Review Copy provided by Sony. Reviewed on PS5.
“Returnal” is a study in masterful contradictions. Defense balanced with aggression, buffs weighed against debuffs, permanent progression versus roguelike destruction. It’s a game of brutal punishment that leads to euphoric release. The constant interpenetration of these opposite forces is core to what makes “Returnal” such a phenomenal experience. Developer Housemarque have stepped out of their top-down bullet hell arcade comfort zone. But they haven’t, really. Despite the shiny layers of polished story and upped production value, this is vintage Housemarque through and through.
Buy Returnal on Amazon – Click Here (ad)
That profound dialogue, between Housemarque’s past, present and future, has led to one of its finest moments. It’s a challenging, fast-paced bullet hell that demands precision and mastery. But it’s also something new for the Finnish developer, a big blockbuster production with an emphasis on organic storytelling. “Returnal” bridges the gap between those two approaches, but it leans more into the former’s arcadey “one-more-coin” instinct: it’s not for the gun-shy. This game will test you with its eye-watering difficulty and slap you down. Over. And over.
“Returnal” is a fascinating tapestry of interlocking systems. There’s the artifacts, the game’s vast array of buffs that provide main character Selene with bonuses for each run. There are parasites, a group of alien lifeforms that latch onto Selene’s spacesuit and provide a benefit like a larger health bar, while weakening her in other ways, like reducing the effect of upgrades. There are even permanent upgrades that allow her to access new parts of the map on subsequent runs.
If you don’t know what I mean by “runs,” you might not be aware of “Returnal”’s roguelike aspect. After each death, the player has to restart from the beginning. The health bar resets, the artifacts disappear, the parasites detach. Only certain infrequent permanent upgrades carry over from one run to the next.
“Returnal” is more generous with its roguelike elements than many within the genre, as it does allow players to warp between levels without repeating bosses, as long as they explore the initial areas for long enough to find a travel room. While it’s sure to be compared to the genre’s recent breakout hit “Hades,” I kept thinking of “Risk of Rain 2,” another sci-fi roguelike third-person shooter with a similar conceit and sense of momentum.
It’s not necessary to entirely clear an area again after death, which makes sense considering how sprawling and lengthy each of “Returnal”’s six biome levels are. Each individual biome takes longer to clear than many other roguelike’s entire maps, so it makes sense to mitigate the frustration inherent to having to start back at the beginning with reasonable shortcuts. “Returnal”’s areas, while random in their order and specific configuration, always feel hand-crafted, never evoking the procedural aimlessness that plagues some roguelike level design.
The core of any good roguelike is the plethora of satisfying and diverse builds that make each run feel special, and “Returnal” completely nails that. There’s an eye-watering number of artifacts, parasites, and weapons that allow each build to blossom into something tantalizing and dangerous. Selene is constantly tempted by powerful upgrades that also impart huge drawbacks. Is it worth hugely boosting my health while slashing my damage output? Should I increase the level of my upgrades at the expense of more dangerous enemies?
These are the type of questions that animate “Returnal,” which makes discovering new items more than just a mindless grab for each item you see. There are risks and rewards that have to be balanced with each build, and that feedback loop of discovery and knowledge is remarkably well-balanced across the 20-to-30 hours it’ll take most players to hit credits. Some upgrades may not feel right for a particular build’s approach, but they rarely feel useless or overpowered.
It would be easy for those supplementary mechanics to be smothered by a weak foundation. Luckily, Housemarque seems to understand that perfectly well, as “Returnal”’s most exceptional components are also its most fundamental. Both combat and traversal have been polished to a blinding, radiant sheen. It’s nearly impossible to find another third-person shooter where the basic act of moving the character feels this good. The run cycle and speed is carefully tuned around enemy response, as each action and reaction churns itself into a strangely intuitive ballet of swarming projectiles.
There’s plenty of weapon types to unlock in “Returnal.” From your basic sidearm, to the carbine, to a strange creation that fires pools of toxic goop, it’s a testament to the quality of those core building blocks that each new gun feels tight, responsive and unique. It’s almost hard to believe that Housemarque have created their first third-person shooter, yet in doing so, they’ve instantly catapulted themselves to the top of the heap of action shooter devs alongside studios like Remedy.
It feels like they have it all down to a science, which makes it all the more incredible that it’s their first attempt at the genre. Most studios, even those with years of experience in the genre, never approach this level of inventiveness. Sure, it’s easy to find the points of reference. “Metroid Prime,” H.R. Giger, “Solaris.” But the true sign of an inspired work is that ability to seamlessly fuse a pool of interesting influences into something that feels entirely of itself, and “Returnal” pulls that off in a way that feels almost effortless.
