Returnal Review (PS5)
Having played video games for well over 30 years, some experiences stick in mind more than others. Some you can play through and put down and move on to the next thing. Some games become habit-forming and become part of a routine like Fortnite or Warzone. And then there is Returnal a game that has stuck with me so much that I literally had nightmares about it last night after playing. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Returnal is a third-person shooter video game featuring roguelike elements and covering the psychological horror genre. Set in a futuristic science fiction setting, the player controls Selene (Anne Beyer), a space pilot, equipped with a suit and armed with high-tech weapons, who is stranded on the alien planet Atropos, and stuck in a time loop. After every death, Selene is resurrected, following a pattern of traversing across foreign environments and combating extraterrestrial entities with growing visions in an ever-changing world. Selene is in search of a source of a mysterious signal and must traverse the various biomes on her quest. Along the way, you will discover audio logs left by your former selves to help piece together the narrative that Housemarque brilliantly wove throughout this experience, something I honestly never expected to get in a roguelike. While there isn’t a diverse cast of characters like in Hades to help along with the story and breath some life into the world in Returnal, Selene is a very complex character and almost acts (by nature of the game) as multiple people because of her multiple existences on this planet. The world is lush and diverse as you go through the biomes with a multitude of types of enemies and landscapes to traverse through, very much in the same spirit of a Metroid Prime or Dead Space, the world is cold but alive at the same time. Selene is a troubled character as you discover throughout the games, haunted by visions of home, the past, and a mysterious astronaut (retro-inspired) nothing like her equipment in-game.
As you expect in most roguelikes, when you die, you are returned to the start. In this case, you return to Selene’s ship the Helios. Where you wake up again ready to loop through, this is where the game gets punishing. Unlike Hades which allows you to upgrade and pick your weapons and some buffs…..as Willy Wonka so famously said in Charlie and The Chocolate factory….”You get NOTHING, Good day sir!” You start with your base handgun again, base-level health, and no artifacts or perks. There is one resource that remains until you use it called Ether, which is used to either clone yourself at certain stations (if you are lucky enough to find one and have enough) or is used to clear malignant items to keep them from damaging you. That’s right….it’s not just the enemies out to get you, certain items and chests are basically corrupted and will damage you or cause suit malfunctions when opened. (Things like, -30% melee attack until you pick up three keys) and such. Almost every decision you make in Returnal comes with a cost/benefit analysis you need to think about. Sure if I pick up this parasite it’s easier for me to gain currency but I will lose -10% of my weapon proficiency. So you really need to weigh in with what you think you will need later and what you can afford to do now with every decision you make.
The weapon variety and combat are great, it’s a punishing blend of bullet hell and horde mode in many instances with attacks coming at you from virtually every angle. It’s a beautiful display of chaos reminiscent of Resogun for sure. The weapon variety is pretty deep as well from Handguns to shotguns, to rocket launchers there is something for every play style and scenario…the issue is finding the weapon you like best. You might be having a great run and just never come across what you want. That is the loop with the planet Atropos, things are never the same. The path you took last time may not even exist this time. You may hit a crossroads and have the option of three different ways to go…it’s easy, but fun to get lost and explore. You may find some great rewards in the process. You will be required to carefully time your attacks, dodges, and jumps if you hope to make it out of each scenario alive. Some enemies shoot at you basic, some will fly and crash into you, later in the game you have suicide bombers, laser beams, it’s a heart-pounding encounter each time.
One of the more horror aspects of the game is the mysterious house you catch glimpses of. Hidden in the first biome you can encounter what is clearly a version of Selene’s house and go inside if you have found the key. This is where you get much more of her story vs the planet presented to you in a very P.T.-like first-person journey in this house. You are only given small snippets as you complete each biome will grant you another opportunity to enter the house and get a little more story. I will remain spoiler-free here, but this is a VERY engaging experience that I wish there was a little more too.
The haptic feedback use in this game is very cool as well. From truly feeling each bullet leave your gun, to getting hit to even raindrops hitting Selene each you can feel through your controller in an awesome use to make the game feel more immersive. 3D audio is also heavily featured for those who are using Sonys headset, as you truly get a remarkable surround sound feel while playing. Since enemies don’t just attack you from one side or angle, you can hear the predator-like snarls coming from the direction they are in. Very helpful when you are in the thick of it in combat.
Visually the game is absolutely stunning running in 4k with 60FPs it truly feels next-gen. Partner that with the controller and headphones capabilities and for the first time this new generation on any console did something truly feel NEXT GEN in every sense. There is a day one patch advertised but I didn’t have really any issues in my over 40 hours so far in the game, the runs can be very long so fair warning, some of mine were almost two hours in, and there is no real way to save your progress mid-run. I only had one glitch that stopped me mid-run, so I feel very comfortable recommending this one to folks.
All in all, this is a superb example of things we should expect to see from this generation of gaming. Returnal perfectly blends the “One more run” mentality of a roguelike with some excellent storytelling we’ve come to expect from Sony games, all while being a technical and sound marvel at the same time. So much to the point, I had nightmares last night where I would repeatedly die in very “Final Destination” like methods in my day-to-day life only to return and start all over again. So kudos on Housemarque for that one….I guess.