, depressed, introspective, or madly devout. I ran to the white glow of an audio log any time I saw one, eager to find out which version of Selene I would hear next.
The only real issue I had with Housemarque’s story was its lack of exploration on anything but Selene. This is a very small gripe with the storytelling, however. I’m probably being greedy in wanting more from a roguelite that already goes above and beyond its need for a story.
The ending won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but regardless of how you feel about it, it’s undeniable that the conclusion stays true to the same cosmic horror tone established throughout the campaign. I appreciate the consistency of the overall storytelling achieved.
Gameplay – Crème de la Combat
The core reason a roguelite lives or dies is in how the moment-to-moment gameplay feels, and Returnal is one of the best feeling games I have ever played. The fluidity of movement, coupled with the fast-paced, fast-thinking shooting was a delight to experience through my entire playthrough. It pulled me through even when I was getting frustrated with how often I was dying near the end.
It’s so fresh because it is genuinely a one-of-a-kind title. A concept that people are often crying out for in a video game market packed with sequels and remakes. It’s the first high-profile game with a decent budget to attempt a roguelite, bullet hell shooter as a third-person 3D experiment. The genre is usually developed in 2D (think Dead Cells, or Hades) and randomly generates map layouts, item placement, and enemies.
The best comparison to movement and combat that I can give is Control, the Remedy developed third-person shooter that also drew a fair bit of inspiration from the cosmic horror genre. There’s a similar dash ability in both games, and like in Control, Selene doesn’t rely on picking up ammunition, but has a bullet recharge system instead. She starts every run with a pistol, but there are lots of other weapon types to unlock throughout gameplay progression. They have suitably sci-fi names attached to them, like the Spitmaw Blaster and the Tachyomatic Carbine. Though they are basically sci-fi stand-ins for standard shotguns and assault rifles.
There are more unique weapons to be found. Take the Electropylon Driver, which lets you set a sort of trap area for enemies to take damage in, or the Coilspine Shredder that bounces bullets back to you. These weapons will appear randomly in chests and as dropped loot, and also have up to three random traits attached. Some of these completely change how effective a weapon can be, so even when I found my favourite, the trusty-old Tachyomatic Carbine, I had to make sure it didn’t have a trait that lowered its rate of fire. I loved it specifically for its high rate of fire.
Another key ingredient to combat and exploration are malignant items. These purple-tinted pick-ups have a low, moderate, or high chance to give Selene a suit malfunction if she picks the item up. There are many malfunctions that can occur, like taking damage when you use a key, or obilites (currency) dropping when you get hit.
This is a well thought-out system that I paid next to no attention to—I was not a risky player. Maybe I would have had an easier time progressing if I had, but I always felt like the malfunctions were far worse that the benefits received.
The malfunctions can be repaired by completing certain tasks. However, just like the malfunctions themselves I don’t think the tasks I had to do were worth the benefit of wasting my time, and sometimes health, to achieve. I died trying to get melee kills in order to get back the ability to pick up a new weapon, a pretty important ability to lose.
Alternatively, you can use Ether to cleanse items before picking them up. Ether is the only resource that carries over between runs, but can also be used to convert into obolites, needed to create random items from a fabricator that can greatly help with surviving. This is my first major issue with Returnal; so much progression is linked to luck, not skill.
This might be why I struggled with the final two biomes. I was suddenly faced with enemies that ripped through my health in seconds, and struggled to find the right gun to deal with them. I was then tasked with retrieving three keys to open a door, and I couldn’t even reach one without dying. This is where I met my, and likely other people’s, main issue with the game; the runs are too long to fully embrace. A high run-time coupled with a reliance on fortunate item drops creates a system that takes hours to get to the point you’re actually stuck at.
I tried rushing to the fifth biome from the start after getting sick of grinding for good weapons and items. I ignored any enemy and items not on my direct path, but this led to many deaths due to a lack of health and good weapons. Maybe a more skillful player could overcome this challenge, but I certainly couldn’t. In the end the only reason I got past this grind was some extreme luck in the items I picked up, where I had four chances to return after dying.
