Rogue-likes might be incredibly popular among a certain group of players who love to torture themselves as they crawl and scrape for every piece of progress, but they’ve rarely made the jump to triple-A, typically being the domain of smaller developers. Housemarque has changed that with Returnal, a game that combines their experience in bullet-hell arcade games with the classic rogue-like experience of dying again and again and again. Throw in gorgeous graphics, a whole bunch of systems and a story that could make a Christopher Nolan movie seem straightforward, and you have the ingredients for a rather interesting Playstation 5 exclusive. But is it worth spending £70 on?
You’re Selene, a scout under the command of ASTRA who winds up crash landing on an alien planet known as Atropos. The ship, Helios, is totally destroyed and so you’re alone on a hostile world that constantly changes, the various “rooms” that make up its levels always shifted and altering. It isn’t long before you discover that you’re trapped in some sort of time loop, each death at the hands of the numerous tentacled alien lifeforms triggering your reincarnation right back at the point of the crash, sort of like the excellent sci-fi movie Edge of Time. That isn’t all, because you soon start finding the corpses of past Selenes, their audio logs providing glimpses into their experiences on this hellish death-planet. Only a few things within the journey are constants: the crash site, the bosses you’ll fight, and Selene’s old house which someone keeps appearing. What the hell is going on? Why is the strange White Shadow signal? Why is this time loop occurring?
The pieces of Selene’s strange story are scattered across the six biomes that make up Returnal’s infinite loop of life and death. You have to work hard to uncover the narrative which is told to you in disjointed flashbacks, strange sequences and audio recordings from other Selene’s that died in their attempts to escape. Returnal deals heavily in the trauma of Selene’s past, occasionally going from psychological thriller to mild psychological horror. Although the game is steeped in classic sci-fi nonsense, it’s ultimately a very human story about regret, mistakes and the sins of those who have come before. What it is not, is a game that makes its story clear to you, and instead leaves a lot of the work up to the player.
Be prepared to spend heaps of time making very little progress in that story, though. As a rogue-like, Returnal is more than happy to watch you die dozens of times, but while other rogue-like games such as Hades dole out plenty of story elements even as you fail, Returnal hordes its snippets of plot like a sadistic squirrel. There are long slogs throughout the game where you don’t get even a hint of story progression.
The loop of death and rebirth is core to what Returnal is, so be prepared to die potentially hundreds of times. It’s like Groundhog Day, or it would be if Bill Murray had beem a space scientist with a pistol and was being hunted by aliens covered in tentacles. Okay, so maybe nothing like Groundhog Day. Each time you die you wake back up at the crash site and set out again, but the world has shifted, moving around so that you’re never certain what you’ll run into next. All you do know is that you’re glad the PS5’s SSD is so damn fast because otherwise, you’d have to stare at loading screens a lot.
Housemarque are known for their bullet-hell style games and for Returnal they aimed to bring that style into the triple-A space. A difficult task for sure, but one they’ve greatly succeeded at. The roving beasties you face and hopefully dispatch unleash walls of deadly orbs, expanding laser rings and barrages of other projectiles at you, all while they leap around, fly through the air and divebomb you. It’s like being trapped inside a firework show aimed directly at your face, and yet despite the chaos that you frequently find on the screen it’s all easily parsed. The biggest thing, I think, is how well Returnal handles depth perception because with waves of brightly coloured balls of death coming toward your eyeballs it would have been so easy to mess this up and leave players angry as they struggle to judge gaps. But I always find it simple to gauge where spaces I could slip into were coming up, leaving only my actual skill and speed to get the job done.
Selene is lithe and agile enough to weave her way through just about anything. Not only can you sprint incredibly fast but you also have a pretty long jump, and access to a dash that makes you invincible, perfect for blitzing through an enemy assault. Simply put, Returnal feels excellent to play – it’s fast, responsive and smoother than the Rock’s shaved noggin after he’s covered it in baby oil. This is Housemarque’s years of experience at play, creating something that just feels really fucking good. It’s masterful, to be quite honest, and a benchmark for other games to be measured against
The small selection of boss fights are where Housemarque’s arcade and bullet hell roots are at their most obvious. These foes are multi-stage affairs that vomit forth projectiles and lasers and AOE attacks, drowning the screen in a tidal wave of death that must be weaved through, jumped over and dashed between. They’re a hell of a lot of fun, which is why it’s a shame there’s so few of them. They’re fast and frantic and constantly have you on the very edge of your seat.