Unfortunately, “Returnal” fails to reach that level of inspired creation with its protagonist Selene’s emotional arc. It’s refreshing to see a game with a slightly older lead, especially a woman, as we’ve seen many middle-aged dad stories pop up in gaming like the recent “God of War,” but very few stories about women at that same stage in life. But Selene is a character that never quite grapples with the conflicting forces acting upon her character. She feels too detached from the horrors surrounding her, and her surprisingly aloof tone and occasionally awkward writing can make it tough to empathize with her struggle.
Much more interesting is the game’s real main character, Atropos, the alien world Selene crashes on. In the course of her work as a privateering astronaut employed by the ASTRA Corporation, she’s drawn by a strange signal to the planet’s surface. It’s a clichéd setup that doesn’t begin to hint at why it’s a delight to unfurl the planet’s mystery, to discover why it traps Selene inside the game’s never-ending cycle of death and rebirth. Discovering the nature of Atropos’s life forms and the truth behind its crumbled ancient civilization keeps “Returnal”’s narrative fresh and rewarding.
Its enigmatic final arc is sure to prove controversial, but it would be a mistake to tie a story about the unknowable void of existence into a neat little bow. Housemarque respects the audience enough to avoid spoon-fed answers. The narrative’s main strength is that it gives the player space to dream, to fill the gaps of Selene’s consciousness and memory with their own imagination. It respects the mechanics of mystery.
“Returnal” has also found itself in the position of quietly becoming the most impressive showcase so far for the PlayStation 5’s set of hardware features. The haptics add a sense of texture to Atropos’s strange grinding machines, while adaptive triggers actually serve an important gameplay function, intuitively switching between weapon fire modes.
The swarm of stunning particle effects (always a Housemarque staple) and smooth 60fps refresh highlight the GPU advantage over PS4, while the SSD is showcased by the game’s near-instant scene transitions and teleportation between biomes. Even the game made for the specific purpose of showcasing those features, “Astro’s Playroom,” didn’t quite go this far in organically incorporating the console’s hardware features into its world.
One of the game’s main weaknesses is the lack of a save system during runs. It’s a shocking oversight. If other games within the genre can save the player’s progress at each new room, there’s no excuse for Housemarque to force players to restart an entire run if they have to stop playing. The PS5’s rest mode can mitigate this, but what happens if you lose power, or if you encounter the same bug I came across, where the game closes despite being suspended in rest mode? It’s surprising that in a game filled with so many thoughtful design decisions, this bizarrely antiquated save system made it into the final product.
The fact that “Returnal” is visually stunning, with superb art design, is evident from the first moments of gameplay, but less apparent is the game’s spectacular sound design. There were moments when I was confused by a sound I thought I heard from outside my window, only to realize that the game audio’s authenticity had tricked me into thinking its chaotic hum and blasts of thunder were real. Like everything else about “Returnal,” its sound design both real and surreal, familiar yet alien.
Much of the marketing buzz has played up Housemarque’s use of 3D Audio, and while it’s certainly an effective implementation that makes using headphones a treat, the game’s well-tuned audio profiles make it sound nearly as good on a home theater system or soundbar. “Midsommar” composer The Haxan Cloak was an inspired choice to compose the game’s score, which hums along at a sinister clip in the background, swelling with a sharp synth chord or ambient pad at just the right moment. It’s a sublime, atmospheric aural adventure.
There are so many other things I could say about “Returnal,” about the wonderful variety in its biomes, about the shocking story beats that animate its wildest moments, about the way its numerous enemy types arrange into carefully controlled waves. But there’s only so much space in a review, unlike the endless glistening void that Atropos draws its mystique from.
I have no doubt that many will buy “Returnal” without understanding how punishing its combat difficulty and permadeath system can be, how relentlessly it demands your full attention, how little respite it offers. But for those players who decide to stick through that baptism of fire, they’ll be rewarded by the cascading layers of interlocking systems that make success feel so cathartic. When it clicks, it’s unlike anything else I’ve played.
When it doesn’t, it can be incredibly frustrating, but that frustration is always married to a lesson about how to navigate Atropos’s treachery. Every time I play “Returnal,” it feels like a different game. New elements come into focus, foreground shifts to scenery, implied themes become explicit. Like Atropos, it never stops changing.