Developed By: Housemarque
Published By: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 5
Reviewed On: PS5
Returnal is the latest game to come out of Housemarque, a Finnish based studio most notable for games such as Super Stardust, Resogun, & Nex Machina. The last game that came out in 2017 Matterfall was considered to be a let down so with a brand-new generation and brand-new vision will Housemarque be able to return to form and push even further to finally cement their legacy as being a top tier studio? Well after the final previews went out last week, the anticipation has rightfully gone through the roof.
As much as I loved Resogun, I actually struggled to enjoy Alienation. It was not that it was a bad game it just didn’t grab me as hard. I did not even bother to check out Nex Machina or Matterfall beyond reading previews of them. When the announcement trailer for Returnal came around it felt like it was made for people like me; psychological horror combined with fast-paced bullet-hell gameplay. Thanks to Playstation Asia we were granted the opportunity to get an early review code and after spending north of 40 hours with it does Returnal join the ranks of other PlayStation Exclusives in capturing the hearts of the masses? I think it is an amazing game BUT I do think that the high level of challenge the game offers might be a huge source of frustration especially for casual players.
We Must Forget To Remember
Returnal tells the story of Astra scout Selene who is tracking a signal called the “White Shadow” through space which leads her to the planet Atropos. On approach a malfunction causes her ship Helios to crash land on this strange planet marooning her without any hope of help. The only logical path forward is to keep tracking the signal that brought her there in the first place. Not long after Selene starts to notice that aside from alien lifeforms trying to kill her, she also can’t die permanently. Forever stuck in a time loop. Ironically as a player that is how you will feel as you repeatedly die. Every death causes Selene to wake up at the point of the crash and every exploration forward unveils that the world in Atropos is constantly shifting and changing, never the same. To make things even more bizarre a house is haunting her but why is it there? Why can’t Selene die? What is Atropos? What is the White Shadow?
After the initial set up the mystery will slowly unravel through a combination of audio logs, finding cyphers to be able to read Xenoglyphs, ship logs, the house, and even the environment. Even every time the player dies, more of Selene’s history and Atropos is revealed throughout the six biomes players will eventually traverse to.
I must admit after finishing all three acts I was initially torn with how the story played out and I think a lot of people might feel the same way if they even get that far. However, after allowing myself to just sit on it and digest it in totality I have to admit it grew on me a lot. Even though it starts out straight forward the narrative in its entirety is not. The game is peppered with ambiguous imagery that does just enough right that kept me as a player wanting answers to questions that kept popping up. There is also a very strong parallel to Greek mythology in how certain things play out which was nicely done.
I firmly believe that the narrative journey in Returnal should be experienced by the player unspoiled as it feels so closely ingrained to the gameplay with storytelling on multiple levels. I myself was tested quite a bit as there were multiple times where I kept questioning if the journey was worth the challenge I was putting myself through. In the end, after multiple cycles of madness, I can say that I am thankful to have persisted.
We Must Leave To Return
Even after a few months after the PS5’s release, there haven’t been any games that one could say was built to take advantage fully of the PS5’s power (with the exception being the excellent Astro’s Playroom). With that being said, it really feels like Returnal is that game that players have been waiting for.
When it comes to the graphics and performance, Returnal runs like a dream. With dynamic 4K resolution and 60 frames-per-second, the game looks great and plays incredibly smooth 99% of the time. Only in very rare circumstances, there are slowdowns and even when it does happen it’s barely noticeable. Character models for Selene, enemies and the environments, look outstanding with each of the six biomes feeling distinct. Even so, I did feel a little disappointed that some biomes feel a little too similar to others but that may be due to the fact that I was repeatedly going through them and that can feel like it just blends together. Apart from that minor nit-pick, lighting, shadows and particle effects are just so gorgeously animated and rendered that even in the chaos it never failed to impress me.
Moving on to sound design, Returnal has yet again been nothing short of impressive. It is most recommended to play Returnal with headphones on due to the 3D audio implementation from the developers to further immerse the players into the game. From subtle touches like raindrops falling to full-on bullet hell madness, I will never forget the first time hearing and feeling a glowing orb of death whizzing past me as I dodge out of its way. Your weapons feel beautifully punchy, and I felt like an absolute badass using them.
Unfortunately, as good as the 3D audio is I did manage to find a few things that were a let-down. The 3D audio feels inconsistent as at first, I thought it was just me who got used to it but eventually, I realized it just disappears from time to time. There were even weird moments where sound profiles for certain things like waterfalls would only kick in when I crossed a certain point close to them and would just cut off awkwardly.
I also think that Bobby Krlic did an amazing job on the soundtrack for Returnal. Atmospheric, moody, haunting, and epic are words that come to mind especially with one organ laced track during a boss fight that felt inspired by Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar.
Another notable thing I wish to highlight is the Dual Sense support when it comes to Haptic Feedback and the Adaptive Triggers. From the very first cutscene where Selene crash lands I could already feel the amazing level of immersion from the haptics to subtle in-game moments like raindrops on the controller. The feeling I got from pulling down on the trigger for Alt-Fire as well as how distinct every weapon felt for the adaptive triggers is spot on.
However, as amazingly immersive these features are, like the 3D audio they can also feel inconsistent especially when it comes to the Haptic Feedback. I find myself wondering am I not feeling it anymore because I am used to it or it is just not there and again, I come out feeling like it is the latter. Take the raindrops for example, there are some rooms where I walked in and feel it on the Dualsense and yet other times I did not. It is a strange feeling because I remember being impressed by it the first time so when I did not feel it anymore it felt slightly jarring.
