It was during the PlayStation 5 reveal event that we got our first look at Returnal. That initial trailer was atmospheric and intriguing and it piqued the interest of many who were planning on nabbing Sony’s next-gen console (including myself), but it raised one very important question – can a roguelike live up to the expectations that come with being a big AAA release? After all, the genre is almost exclusively tied to indies. Having spent a considerable amount of time dying and retrying, I can say without any doubt that Returnal not only manages to meet these expectations, it also exceeds them in a great many ways.
The crash, the attack, death, rebirth. More than a marketing tagline, those words are the crux of Returnal. You play as Selene, an Astra Scout (deep-space astronaut) who has picked up a mysterious distress signal from the off-limits planet of Atropos and made the questionable decision to investigate. Crash landing on the alien world, Selene finds herself stranded without any means of off-world contact. Investigating the damp and ominous forest she now finds herself in, she discovers the body of a fellow doomed Astra Scout, though it’s not a colleague, it’s Selene’s own decaying corpse. The cycle is now in effect.
Not long after leaving the comfort of your ship Helios, you’ll encounter the inhabitants of Atropos and they’re not too keen on your presence. Lizard-like beasts, bipedal teleporting trees, stationary turrets and flying cuboid squids with masses of wandering tendrils are just a handful of the many enemies that you’ll encounter on Atropos, all with their own distinct attack patterns and level of aggression. Returnal is a bullet hell shooter, so most enemies will make an attempt on your life with various patterns of multi-coloured energy balls and waves that you’ll need to jump over and dash through in order to stay alive. Seeing some of the dark and gloomy environments pulse with colour as you combat a wave of enemies is equally parts stressful and gorgeous.
As mysterious and frightening as Atropos is, it can also be so beautiful
To stave off damage, and stave you must, you have a boost-assisted jump and a projectile-ignoring dash, but as you try to hold onto your health bar you’ll simultaneously be firing back. You start each run with a rudimentary pistol and a dream, but while exploring you’ll stumble upon automatic laser rifles, scatterguns that overwhelm the screen with darts, caustic launchers and shotguns just to name a few. Each weapon utilises adaptive reloading, meaning whenever you’re not firing you’ll be gaining those precious rounds back into your clip. You’re also given a brief window to automatically reload when your clip empties and all weapons have a generous reticule to compensate for the break-neck pace that combat moves at.
Each weapon has an alternate fire that is activated by fully drawing back the R2 trigger, with a half pull aiming down the sight. This is not only a welcome and natural feeling use of the adaptive triggers, but after spending some time with it and having it become second nature, I can say that it’s the best use of this DualSense feature that we’ve seen so far. These alternate firing modes are tied to a cooldown and pack a whopping punch as they fire grenades, railgun blasts or unleash bolts of lightning.
Alongside weapons, you’ll also find a number of items that will help you survive. Artefacts are risk-free items that provide buffs, Resin will extend your health bar, consumables are one-use items similar to Artefacts, and Obelites are a temporary currency that you can use to craft said items when you come across Fabricators (machines that trade Obelites for gear). So far, so simple, but you’ll also find Parasites and Malignant items that inject some risk/reward mechanics into the equation. Parasites are living buffs that also cause negative effects, forcing you to weigh up your options and make a decision that’s best for your current run. Malignant items are just like any other, but they have a percentage chance to cause a malfunction in your suit that can only be fixed by meeting a specific requirement. It might all sound like a lot to handle, but each item has a corresponding colour that will let you know what you’re picking up on the fly. The balancing act of inflicting damage to yourself in exchange for a boon and managing your consumables effectively is thrilling and nerve-racking and can be the difference between success and death.
Using an alt-fire shot to pull you from the brink of death is a hell of a feeling
For every four enemies you kill you’ll acquire a level of adrenaline that will give you an added buff to weapon damage, melee damage and the like, resetting when you take damage. This adds yet another layer of depth to every encounter, as you’ll often be relying on the buffs provided by adrenaline to mow through your foes. All of these intricate systems might sound daunting and, at first, they can be, but after a few failed attempts you’ll fall into a groove and everything will start to fall into place. Combat is fast, frantic and often very difficult, but that makes the satisfaction of finally taking out the last painful enemy in a room all the more satisfying. Combining the smooth as silk movement systems and the high-intensity, risk-based combat makes for a gameplay loop that begs to be played for hours upon hours. You will die (a lot), and you’ll witness that same crash dozens of times, but the gameplay is so incredible that all you’ll want to do is get back in there and try again. Every run is different, thanks to the varied loot and randomly generated level layout, and this just adds to the wickedly addicting nature of the game.
I found it all but impossible to step away from Returnal whether I was succeeding or not and even when I did take a break I was thinking of how I could improve and why I failed during my last attempt. It has stayed with me in a way that very few other games have managed, and that’s not only thanks to the moment-to-moment combat, but also the visually stunning and hard-as-nails boss fights. Returnal’s combat is brutal at the best of times, but the true test of skill comes with the bosses that wait at the end of each biome. Sporting three distinct phases, each boss feels unique and terrifying. Learning attack patterns, dodging and strategically using your weapon and equipment is vital when confronting these foreboding figures. As terrifying as they are impressive, I found my heart rate genuinely increasing while I battled each of them and felt a wave of relief and satisfaction hit me when I finally knocked off the last of their health. These fights are the absolute best that Returnal has to offer in terms of its frantic combat and they’re close to pixel perfection.
