Returnal is punishingly hard, and I can’t get enough | Review

Housemarque have built a name for their prowess in developing high-octane arcade titles. It’s been their bread and butter for ages. Upon the announcement that the studio would be deviating slightly for their latest game, Returnal, all eyes were on what that project would look like. My curiosity was certainly piqued by Returnal long before starting on this review.

So, what is Returnal? For starters, it’s an amalgamation of interesting components, all blended seamlessly into one package. It’s part Alien, part metroidvania, and two parts roguelike. However, Returnal has that distinctive flavor that sets Housemarque apart from virtually every other developer. Their latest title never shies away from the studio’s roots of arcadey gameplay delivered at breakneck speeds.

Returnal is a prime example of a studio showing bold ambition, taking on a project that is out of their wheelhouse to delight players. It’s a robust game with deep sci-fi influences that delivers a unique story, all shrouded in mystery. The game boasts incredibly difficult gameplay and combat with its roguelike mechanics.

Depending on the experience players are craving, the game’s blistering difficulty can be a turn-off for some. Returnal masterfully dangles a risk-reward system that entices you to make daring choices along your journey. With its permadeath system and Groundhog Day loop, progression can feel like it is slightly out of reach. Though, no matter how battered I felt in my attempts to progress, Returnal had me constantly coming back for more – I would review what went wrong, and then hop right back in.

Housemarque’s game uses PlayStation 5’s suite of bells and whistles. It’s a benchmark for what studios can do to add that extra layer of immersion, thanks to the DualSense controller and 3D Pulse headset. Housemarque’s latest outing is definitively a next-gen experience thanks to its visuals, loading speeds, and uses of the hardware’s innovations.

Alone on Atropos

When you think of great sci-fi fiction, a common element is the theme of isolation. Returnal beautifully captures that feeling. Our protagonist, Selene, is an ASTRA space pilot scouting an alien planet known as Atropos, in search of a mysterious broadcast signal dubbed White Shadow. Selene later crash-lands on the planet.

Image credit: Housemarque

Atropos is an eerie location to investigate. Nearly everything Selene comes in contact with is hostile and tries to harm her. Within the opening minutes, Selene begins to uncover lost relics of the planet, and its various alien threats.

Atropos is atmospheric from top to bottom. In total, the game takes you through six unique biomes, ranging from a rainy jungle setting, through citadel ruins, to snowy landscapes and a desert. Many backdrops feel inspired or plucked straight from the mind of Ridley Scott. Housemarque shows a clear understanding of the sci-fi genre and incorporates its own spin on it. This includes the great visuals and particle effects used when Selene fast-travels from one point of a biome to the next.

Unraveling a layered narrative

It’s not long until Selene finds the dead body of an ASTRA pilot. It’s quickly revealed that the pilot is none other than Selene herself. This then introduces the core gameplay loop of Returnal. Like many roguelikes, Returnal features a permadeath system. Any time Selene is killed, she awakens in the past, mere moments after her ship crashed. While other games in this genre pose a permadeath system simply for the sake of gameplay, Returnal’s loop ties directly into its story.

The permadeath system in Returnal strips much of the hard-earned progress away from players as they reawaken. Upon starting each new loop, the layout of Atropos’ biomes shifts thanks to the randomly generated maps.

It’s a slow crawl to learn exactly why this is happening to Selene, and what hidden secrets this planet may have. However, as I progressed, I began finding Scout Audio Logs left by other versions of Selene. These add new layers to the story and pierce the veil of the mysteries.

Selene, by nature, is a very academic and investigative individual. Stumbling across Xenoglyphs and projections, players can begin piecing together the puzzles of Atropos. Throughout the game, Selene will come across a peculiar house. The tone and perspective shift into a P.T.-like sequence with an unsettling atmosphere. Sci-fi fans will likely adore the progressive unravelling of Returnal’s narrative.

Armed for the challenge

Players familiar with Housemarque’s Resogun and Alien Nation will likely have a rough idea of what to expect from Returnal. The fast bullet-hell gameplay requires concentration and quick reflexes. Selene has access to a sidearm pistol upon the start of each loop. However, you can quickly find other weapons. Each gun has a standard shot with its own cooldown.

Taking advantage of the DualSense controller, weapons have distinctive responses when used. Using L1 halfway, Selene will be able to pull up the gun’s crosshair. Using the tension of the adaptive triggers, pulling L1 all the way down will activate the gun’s  Alt-Fire for massive damage output. The more enemies you kill with a weapon, the higher the efficiency.

Image credit: Housemarque

The biomes of Atropos also provide consumables and buffs to pick up. Again, most items collected during a loop will be lost upon death. The notable exceptions are tools acquired after beating the game’s bosses. Eventually, I was able to unlock items like the grappling hook, used to access new areas in each biome in classic metroidvania fashion.