At this point, I am not too sure if it is a design decision or things that will be improved with the Day 1 patch, so I guess that is just something to keep an eye on.
We Must Die To Live
As solid as the graphics, sound and feel of the game are, it is in the gameplay that Returnal truly rises to a stratospheric level. However, the game also expects or rather demands players to reach that summit but before I really get into that let us talk about what to expect from Returnal.
Starting out players will awaken at the crash with a range and melee weapon to defend themselves with. Your melee weapon will always be a sword but although you always start off with a sidearm, along the way players will gain access to a variety of ranged weapons to utilize. There are around ten different types including the Tachyomatic Carbine, Spitmaw Blaster and my personal favourite the Hollowseeker. Each weapon has perks that you can upgrade permanently with use so the higher the level the more perks your weapons can and will have. Players also have to watch out for their Adrenaline Bar where with each successive hit it climbs to a maximum of 5 which gives increased melee damage, proficiency and resource generation.
Players will also start out with one consumable slot (max 3) for items like first aid or shields that will drop from the world randomly. Thankfully, these are also interchangeable if you find a better consumable. To aid in your survivability players will also find Silphium resins to heal and improve your health bar, keys to open chests and doors, calibrators to improve weapon proficiencies, artifacts that give positive buffs as well as parasites that give both positive and negative buffs to players.
The two most important resources are Ether and Obolite. Ether is found in the world as a random pickup but Obolite can only be obtained from killing enemies and as far as I know Ether is the only resource that carries over between cycles.
In case there is still a misconception as to what Returnal is, the game is a bullet hell rogue-like through and through. There are a total of six biomes in the game which are split into a set of three following the story. So, the way it works is you progress from biome one to two then finally to three. However, if you die or suffer and unfortunate crash or power failure you will always start back at the crash in the cycle you are at with only your Ether and traversal gear retained. Everything else is reset and the cycle begins again. The only way to save progress when you are in the second and third biomes is to put your PS5 in rest mode. There are also Reconstructors in each biomes that saves your state only for that biome which uses Ether as well. I did not think that the game would lean heavily into the rogue-like mechanics, but it absolutely does and for those that are unseasoned with games like these, you might be in for a very rude awakening.
Returnal does not have a difficulty setting. Its default is basically hardcore difficulty.
I was so conflicted on this game while playing it. See there are a total of three acts to go through and although Act 1 was tough I still managed to get through it dying only twice. When I got to Act 2 I hit such an impenetrable wall I was literally echoing the predicament the character I was playing as. Persistence slowly gave way to denial and anger as I kept failing again and again up to 34 more times. I kept getting bad cycles in a row or my own frustrations gave way to careless mistakes. I even started blaming the developers for making the game too damn hard. I honestly even contemplated just quitting because Dark/Demon Souls was not even this hard and I think this is the point where most casual players will quit and abandon the game.
Be that as it may, no matter how difficult the challenge might present itself, this would be the game that really rewards those with patience and skill. Selene controls perfectly, bosses are not cheap, mechanics are in place for your survival, and I do believe the system feels close to balanced in its risk/reward system.
What I Loved
- Story – It might not provide all the answers, but I appreciate the story they were trying to tell on multiple levels. As a player echoing the madness the character is going through is some pretty great but messed up meta shit.
- Gameplay – The gameplay is just straight up one of the best I have ever played. Fast and intense, not for the weak-hearted.
- Enemy Variety – I also really loved the enemy designs and variety. Each boss fight felt so unique and memorable.
- Sound Design & Soundtrack – Amazing what 3D audio can do and the soundtrack is just sublime.
- Atmosphere – Incredibly moody and affecting just adding to the immersion of the challenge awaiting the player.
- Haptic Feedback & Adaptive Triggers – The full potential on show and moving forward it’s just crazy to think how we are just starting this console generation.
What I Wished Was Better
- Bugs/Issues/Inconsistencies – I think it really goes to show how important getting the 3D audio and Haptic Feedback consistently right because as good as it is pulling players in, the absence of it takes players out just as fast.
- Biome Sequence – It might be a small thing, but I actually wished I was able to visit all six biomes separately and there were all just interconnected to move about in. Makes collecting things easier instead of constantly loading a new cycle and hoping the procedural rooms are the same.
- More Extensive Tutorials – There were some things in the game like the Reconstructor that just was not explained and I’m all for self-exploration if it was just easy to test out instead of losing progress just as easily.
Do You See The White Shadow?
Housemarque has truly delivered an intense, heart-pounding, unique experience that should be experienced by seasoned and new players to the rogue-like genre. I loved the abstract, ambiguous, multi-level narrative that unfolded that accompanied glorious bullet-hell madness that lurks around every corner. After 40 plus hours and pushing myself to finish all three Acts I felt relieved that I did not give up. The conversation on difficulty and accessibility will be even greater due to how next-generation prices on first-party video games are higher. Aside from money time is also a valuable resource. With my money and time do not I deserve to play something fun? Yes, you do. If this game is just so hard, should it be reflected in the score? No, it shouldn’t.
At the risk of maybe alienating the huge market of casual gamers that are hungry for the next greatest gaming experience I truly do respect Housemarque for sticking to their guns and creating something special. I would recommend a full-price purchase for this game however I also must insist that those interested make an informed decision on what they are walking into. If I could describe to you how this experience was for me, it would be like the docking scene in Interstellar. A lot of times it felt like it’s not possible but it’s necessary and you better believe I had my finger down on the trigger dodging and weaving my way around a boss attack screaming at the TV screen “Come on TARS!” like a madman. As much as it frustrated me, I fucking loved every single minute of it.