The beautiful, bright, chaotic combat never felt like a slog, but the time it took to progress though the areas certainly did. There is no easy mode to activate if you get frustrated with it, or a mid-run save ability bar putting your PS5 into rest mode. I understand why Housemarque didn’t implement a save feature; roguelites don’t traditionally have a mid-level saving system. They don’t typically take hours to complete a run either. Compounding this issue is how often the game crashes. Playing for hours, only to be booted to the PlayStation home screen is as frustrating and disheartening as it gets.
It’s a very big issue with the game that is understandably putting a lot of people off trying Returnal. Yet one thing I loved every bit as much as I hated the run length, were boss fights. Focusing on one enemy who fires an obscene amount of bright projectiles and waves of energy at you is both visually stunning and easier to deal with than lots of little lower level enemies who can flank and kill you with a single hit.
Their challenge isn’t in combat ability, but in successful jump and dodge timing. Some players may have the opposite experience, and clear hordes of enemies with ease, but struggle with the boss battles. The good thing about them is that you’re never too far away from attempting the fight again. Once you unlock access to a biome’s big baddie, you’ll get a shortcut that will take you directly to it. I can’t imagine how long run times would be without these shortcuts.
These large scale battles grow increasingly epic in their scope, and are some of the best encounters I’ve ever had in a game. They are the culmination of everything that works: rewarding combat, creepy environments, and boss and arena designs that are every part as gorgeous as they are intimidating.
Graphics and Audio – Turn it Up to Eleven
Returnal‘s graphical quality and stability is stellar, but even better is its artistic design. The nuts and bolts of your playtime on Atropos is made up of progressing through six biomes, with scenery and enemy types changing upon entering a new one, and a boss waiting for you at the end. While no biome is overly creative in its type of ecosystem, the eerie design hits all the right atmospheric beats. They convey a grand sense of scale that never failed to make me feel small while dashing through each area’s towering environments.
It’s clear the developers have taken inspiration from classics like the Alien franchise, but it shapes these inspirations to suit their own particular brand of horror. There’s a Lovecraftian vibe to the design, and exploring these environments evokes the wonder of interplanetary exploration like I’ve only really felt from Star Wars games. Atropos truly feels alien, and I wish there was a photo mode to fill up my hard drive with the planet’s grand, creative designs.
The soundtrack to Returnal was composed by Bobby Krlic, and his main theme, “Murals”, is heard the most throughout the game. It’s a solid theme that conveys all the mystery of the shooter. Along with the rest of the soundtrack, it gels well with the design to maintain a moody atmosphere. One boss fight song in particular was so good I couldn’t be mad when I failed to down it with only a few shots to go, because it was a delight to listen to the song playing all over again. That fight was one of the most enjoyable combat experiences I’ve ever had in gaming, in no small part due to the soundtrack.
It’s moments like these that make a stand-out game.
Housemarque did a very good job at selling its story and setting through design and music, but they also achieved this with their inclusion of the PS5’s DualSense features.
Haptic Feedback – Bringing Atropos to life
Meleeing and hearing and feeling the ‘zuuuup’ sound from the DualSense was just as satisfying the last time I did it as it was the first time. The deep rumble of stepping on a translocator is equally as impressive, and the opening cutscene of the game felt like a theme park ride, due to the different rumbles and sounds happening within the PS5 controller.
Using the adaptive triggers on the controller, Selene’s weapon has an alt-fire mode that requires the L2 trigger to be pressed all the way down, and then the traditional R2 to fire. Alt-fire has varying effects that can range from sending out a wave of energy, to launching tentacles at an enemy. Regular firing requires holding L2 down halfway, and while this was a little strange at first, I soon got used to it. By the end of the first biome, it felt completely natural. The DualSense even makes a unique sound and rumble when your alt-fire has finished charging, making you aware it’s ready to use without interrupting your HUD while in combat.
Along with Astro’s Playroom, Returnal has made the best example so far of how effective the DualSense can be, and it’s yet another small element that Housemarque nailed.
Returnal was reviewed on PlayStation 5.