The weapons you find are…kind of tame, considering the strange alien world, although there is potentially a narrative reason for that. You always start with Selene’s trusty pistol, but you can find equivalents for machine guns and rocket launchers and more on your adventures. Each can come with a bunch of perks that you need to unlock via the simple task of murdering stuff with that specific weapon. They all feel good to use, with a few of them being obviously better than anything else. The Pylon Driver, for instance, creates webs of electricity that dish out damage over time, and is hugely effective against just about everything.
There’s a wide variety of enemy types in Returnal, and many of them look like they’ve come out of a Hentai movie gone wrong (or right, depending on your taste, I suppose.) They’ll jump on you, dive at your head and spew a cacophony of brightly coloured death at you. I love that every enemy in the game remains completely deadly. Sure, they certainly do become easier to deal with as you grow accustomed to their attacks, but it’s still so easy to get obliterated by them if you lose focus for even a second. Even with some upgrades, Selene is a fragile thing incapable of taking much punishment before waking up at the start of another loop. I died at the hands (well, tentacles) of the early enemy types nearly as much as I do the later ones, even after a couple dozen hours of experience.
Although the fast sprint speed might tempt you to move quickly, the game actually rewards caution quite a bit thanks to its Adrenaline system. Provided you don’t get hit your Adrenaline meter builds up to a maximum of level 5 with each level unlocking a powerful ability. And so it’s better to focus on not taking damage, even if that means taking your finger off the trigger for a few seconds.
The other thing that rewards carefully advancing through biomes is how health works. If you’ve taken damage then health (known in the game as Integrity, for some damn reason) pickups do exactly what you’d expect, but if your health bar is already full then each pickup fills one of three slots and once all three are full you get an increase to your max health. If you can do well early in a run, you can potentially build up plenty of extra Integrity to help deal with later battles.
As a rogue-like, I think Returnal struggles, largely because it doesn’t give you much sense of progression. It certainly has the dying part down – you’re going to get decimated quite a bit on your quest. As you try to avoid all the existential dread of your imminent death and resurrection, Returnal dishes out a bunch of stuff like health pickups, weapons, artefacts that provide boons and so much more. Almost all of them disappear when you die, though. The only things that stick with you are the special upgrades that allow you to traverse new areas, your unlocked weapon traits and Ether, which can be spent to cleanse items of their Malignancy. More on that later.
Most rogue-likes tend to keep their runs short, maybe up to an hour at most so that players aren’t gradually driven insane by repeating the same actions again and again. While Returnal lets you open shortcuts so that you can skip entire biomes, each run can still take anywhere from a minute to several hours, with the latter being more likely. So when you die nearly two hours into your run it hurts like a metal bike pedal to the shin. Currently, there’s no save option outside of putting the PS5 into rest mode, which obviously means you can’t fire up another game without losing progress.
It can at times feel absolutely crushing. There’s going to be periods where you die and die and die, spending hours upon hours with nothing to show for the effort except for a headache and a strong urge to strangle the next human being you meet. Although that might not be because of the game, to be fair. You won’t have earned any story progression, you won’t have made any meaningful progress elsewhere because you spent your small pool of Ether trying to get through the last damn run.
A lot of the game does come down to raw skill. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some crazy people out there make it a mission to beat the whole of Returnal without any upgrades whatsoever. For the rest of us mere mortals, though, the game is a mixture of skill and a lot of luck as you hope to whatever Gods might be listening that Returnal grants you a good run. As much as it can be immensely annoying to rely so heavily on luck to provide decent guns or artefacts, it’s a core part of the rogue-like genre. However, I think when you start combining luck with the long run times and the fact that very little carries over, you end up with a rogue-like that can become…tedious. Returnal drags its feet for long periods and hopes that the sheer drive to beat the game will keep you playing. For many people, it will be, but I admit that for myself the allure of just playing other games nearly won out.
