Returnal Review – In My Restless Dreams, I See That House…
ReturnalApril 30th, 2021
Housemarque is a team that I've long considered pioneers of twin-stick shooters and sidescrolling action games for the PlayStation family of consoles for as long as I can remember. When I heard that they were revealing a proper third-person shooter, I was immediately intrigued. As more and more information came out about their upcoming project, including the addition of All You Need Is Kill-esque time loops, my demand couldn't be understated. Over the past week, all I can think about is Returnal and how much Housemarque has delivered on their promises to create something exceptionally unique for the PlayStation 5.
Returnal centers around Selene Vassos, a space-faring scout sent out from Astra to explore an alien planet called Atropos. Shot down just before making contact with the planet, Selene finds herself stranded on this alien world with next to no chance of survival. What Selene soon discovers is that death is merely a minor setback in her adventures in this alien world; each death sends her back to the moment of the crash with only her wits and pistol in hand. Selene is fully aware, as is the player, of how many loops she's undertaken and how fruitless or rewarding previous loops have been. Only by pressing onwards and conquering through three distinctly different levels in each loop can Selene find peace and unravel the mysteries that lay beneath the surface of Atropos. Selene's story is told through two distinct arcs, one set of three levels that lead up to her discovering the secret of White Shadow and another three levels afterward that follow a different path. These two arcs are different from one another (consider the second half to be a higher level variant, as Selene begins each run at level 15 proficiency) but can be explored independently once a key component is restored on her crashed ship.
Each run of Returnal begins from the very beginning with only a pistol, Ether that hasn't been cashed in, and the few permanent traversal upgrades that Selene has earned. Various unlocks persist between runs but these consist of expanding the loot pool with artifacts and consumables and the skills you've unlocked for each weapon. The weapons themselves will still roll with random modifiers but only the skills that you've learned will be available to use; the skills yet to be unlocked can be learned simply by killing enough enemies with them.
The artifacts that Selene picks up can drastically change her playstyle as it offers up a chance to customize her strengths in profound ways. Among some of the best artifacts, Selene can pick up are the artifacts unlocked by each time she ventures into the abandoned house in the first and fourth biomes. The Astronaut figurine and Child's Watch each offer the unique ability to resurrect Selene on the spot with full health, a perk you'll certainly need in the second half given how little damage Selene can sustain before dying in many combat encounters. To further augment her abilities, Selene can fuse with up to five Parasites at a time. Each parasite confers both a positive and negative effect, with the positive effects usually outweighing enough the negatives. Any time that I came across a Parasite that would offer up a 25% chance not to use up a consumable like a health vial, I would always take it no matter the negative perk.
Not everything that Selene picks up is healthy for consumption. Sometimes the life as a time-looping astronaut requires the use of mildly contaminated materials. Items marked with a hint of malignancy are hinted with a bright purple hue as if to ward off any curious explorers. Picking up a Malignant item has a chance of afflicting Selene with a malfunction. These malfunctions are similar to the side effects of a Parasite, albeit without lasting forever. Each negative malfunction comes with specific criteria necessary to purge them from Selene's system. Many of the negative malfunctions offer misfortunes that give Selene troublesome side effects that range from preventing her from Overloading her weapon to taking damage from falls or using keys. Unlike the Parasites that offer positive effects in kind, it's in the player's best interest to purge Selene of malfunctions before she acquires three or more, triggering a Critical malfunction. When a Critical malfunction occurs, an upgrade is lost including a random artifact and health-boosting resin.
Returnal wouldn't be as memorable of a roguelike if the action didn't live up to Housemarque's pedigree. Billed as a third-person shooter slash roguelike, Selene's journey into the depths of Atropos is marked with curtains of bullet fire to evade through. Fans of recent bullet hell titles will feel right at home navigating through the delicate patterns of incoming gunfire and those dozens of hours I spent playing through NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… prepared me for the spatial awareness to know when to jump, dash, and slash my way through differing enemy attacks. Each enemy in Returnal has its own attack patterns and tendencies, leading to some very unfavorable situations if you try to rush an encounter and simply shoot everything in your way without taking a moment to compose yourself and control the flow of combat. The enemies and turrets that fire laser beams that track onto Selene's presence are often the most dangerous foes to contend with first, followed by the self-destructing autonomous drones that crash themselves in her direction once at critical health. In the first set of three biomes, Selene is given enough protection to survive upwards of a dozen hits but in later stages, be prepared to only survive a number half as large.
The gunplay to Returnal is where Housemarque's action shines as some of the very best on PlayStation 5. Each of the ten guns that Selene can pick up during her journey (despite all futuristic advances, Selene can only carry one at a time) controls in different ways and is suited to a different playstyle. If getting up close and personal is your playstyle, the Spitmaw Blaster fits the role of combat shotgun nicely; a Slug Shot upgrade gives the Spitmaw some range, otherwise you're limited to standard shotgun rules of engagement. For those that like faster machine gun types, Returnal offers up two different styles of assault rifles.
