‘Returnal’ wastes no time dumping you into its incredible and horrifying world. Melding a beautiful combination of tight and responsive gameplay with a deep sense of dread as you navigate its many challenges. Housemarque’s newest IP is not for the faint of heart, however if you tough out its earlier challenges, which can be immensely unforgiving, you will be rewarded with the studios best game to date and a worthy contender for game of the year. Proving that Sony can still take risks that pay off in the end.
The opening of ‘Returnal’ is a moment you will become very accustomed to as you navigate through its campaign. Selene, an ASTRA scout, receives a mysterious signal known as “White Shadow” that she traces back to the nearby planet of Atropos. She attempts to investigate the signal before her ship crash lands on the mysterious planet, leaving her stranded. You will be reminded of this scene over and over as you forge ahead, die, and respawn with a quick snippet of this opening scene each time. Stuck in a horrifying loop on this mysterious and deadly planet, Selene must push ahead to find the source of the mysterious signal and hopefully break the never ending nightmarish loop she is stuck in.
Selene’s adventure is not for everyone however, it can take some major adjusting to get used to its many systems and the pain of restarting back from scratch after a death. It’s a punishing system that rewards you for learning its mechanics and punishes you for trying to brute force your way through its six biomes. Unfortunately these frustrations are heightened by the lack of a mid run save ability, because of the overall length of a single run. A single run can last upwards of several hours. Making it difficult to hop back into “one more run”, which is the mantra of the rogue-like genre. The challenge that is put in front of you is no short of those required from the challenging ‘Souls’ series, the difference here is in the games absolutely jaw dropping presentation and gameplay.
The fast and frantic gameplay at the heart of ‘Returnal’ is nothing new for the studio. Elements from all of their previous titles are imbedded deeply into the mechanics, making you feel Housemarque’s signature style from the get go. The jump to a third person shooter allows the studio to flex their muscles and show just how much they have grown over the years. The quick combination of dashing, jumping, avoiding slow moving but abundant enemy projectiles, all while trying to put up a fight of your own becomes an essential part of the games addicting loop. A loop that can be as punishing as it is rewarding.
At the start of each run you are given a pistol to get you on your way. You typically never need to look too far to find one of the games nine other weapons, all of which have a unique feel. This is where you can get a small sense of progression out of the punishing die and lose all system. Each weapon has permanent traits that will unlock through normal use. Once these traits unlock they will show up in future runs, giving quite a variety to the weapons you can come across. Early area weapons typically have only one weapon trait that’s able to be unlocked. Later biomes will unlock more per weapon, as well as more powerful traits. The weapons all feel unique from each other and can often make or break a run. Finding a weapon that works well for your play style and sticking to it is the best way to level up its various skills, which require a varying amount of kills. The skills that spawn on the weapon can drastically change the way it plays, leaving a great amount of variety even within the same weapon.
You will also come across permanent items that carry across runs. A lightsaber like melee weapon, which can be a saving grace in most encounters as well as a grappling hook that allows you to grapple to predetermined points on the map. Once you unlock these two upgrades through progressing the story, they will be with you through the remainder of the game. Both help to open up the combat and give you more tools to take on this terrifying world. Using the grappling hook during combat can give you the ability to avoid enemy projectiles and really opens up the speed and maneuverability of Selene. Both items can also be used to reach previously inaccessible areas that often hold valuable upgrades.
The amazing array of upgrades can be jarring when first approaching the game. Outside of the previously mentioned weapon traits and one form of currency, nothing that you gather in a run will carry over if you die. This can seem daunting and unfair in the beginning, but as you reach deeper into the campaign, the game continues to stay fresh because of these mechanics. The procedurally generated levels do add a small sense of change from run to run, however its the upgrades and gambles you’re willing to take that makes each run feel fresh. The sheer number of upgrades coupled with the procedurally generated levels stop the game from feeling repetitive. It’s a feat that is required for any good rogue like to stand out from the rest.
Chests in the game, which again spawn at random, have three main variations. A regular base chest, one that requires a randomly spawned key to open, and the final which are infected with a malignancy. Many items in the game are infected with this purple aura, which give the chance to pick up a suit malfunction. Most give the probability of gaining one of these malfunctions so that you can weigh the risk. The malfunctions themselves act as a debuff for your character, giving a negative effect that can be removed by completing a set requirement.