There’s a risk vs reward concept that underpins almost everything within Returnal. One of the more obvious examples is the Parasites that you can willingly let hitch a ride on you. These will provide some sort of buff but also come with a negative trait as well, giving you the choice of whether or not you think it’s worth it. But there are other things, too, such as the Malignant items which you can either cleanse using precious Ether or just pickup/open at the risk of developing a suit malfunction which can only be fixed by doing something like killing X amount of enemies. Then there Obolites, a currency you can spend at Fabricators to buy various items and upgrades. These appear when you kill an enemy but vanish quickly, so if you want to get as many of them as you can you need to ignore the cautious style I mentioned earlier and get up close and personal. Even the way you barrel into rooms has a risk vs reward concept; go in slow and steady and enemies will spawn slowly, but rush straight in and they’ll appear much faster. And then, of course, there’s the option to skip biomes which reduces the length of a run, but also means you won’t be able to forage for more health, artefacts and Obolites before you hit the harder areas.
Somewhere around the time of a big plot development and getting to the fifth biome, my desire to play Returnal began to plummet and I came very close to not finishing the game. This was for a number of reasons, so let me try to break it down and make some sense of it. But for now, let’s call it Groundhog Day fatigue.
When you first fire up Returnal it displays a message stating that it’s a deliberately difficult game, intended to challenge players. But I’d say it’s not actually that bad provided you’re willing to really focus on the action. The first boss only took me two attempts, while the second proved harder with multiple fights, and the third only took three tries. I died a decent number of times along the way, but never to any ludicrous degree. The fifth environment you stagger into in Returnal, though, is like being kicked in the bollox by someone wearing steel-toed work boots.
Ultimately, the fifth area became a perfect storm of disaster. Not only did the challenge ramp up but I had a series of bad runs with the RNG system. By this point, each run was taking anywhere from an hour to two hours and each failure was yielding no sense of progress, leaving them feeling like wasted chunks of my life. Simply put, I wasn’t having fun anymore, and because I wasn’t enjoying the experience my focus was slipping, causing me to die even more. I worry that this could happen to a lot of players, becoming victims of the game’s own systems, stuck in a very different loop of boredom and irritation.
I came damn close to turning off Returnal for good because playing it had become a slog, a chore that I found no enjoyment or satisfaction in. It wasn’t the only time; the game pivots at one point and essentially asks you to go through a bunch of stuff again, and I struggled with whether the game was enjoyable enough to bother. Ultimately, I’m glad I pushed through both times, but it’s still a horrible feeling to get when playing. I wonder if perhaps Returnal is too long, dragging out its story and progression in the name of making people feel like its £70 price tag is justified rather than being the length the game actually needs to be to work properly.
The lack of any way to save the game is part of the problem, although one I feel uncertain about bringing up because trying and trying and dying is a core part of rogue-likes, as is not having any way to save the game. However, because the runs in Returnal can be so long, the lack of any real option to save your progress becomes painful. The only choice is to leave the PS5 in Rest Mode, but that brings a bunch of problems of its own, including the fact you can’t fire up any other game.
I honestly don’t know if Housemarque needs to introduce a save system or not. I could potentially bring save scumming into the mix, but at the same time, it’s a bummer to spend a couple of hours playing only to have to step away and either lose progress or leave your PS5 on Rest Mode. So for now, I’m not going to render an opinion either way; just know that if you don’t have lots of uninterrupted spare time, the lack of a save function is something worth considering.
Once you get to the credits you’d be forgiven for believing that’s the end of the journey but Returnal hurls a curve-ball at your innocent little face and the story keeps on going for a while yet. By the time you reach the proper ending, there is a lot to digest and ponder. The game continues to be wildly vague and open to interpretation until the bitter end, never delivering a solid conclusion and instead letting players pick apart its corpse. It’s like a join the dots puzzle with hundreds of dots and only about 12 of them are numbered.