Balancing risk with reward

Returnal features a risk-reward system. Many of the buffs at players’ disposal – referred to as Artifacts – can provide positive and negative effects. These Artifacts can affect anything, improving cooldown speeds, damage ratings and so on, but they came with a cost. Acquiring these items will put a  Malignancy on Selene, with random negative effects. Penalties can range from not being able to pick up new weapons to incurring higher cooldowns on your dash, to name a few. To get rid of a Malignancy, you must complete a small challenge. Parasites, which latch onto Selene, provide similar effects. However, they provide permanent effects until they are removed.

Due to the randomness of Returnal, I never knew what I’d encounter on the next run. At one point, I went on an incredible run with useful perks and strong weapons. Then the very next run I found myself sweating just to survive. There’s no assurance that the next area I entered would have what I need. More challenging areas are marked on the map and provide better rewards, with the trade-off of a hectic battle.

Live, die, repeat

On Atropos, enemies attack swiftly and hard. There are various enemies in each biome with different attack patterns. Although the it moves away from traditional twin-stick shooters, Returnal’s combat still has that Housemarque touch to it. I found myself frantically jumping and dashing through enemy attacks.

In a way, Returnal feels very rhythmic. It’s a satisfying feeling to walk out of an area unscathed. However, as smooth and as satisfying Returnal’s combat feels, there are moments when the game starts to drop frames. I noticed on occasion that when the screen is filled with enemies, the performance does dip.

Image credit: Housemarque

Returnal is a difficult game. Period. Unlike many games that boast high difficulty, there are ways to grind, level up, and obtain stronger weapons. In Returnal, you’ll be starting each loop from scratch, and hoping you come across the right items. This reality will likely be a detractor for some players. With no difficulty settings or dedicated ways to feel powerful, Returnal can be an intimidating experience.

That said, nothing in Returnal feels unfair. The difficulty, while high, is balanced by the risk-reward system it lays out. Even when I made a mistake and lost 30 minutes of progress, I always wanted to go back and try again. Returnal’s gameplay loop is so fun, that frustrations dissipate each time Selene wakes up again.

The game leads you to believe that it should be played at breakneck speeds. Though, I found most of my success when I slowed myself down and took my time to clear each area out. Even when facing bosses, it’s best to approach them in a calm manner. Learn the patterns, and experiment with what works and what doesn’t. The game inherently wanted me to succeed. It all came down to finding my own pace.

A true next-gen experience

As any review would tell you, Returnal uses the PlayStation 5 hardware to great effect. Being an exclusive title for the console, Housemarque was able to dedicate systems that take advantage of the innovations of the console and accessories.

Loading times are almost seamless. Upon dying, the game effectively hides loading with a shot scene of Selene’s crash. Fast travel is almost instantaneous. For how small the studio is, having the ambition and drive to deliver a AAA caliber experience is something to commend.

Image credit: Housemarque

Aside from performance, a real highlight of playing Returnal is how it integrates the DualSense’s features. When talking about the PlayStation 5, the question of how developers will use the new controller always pops up. Returnal takes full advantage of the adaptive triggers.

Above all else, it’s the haptic feedback that shines. When walking through the rain, the haptic subtly responds to the drops hitting Selene. The response was so minute, that I didn’t realize it was happening until I put my controller on my coffee table and heard the rumble. Once it dawned on me that this was happening, I couldn’t get over the small but meaningful level of immersion this feature provides.

Sony’s PULSE 3D headset also provides another dimension to Returnal. When using the headset, you can pinpoint surrounding enemies from 360 degrees thanks to the 3D audio. It may seem like a simple feature, but it elevates the sound design of the game.

Final thoughts

Returnal may be the first sleeper hit of 2021. The procedural planet of Atropos sets the stage for a slow, yet rewarding narrative. Being a fan of Mass Effect, Halo, and other games rooted in sci-fi, I believe Returnal is up there purely for its storytelling.

On top of that, the satisfying gameplay loop continued to pull me back in time and time again. Regardless of how miserably I failed in any given loop, I was enticed to shake it off and run back in, hopeful that I’d come across a strong set of items and weapons off the jump. Even if I felt like my back was against the wall, I enjoyed the frenetic combat and smooth movement throughout.

In case you didn’t get that from my review, Returnal is an early frontrunner for Game of the Year. The underlying hurdle will undoubtedly be its intimidating difficulty. It’s important to stress that there is a learning curve in Returnal. Learning which items are most beneficial, and memorizing enemy attack patterns is all a part of the process. Those willing to take on the challenge will be rewarded with one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences seen on next-gen systems.

Returnal is available on April 30, exclusively for PlayStation 5.

A copy of Returnal was provided by PlayStation Canada for review purposes.

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Steve Vegvari

Steve is based in Toronto, Ontario. His adoration for everything gaming began very early on in the SNES-era. He’s gone on to write honest content around the web. While not writing about games, Steve is often looking for the next big narrative-driven title. Something with an impactful story, regardless of genre or platform. Bonus points if it has an appealing achievement/trophy list!
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