Parasites also act in a similar way to malfunctions, the difference is you gain a positive effect as well. Parasites give you both the negative and positive effect before you commit to picking them up. Allowing you to make a more educated decision on if the benefit out weighs the negative. Once applied, these parasites can only be removed with rare devices that can be found at random within the world. Making the decision to pick one of these parasites up a risky but often rewarding gamble.
Each run on Atropos starts off the exact same, meaning any malfunctions, parasites, weapons, or health upgrades are completely removed. Green items in the world offer two different effect towards your overall health. One item will fill up the health bar that enemies can damage, while the other fills one of three slots towards maximizing your overall health. The decision you need to weigh however is, if you are at max health, every single green item adds to one of the three slots to increase your health bar. Making it a better decision to use the various consumables you can find, as well as a bed which can be found in your crashed ship to do your healing, leaving the other items for increasing your overall health. It’s a decision that can become a crucial part of your success battling the planets many hostile inhabitants.
Atropos is full of horrifying and deadly creatures that give off instant ‘Alien’ vibes, which will quickly become the most difficult part of the game. The variations in enemies are abundant with each of the six biomes housing their own hostile flora and fauna. Each type of enemy has their own move set and aggressiveness, some will bull rush you as soon as you make entry, while others will stay back to attempt to chip away at your health. Most propel various projectiles at you in absolutely jaw dropping numbers. Housemarque has done an absolutely stellar job at keeping the game from feeling repetitive at any point. Each biome and its enemies feel unique and are often a welcome change of pace once you arrive in the new area.
One of the most impressive features of Sony’s new exclusive is its implementation of the DuelSense’s haptics and adaptive triggers. Rain can be felt hitting Selene’s suit using the controllers amazing haptics. The adaptive triggers lead to what could have been an annoying feature, shining in the final product. Squeezing down L2 half way allows you to aim down the sights, while a full press of the button switches to your alt-fire mode. Each weapon has multiple different alt-fires which can spawn on the weapon. Most of which are a powerful shot that is on a longer cool down. While this feature could have turned out bad, the DuelSense’s adaptive triggers make it seem as if there are actually two button presses within the trigger. You would be hard fought to accidentally mistake one for the other because of the amazing design. Add this, with the sound effects that exploded out of the controllers speaker and incredible haptics felt throughout the game, and you end up with the most immersive experience and best utilization of the DuelSense to date. On the technical side of things, the game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second. Our playthrough encountered only a single bug that prevented a door from opening, which caused us to restart the cycle.
Selene’s story is told through snippets peppered throughout the whole of the campaign. Audio recordings scattered across the biomes give you insight into Selene as she slowly descends into madness. You’ll get a cutscene here or there but a majority of the story is told in a more cryptic fashion. Until you reach the absolutely superb house segments. You will often come across a house that clearly doesn’t belong among the other alien structures. On five occasions you are able to enter the house, which is experienced through a first person perspective. The horror segments are an amazing break from the action, allowing for a welcome change of pace. You’ll navigate the dark hallways as you try to piece together what is truly going on here. With the popularity of Hideo Kojima’s “P.T”, these segments are sure to please horror and sci-fi fans alike and offer a perfect break from the frantic white knuckle gameplay.
The stunning gameplay of ‘Returnal’ as well as its breathtaking presentation allow it to stand out from Housemarque’s previous titles. Showing the studio is capable of far more than they’ve attempted in the past and cementing them as a premier studio. The sheer amount of content here easily justifies its full price while delivering a massive amount of replayability. Its punishing gameplay never feels unfair, but demands that you learn its systems and take the gambles they are offering. Once you become proficient at the combat and managing your items, you are treated to one of the most immersive games the Playstation 5 has to offer. While also setting the bar for how to properly use the DuelSenses haptics and adaptive triggers to its full potential. Only being held back by its lengthy runs and the ability to not save in the middle of them. Easily becoming the studios best game to date and one of the best games the Playstation 5 has to offer.
Review: 'Returnal' Shows off the Power and Promise of the Playstation 5