For me, vague narratives like this work when the writer/s manage to walk the tightrope of providing enough ambiguity for people to have to work to piece things together, but enough information that through enough thought and time they can feel like they’ve likely reached a solid conclusion. Maybe not a conclusion that exactly matches up with the writer’s intentions, but close enough that you can feel like you’ve got the general thrust of it.
Returnal doesn’t manage that, in my eyes. So intent is it on its mystery and lofty themes, it leaves things incredibly wide open. Thus even after many hours of deliberation, I don’t feel like I’ve drawn any solid conclusion and instead just have a bunch of varying theories, any of which could potentially be true. Looking around on Reddit and other websites, this seems to be the same experience most other people have had with the game. I’m somewhat confident I’ve got the very basic gist of what happened, but even now I keep thinking of other things that don’t quite fit with it and appear to support other theories.
Hell, at this stage I’m not even convinced that Housemarque knows what happened, and that’s a problem. Regardless of how I wind up piecing together the story, I want to feel like the author/s know exactly what happened. I didn’t get that feeling here, though I’m sure the writers do, of course, know exactly how the story goes.
However, I do realise a lot of people will probably enjoy this high level of ambiguity and will love debating with other players in the coming weeks. I personally would love it if Housemarque waited a while and then talked about the ending and what actually does happen so we could all see how close we were to the truth of the matter.
As one of the few proper PS5 exclusive games there’s a lot of expectation for Returnal in the graphical department. It may not be as stunning as the Demon’s Souls remake we were treated to, but Returnal is still a nice demonstration of what the latest console hardware can produce. The swirling mist on the forest floor, the alien ruins, the strange lifeforms – it all looks great. Sleek animation helps bring it all to life as well, especially when it comes to Selene who moves smoothly through the world.
Speaking of Selene, her voice actor, Jane Perry, has to carry most of the game on her shoulders and does so fantastically. While I’m not all that interested in Selene as a character, Perry does a great job with the script and manages to tinge her voice with a mixture of curiosity, fear, anxiety, excitement and dread. Selene can’t help but be both terrified and intrigued by the situation she is in, and Perry brings that out in every line.
The rest of the audio is equally impressive. The music mostly fades into the background, but the sound design is beautifully detailed, especially when you throw on some headphones or made use of the PS5’s own audio engine. The rumbling growls of enemies, the liquid sound of transporters, even the movements of Selene – it all sounds excellent.
Housemarque’s use of the Dualsense controller’s unique capabilities is exquisite. We’ve seen glimpses of what could be done in Astro’s Playroom, but Returnal feels like the first game outside of that tech demo to experiment with what the controller is capable of. The controller rumbles, grumbles, burbles and vibrates in all manner of pleasing (sexually or otherwise) ways that help connect you to the world, while the little speaker spits out heaps of sounds. For example, the alert to let you know your alternate fire is charged up and ready to fire pops out of the bottom of the Dualsense like a delightful little fart of joy, although if you have headphones on you’ll probably want to change the audio settings to disable the controller’s audio.
Speaking of the alternate fire, every gun has a secondary, special fire mode that is mapped to the left trigger, the very same one you use to aim. Housemarque do this by using the Dualsense’s adaptive triggers to create a two-stage trigger. Halfway down the trigger pull, there’s some meaty resistance. This is where you’re regular aim is. Pull through that resistance and you access the alternate fire mode. It’s a neat piece of design that felt almost instantly comfortable to me, and let Housemarque get extra use out of the controller.
Once again Sony strikes with another great exclusive. While Returnal certainly won’t be for everyone, Housemarque has brought themselves up into the triple-A space with something that feels like only they could have made. There are far better rogue-like games out there, but Returnal brings some other excellent elements into the equation like the smooth combat, the atmospheric world, the bullet-hell style mayhem and the mystifying story that will bewilder, enthral and annoy in equal measure.
With the Playstation 5 being so young and having so few exclusive games available, people who haven’t been able to get the console haven’t actually been missing out on much. But with Returnal that’s starting to change, and I can’t wait to see where we go from here.