Returnal is a new PlayStation 5 exclusive videogame by Finnish videogame developer Housemarque. Housemarque is a studio you may have come to know from action-oriented, high octane shooter games grounded in the arcade genre. However, in January 2020 the studio announced it would be stepping away from the arcade genre in favor of a story-driven third-person action game.
When we learned ex-Remedy employees Gregory Louden (Senior Narrative Designer on Quantum Break) and Eevi Korhonen (Narrative Designer on Control) were involved, we knew we’d be in for a treat! Our friends at PlayStation were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of Returnal to let Remedy fans like you know just what to expect!
Not your typical space opera.
With two Remedy-veterans involved in shaping Returnal‘s narrative, my expectations were all over the place. I’ve met with Louden several times in the past and I know how fond he is of epic pieces set in space. He’s worked on the movie Gravity (Starring George Clooney) and is heavily influenced by films as Alien and Prometheus. Those influences are evident throughout the game. Small nods and hints can be found in the game’s architecture as well as the overall design. However, a game like Returnal is a huge undertaking and never a one-man job. Korhonen’s influences are noticeable too. Right from the get-go, with a plot that is shrouded in mystery and weirdness. Returnal’s plot is centered around space pilot Serene who crashlanded her ship on Atropos, a shape-shifting world that’s stuck in a time loop. Selene must navigate the arid landscape of an ancient civilization in search of a way to break the cycle and escape. Time and again she is defeated and forced to restart her journey after she dies. Part of the charm of the story is that during your first loop, the game makes it evident this is not Selene’s first go at it, fascinating you before you even realize what’s about to happen when you die.
During your first loop, the game makes it evident this is not Selene’s first go at it…
Make no mistake. You will die and you will die often. Returnal is a true roguelike. There’s a fat chance you’re familiar with the concept if you’ve played games like Hades or Dead Cells. When you start a loop, you’re equipped with the basics: a handgun. You must then venture forth through procedurally generated areas, upgrading your gear as you go, only to finally meet your demise. When that happens, all your equipment is lost and you restart from the beginning. While that might sound tedious, it is not. The game is designed for this to happen and provides new bits of story and content with each death. Some equipment or upgrades are permanent when unlocked and thus carry over into a new cycle. The true purpose of the game is to learn the player how to quickly deal with its challenges. As you’re unaware of what’s around the next corner, enemies or upgrades alike, you’re constantly questioning your gear. Should I pick this health or save it for later? Should I bring that slow-firing but a deadly shotgun, or will my handgun do? Practice makes perfect.
The Housemarque staples.
The game challenges you even further with parasites. These little creatures attach themselves to Selene and provide her with a competitive edge at the cost of something else. For example, Selene might be able to find more upgrade resources at the cost of a chunk of health. These parasites usually detach themselves after a couple of uses. But the same cannot be said for some of the chests found in the game. If a chest is cursed with malignment, there’s a high chance Selene will be infected upon opening. While the gear inside is yours, Selene will be penalized until a specific task is completed. This constant debate whether or not the benefits will outweigh the cost, and what combination of gear suits your playstyle, is a huge part of the fun to be found in Returnal.
I found Returnal to be extremely challenging. Don’t be too hard on yourself for dying out of clumsiness the first few times. The game does explain the basics but relies on you learning by doing. For example, it took me quite a few deaths after I’ve gotten the hang of reloading. If you reload at just the right moment, you will instantly be able to continue shooting. I was confused about how to get this to work until I figured out both shooting and reloading are done with the R2-button. A real facepalm moment right there.
But it doesn’t stop there. Enemies and bosses attack with unique and distinctive patterns. You will need to first encounter a few of them before you will know how to properly approach them. It is when various enemies are combined that things get difficult. They are deadly, aggressive, and will not wait for you to shoot first. Instead, their projectiles fire at you with a huge spread and so you’re required to run, jump, dodge, and shoot all across the map to emerge victoriously. Exactly, all of Housemarque’s well-known staples!
With each death, you pull yourself together and say “Alright, now it’s going to work out!”
The game contains six levels, or biomes as they are called. Each biome is procedurally generated and thus not a single re-tread acts out the same. All of the biomes end with a huge boss fight. I’m currently stuck at the second and it’s so difficult I’m unsure if I’ll ever reach the end of the sixth. Contrary to what you may think, that premise has something addictive. With each death, you pull yourself together and say “Alright, now it’s going to work out!”, only to repeat that sentence moments later. The PS5’s blazing-fast SSD also takes away every incentive to stop. Because as soon as you’ve pulled yourself back together Selene is back at the Helios, ready for another loop.
A distinctive experience.
Returnal continues to show how PS5’s tech can offer a distinctive experience compared to the console’s competition. The DualSense haptic feedback you feel during play is subtle and doesn’t break your attention but does add to the experience. As soon as you exit the Helios, you can feel the rain dropping on Selene’s spacesuit. All of Selene’s weapons have an alternate firing mode which is activated by fully pulling L2. Pulling the button halfway allows for an over-the-shoulder firing mode. A nifty trick that essentially adds a new button. Last but not least is the game’s audio. Bobby Krilic’s score (Who also composed the soundtrack for the extremely disturbing horror movie Midsommar) is a perfect fit and the game’s environmental and ambient sounds are best experienced with headphones.
Returnal is the perfect game for gamers who love a challenge and are into Remedy-esque worlds and stories. We found the plot to be engaging right from the start and the tradeoff whether or not upgrades found to outweigh their cost, to be a huge part of the fun Returnal has to offer. Be warned though, Returnal is extremely difficult and probably not suited for gamers who’re more interested in its story alone. But as crazy as it may sound, difficult or not, you will be returning to Returnal.