Getting to each boss requires you to find a key or number of keys in the corresponding biome and bring them to the sealed door within a single run, lest you lose them and need to try again. Once you do unlock the boss door though, it’s unlocked permanently, meaning you’ll only need to get back to it in subsequent runs. With a quicker and more direct route to the boss open, you’ll be left with a choice – head straight for the big bad and endure with what gear you pick up on the way, or take your time and venture into challenge rooms in search of better gear, risking your precious health in the process. Again, it’s a risk/reward situation that builds an unexplainable tension from run to run that only adds to the challenge and enjoyment.
I’ve watched Alien, I’m not touching that
This isn’t the only permanent fixture in this otherwise temporary situation either. Best a boss and you’ll be rewarded with a permanent upgrade, like an extra consumable slot, or a new piece of alien technology like the hookshot that allows you to reach designated ledges that were previously inaccessible. This permanent gear adds a Metroidvania element to Returnal’s gameplay loop, as each upgrade unlocks more options from the beginning of each run, further adding to your run and allowing you to take on the larger challenges as you face them. This style of progression is subtle, yet immensely effective. As you progress you’ll find that the mysteriously out of reach chest is now a button press away, or the deep water that would have previously damaged you is now open for exploration. It’s an ingenious way to further your personal progress without adding points into a skill tree and it keeps the focus on each individual run in a way that I deeply appreciated.
Returnal features six unique biomes that are all stunningly beautiful in their own right. Incredibly varied on both a visual and contextual level, each biome is so abstract and alien that it feels immediately threatening and isolating. Every detail, from the ancient yet futuristic technology to the wide array of exotic flora fuels uncertainty and trepidation. This creates a true sense of loneliness and fear that’s compounded by the game’s incredible audio (which really should be experienced with a headset). Guttural cries from enemies, the mechanical noise of a door opening, the unnerving squelch of nearby plant life, it’s deeply unsettling in the very best way. The amazing visuals, lighting and unmistakable Housemarque particle effects are all awe-inspiring, showing just what kind of creative magnificence is capable on Sony’s new hardware.
This is all without mentioning the game’s unreal performance. Not once did I experience any dropped frames, even when the screen was filled to the brim with rows upon rows of enemy fire. Returnal really is operating on another level compared to most other current releases when it comes to its graphical output, audio and immersion.
Dense forests, vast deserts; every biome is unique and interesting
Your death and constant rebirth are more than just a mechanic, it’s central to Returnal’s dark, cryptic and enthralling narrative. Selene is desperately attempting to break the cycle that she is trapped in and she will find audio logs from her past selves as she does so. This might sound like a tired way of including exposition, but the outstanding writing and voice actor Jane Perry’s unbelievable performance turns what could have been a tacked-on tale into a story that simply cannot be ignored. With obvious Lovecraftian influences, Selene’s story is one of anguish, desperation and mental unrest and it comes with twists and turns that left me reeling for days. Along with the audio logs, there are six first-person sequences that take place in a house that stands out from the Atropian landscape. I won’t spoil anything about these portions of the game, but suffice to say that the horror elements I spoke about earlier become far more apparent here. I cared deeply about Selene’s fate and couldn’t put down the controller until I uncovered it, which is a huge achievement for an action roguelike.
Honestly, one of the only barriers that Returnal has in its way is its price. An action roguelike setting you back $125 will be a massive turn-off for many and that’s understandable. As far as bang for your buck goes though, the game has a seemingly limitless level of replayability for fans of the genre. I hit the credits at around the 25-hour mark, but that will largely be dependent on your skill level. Not only was I tempted to play through the story again once I did hit the credits, but there’s a score attack mode that throws you into a run with the express objective to gain points by getting as far through the biome(s) as you can. Online leaderboards keep track of how well you did and pits you against your friends and the rest of the world, so if you’re competitive this will keep you busy for a long time. Similar to Dark Souls you can also encounter the corpses of other online players, giving you the choice to pilfer their goods or avenge them, summoning the enemy that killed them. It’s a subtle online component, but one that fits with the tone and premise of the game expertly.
We may only be in April, but any upcoming game will have to be nothing short of perfect to move Returnal from being my game of the year. All of its intricate systems synergise and work seamlessly with its near-perfect combat and movement to create a gameplay loop that’s as engaging to be a part of whether it’s your first run or your 100th. The beautiful yet intimidating atmosphere and tension that Atropos possesses is bolstered by Selene’s psychologically haunting and interesting story. Every aspect of this game draws you in and refuses to let go and the game has an intangibly fascinating quality that I’m not able to fully explain; it simply has to be experienced. A creative, haunting and heart-pounding title from start to finish and back again, Returnal is more than a success, it’s the new standard-bearer for the entire genre.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Sony Interactive Entertainment
- April 30, 2021