Developer Housemarque is known for its arcade-style games like Nex Machina and Resogun. Now, the studio is back with its latest title, Returnal, that’s similar in concept to its previous releases. However, this time around, Sony seemed to have opened up its bank account and gave Housemarque what it needed to create one of the most exciting and intriguing games of 2021.
You play as Selene, an ASTRA scout, as she crash lands on the alien planet Atropos. Each time she dies, she comes back to life in a seemingly infinite loop, starting at where she crashed her ship. She has to fight her way through different areas while discovering new information about the planet she’s on, and also why she’s stuck in her infinite rebirth cycle.
What I love about the story is how interesting the lore is. There are some cutscenes, for example, when Selene enters a version of her house on Atropos, but the story is mostly conveyed through collectables that you pick up. There are markings called Xenoglyphs that provide the backstory of the alien species on the planet, as well as audio logs recorded by previous versions of Selene that tried to fight through Atropos but died along the way.
Time and Space
As for the gameplay, Returnal is a roguelike third-person shooter, and various items are available as you progress through each biome. The room order in biomes is different whenever you begin each run, and the items available change too. While only a few weapons can be found at first, as you progress through each biome, you’ll unlock other kinds of weapons too.
There are also pickups that range from restoring your suit’s integrity (health) or increasing your weapon proficiency. Each weapon has 1-3 randomized traits that need to be unlocked and a higher weapon proficiency means that they will unlock quicker as you keep using them.
Additionally, there are malignant pickups that have a chance to cause your suit to malfunction if you decide to pick them up. Malfunctions can include things like doing 50% less damage while shooting in the air, or simply just scrambling your map. However, you can get rid of malfunctions by fulfilling requirements assigned to that specific debuff, such as defeating 10 enemies.
There are also parasites that you can find and equip onto Selene. Parasites carry one positive trait and one negative trait. For example, a certain parasite could decrease the cost of items at a shop, but its drawback is that every time you pick up a new item, your suit’s integrity takes a hit. You can equip multiple parasites at once, and together with the malignant items, these mechanics create an interesting risk and reward system during each playthrough.
Suit artefacts and consumable items exist too. They can be found or bought with the game’s currency, Obolites, from the biome’s store. Suit artefacts provide useful buffs for Selene, and the consumable items are just as you expect, one-time-use items that provide some sort of benefit. Some consumable items can also get rid of your current malfunction or have enemies drop more items for 30 seconds.
The weapons feel great, and Returnal uses a similar reload system to the one found in Gears of War, where if you press the trigger button down at the right time, your gun instantly reloads. The PlayStation 5 DualSense controller is amazing where you can hear and feel the raindrops through it, and the adaptive triggers add some much-needed tension and weight to the overall feel of the moment to moment gameplay. Selene also receives a sword early in the game as well, so you can slash enemies up close if needed.
Home From Home
Most enemies are unique to each biome, and the game has a surprising amount of variety. They all have different kinds of attacks with varying ranges. Speaking of the different biomes, they each have a different setting and atmosphere. The first one is a dark forest with narrow paths, so you have to be careful about dashing or else you’ll accidentally fall off the map and take damage. The second biome is a desert one with vast open spaces that allow you to run around enemies if needed. Housemarque did a great job utilizing different environments to make each biome feel unique, both in terms of gameplay and presentation.
Speaking of presentation, Returnal's is top-notch. This is the studio’s most graphically intensive game and it’s incredible how well its signature arcade-style translated to an over-the-shoulder third-person shooter game. The explosions that occur when taking down enemies look great and despite the rooms in biomes looking the same in order to fit with a certain environment, they at least look very pretty.
Back To Basics
Although one issue that I have with Returnal is I wish it had some more consistency. When you die, you start back at the beginning, and you have to start out with your standard pistol again. Ether amounts and weapon proficiency upgrades are permanent, but everything else is lost upon death. I would have preferred if there were a few more things that carried over after death, like being able to start off with your favourite weapon or something like that.
This title is inevitably going to draw comparisons to last year’s hit, Hades. While both are roguelike action games, Returnal is harder and much more unforgiving. Some players are going to be put off by the game’s difficulty. However, if you like challenging games, such as Dark Souls, know that Returnal’s boss fights will certainly not disappoint.
Returnal is undoubtedly one of Housemarque’s best games and is a triumph for the PlayStation 5. The premise is interesting right off the bat, and the way the game feeds narrative breadcrumbs throughout the game only made me want to continue on. With the tight gameplay that the studio is known for, along with an intriguing story and blockbuster presentation, Housemarque hits all the right spots. Returnal sits as one of PlayStation’s most unique exclusives.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5
Review copy provided by the publisher
You can buy Returnal here.