Playing Returnal is like getting a deep tissue back massage: it mostly feels nice, you’re improved by the end of it, and sometimes it hurts. You play as Selene, a deep space scout who’s been following a broadcast signal ominously called “White Shadow”. After crash landing on Atropos – a planet filled with aggressive automatons, dangerous fauna, and more tentacles than a weeb’s hard drive – she happens upon audio recordings created by another version of herself. The planet is also littered with her dead bodies, which is a bit of a red flag, and a version of the 20th-century house she grew up in is inexplicably plonked deep in the woods. Every time she dies, she’s back at her crashed ship and forced to press on through the jungles, deserts, and ruins of Atropos once more.
It’s a great setup for a roguelite game, giving a solid narrative justification for your constant deaths and rebirths. Even in failure, the story is breadcrumbed throughout just enough to keep you invested. The layout of the biomes constantly shifts, and you might find an audio recording where there wasn’t one before, or a new cipher that allows you to translate another part of an alien glyph. It has mystery and intrigue in spades. It’s just a shame the game gets in the way, like a novel where every page has a comedy boxing glove that pops out and bops you on the nose.
The second biome’s boss is a complete nightmare. It probably took me about eight attempts, but that’s without factoring in all the times I tried to reach it and died on the way. While you unlock slight shortcuts, you have to manually run to the boss from the very start of the game each time. Yes, you can skip over the first boss, but you have to fight through a dark forest full of spindly nightmares before trekking through an arid desert baked down under the heat of a red sun, battling floating tentacle monsters as you go. You can sprint there and ignore combat, but then you’ll miss out on health upgrades, weapons, and other buffs that could be beneficial when you eventually get another shot at the boss. If you turn up with a pistol, you probably won’t have much of a chance. Oh, and all your equipment resets when you die. Eventually, I did it because of luck – I had a buff that auto-healed me when my health was low, which gave me just enough survivability to take a couple of free hits in the boss’s third phase. I also had a good assault rifle that I found by accident along the way.
This is a hardcore game, and I’m not saying that just because I am, unfortunately, a game journalist. I know that automatically makes people think I’m just crap, but Returnal is harder than a right hook from Mike Tyson in his prime. It’s harder than a rocket-propelled diamond. It’s harder than simply existing during pandemic times. It’s hard. I also don’t think it’s particularly fair. The random nature of equipment drops means you’re often at the mercy of RNG. I didn’t beat that boss because I figured it out, I beat it because I happened to have the right equipment. The RNG can screw you just as easily. In the final biome, there are floating orbs that you must shoot to produce platforms that allow you to cross deep chasms. Sometimes you have to do this while surrounded by enemies on all sides. Some weapons have a short effective range, some have gravity drop off, and it makes them awkward to hit. It’s times like this when I wish Housemarque at least let you carry two different weapons at a time, rather than forcing you to run and gun with one. It’d only make the game feel more tactical and less luck-based if you could.
As well as picking up weapons with randomised stats, there are parasites you can attach to your suit to give you a simultaneous buff and debuff. For example, you might have a parasite that converts currency from killed monsters into health, but that same parasite might also cause picking up items to damage you. Some of the debuffs – for example, reduced damage output when standing still – are there to gently force you to play the game properly, and some are just there to ruin your day. On top of these, some items and chests are filled with malignancy, meaning interacting with them can cause a debuff that lasts until you complete a side objective – get X melee kills, open a chest, pick up a parasite, etc – but some of them, like picking up a parasite, are also at the mercy of RNG. If you’re near the boss, you won’t find a parasite before you take it on. Tough luck. You either need to fight the boss with the debuff active or backtrack, and god knows there’s enough of that already. Also, the UI looks criminal when you’re full of debuffs. Criminal, I say. It’s busier than Primark when lockdown restrictions lift. The harshness of the debuffs also has the knock-on effect of making you play cautiously when it comes to choosing what containers you open or items you pick up.
As for permanent unlocks, you get the odd upgrade, such as extra weapon traits that you can find on weapons you pick up or more items populating the loot pool, but most of it is imperceptible.
The thing that saves Returnal is how good it feels. Housemarque is best known for its frantic shmups, and Returnal is no different – it’s a shmup on legs, a bullet hell third-person roguelite that fills the screen with projectiles and asks you to dodge, jump, run, swing, and never stop shooting while you’re doing it. Oh, and there’s also a Gears of War-style active reload system, so you need to time a trigger pull to stop your weapons from overheating while you’re doing all that moving and aiming. And don’t forget that alt-fire!
“Bullet hell, shmup, roguelite” – it’s a lot of video game terminology isn’t it? If you don’t know what those niche genre definitions mean, I’d bet this game probably isn’t for you. If you do manage to click with it, however, there’s something intoxicating about Returnal’s high-speed, high-stakes combat. It’s the video game equivalent of riding a unicycle over a canyon while juggling balls and balancing a pin on the end of your nose. I didn’t feel like a master by the time the credits rolled, but I can inelegantly make it across the canyon now. Dashing towards a turret and taking advantage of generous invincibility-frames before jumping at the last moment and cutting the turret down with a laser sword never gets old. It’s just a shame the constant trekking does, even with Returnal’s metroidvania-esque navigational upgrades peppered along the game’s progression curve.
One thing that takes the sting out of the repetition is how gorgeous and varied it is. The first biome’s dark forest is filled with bioluminescent flora and long grass that blows around in the heat of battle. Get closer to the heart of the long-dead xeno civilization and you will see synthetic materials mixed with organic – metal bones jutting out of mud walls because of some otherworldly construction method and the ravages of time. In combat, pillars and statues crumble into dust as red-hot death whizzes and crackles through the air. There are mummified monuments and spinal cord flora, flying manta rays and hungry tendrils drooping down – so much to see from the initial forest to frozen tundras, all the way to the abyssal deep.
I also love the story sections where you get to explore your childhood home in first-person. These moments happen after you reach certain milestones, and each one is brilliant – almost like a little taste of what PT promised with its horror game demo set in a looping corridor. You walk the hall and rooms of the house and interact with objects while doors creak open, TVs flash on, and a creepy contemporary astronaut stalks your every move. I won’t give it away, but there’s also a really cool narrative touch after the third biome, too. While it’s not quite as elegant as Hades at drip-feeding you morsels of story (the story eventually just stops happening if you hit a wall and stay there too long), it’s still one of the best examples of how to do storytelling in a game where constantly dying is part of the journey.
At its core, Returnal is one of the most satisfying third-person shooters I’ve played – it’s Hades via Vanquish. It forces you to meet it at its tempo and doesn’t relent. It makes Doom Eternal seem like Baby’s First Shooter. It’s gorgeous, frenetic, and endlessly replayable. I just wish success wasn’t so tied to luck, which only exacerbates any frustrations you have when repeatedly trekking through areas you’ve already beaten. Even after the credits rolled, I felt satisfied, but that satisfaction was also mixed with relief – the ordeal was finally over and the chiropractor’s elbow has been removed from the small of my back.
A review copy was provided by Sony.
Next: How Housemarque Made Selene, Returnal’s Lone Heroine
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Kirk is the Editor-in-Chief at TheGamer. He likes Arkane games a little too much.
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