My personal favorite weapon in all of Returnal was the Dreadbound, a boomerang-style shard launcher that shoots out three or four piercing shards at a time. The major downside to this is that Selene has to wait for the shard to complete a round trip back to her gun in order to be fired again. With no reload mechanics, if you're smart at aiming your shots right, the shards will immediately return to Selene upon striking their target only to get immediately fired again. For closer range encounters where you can follow your target, Selene can fire the weapon indefinitely and burn down enemy health bars in mere seconds. Miss your target and you're left standing helpless for seconds at a time while waiting for the shards to return back to your weapon. For boss fights that take place across larger arenas, it's often best to drop the Dreadbound and pick up the starter pistol that's conveniently placed outside most boss arenas.
Built around being a frantic third-person shooter, the controls to Returnal are as approachable as any third-person shooter, only with the added twist of dying in just a few hits before you can properly get your bearings together. Selene can run and shoot independently with the two analog sticks, swap and use consumables on the fly, and jump or initiate a short invulnerable dash to navigate through curtains of enemy bullets. Later on, the player can acquire a grappling hook and other utility abilities that can be worked into combat to help Selene stay alive. Each of Returnal's ten weapons uses the adaptive triggers to feel like a unique weapon but the real implementation of these triggers is a feature that I didn't initially like first (Returnal also offers a Classic control scheme that maps aim and alt-fire to separate buttons without the use of adaptive triggers).
While Selene can simply point and shoot at an enemy, pulling down the left trigger partway to the first stop engages a zoomed-in aiming mode. Pulling the trigger all the way switches each weapon into its alternate fire mode which varies from gun to gun and takes quite a long time to recharge. In my mind, I would've preferred to swap the zoom and alt-fire functions around because I'm known to squeezing the triggers in the heat of the moment and wasting a stocked secondary fire charge. While your fingers aren't gripping the controller in white knuckle stress, take a moment to enjoy the subtle vibrations that Housemarque has worked into the DualSense controller. From the ambient desert noise to the gentle fall of raindrops in the forest biomes, the DualSense speaker and rumble work together in harmony to create a sensory treat that helps to take the edge off of mortal combat.
Returnal is nothing short of a feast for all of your senses if you count the aroma and taste of sweaty palms (I wouldn't actually advise licking your DualSense controller as you play). The 3D audio that Housemarque has implemented in Returnal is in full effect once you start playing with headphones on. There's a sense of spatial awareness that gives the player superpowers to evade enemy bullet fire even from enemies located well off-screen. Even when fully immersed in the challenges I could see, being able to hear and discern what enemies were located just outside of my field of view was almost an unfair advantage. But when everything on Atropos is out for your head, any help you can get might save a life.
In the (un)likely event that Selene perishes before reaching her goal, that isn't the end of her cycle. Bodies left behind to wither and rot on the surface of Atropos can find their way into other player's games, offering a grim reminder of failed runs. Consider the stacked corpses of Selenes that couldn't reach their goal an analog to Dark Souls' bloodstains with the caveat that you can scavenge or avenge the corpse left behind. Avenging a corpse typically leads to summoning in a high leveled enemy that can kill Selene in a few hits, so these aren't worth chasing down until you are confident in the early onset of your character build. Scavenging, on the other hand, gives you some instant loot at the cost of a few pieces of Ether. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was playing through my own session of Returnal when I received a popup that another reviewer had scavenged my corpse, affecting me with a Parasite in my own game. These corpses simply stopped appearing midway through the game, either due to the online connection servers not being live or me simply surpassing every other reviewer to seek out Returnal's ending by review time, so I couldn't check and see what avenging a corpse does for either player.
Each time you die, something that will be a frequent occurrence no matter how deep you are into Selene's journey, leads to a series of briefly fragmented cutscenes that flash before the players' eyes to signal the beginning of a new loop in Returnal. Little by little, the story is pieced together between these cutscenes and repeated trips to visit the Old House. Over time, the story has its hooks deep enough into the players that are eager enough to solve the mystery of these death loops that getting them out will take a significant amount of care to the story.
The intrigue that Housemarque builds up comes to a crescendo in the second half but fails to deliver on that promise in the final act. Returnal answers some questions the player may have with explicitly directed cutscenes that lay out the basic framework of the story they're wishing to tell, but like a massive MC Escher jigsaw puzzle that's missing half the pieces, what you're left to work with to fill out the greater story at play leaves much to be desired. Some of the greatest reveals to Returnal's story were ones I felt smart enough to piece together myself early on, only to have their grand reveal shoved directly in my face hours later after a half dozen or so failed attempts to make it to the final biome. Even then, I was still left with a great number of questions about Selene's connection to Atropos and White Shadow that I didn't feel were adequately explored, even in the cyclical nature of Returnal's storytelling.
Save for an ending that crashes nearly as hard as Helios' entry onto Atropos, Returnal checks all of the marks for what a best-in-class roguelike should aim for: a gameplay loop that rewards the player for innovation and mastery, loot that can synergize to create some unstoppable character builds, and most importantly, weapons that simply feel right in the player's hands. Without a doubt, Returnal is one of the finest PlayStation 5 exclusives available in 2021 and those that are eager for the next great challenge can find plenty to look forward to with Selene's first steps onto the alien planet again and again.
Review code provided by the publisher.
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Barring a sci-fi horror tale that doesn't quite nail the slow building reveal, Housemarque has absolutely succeeded with their fusion of third-person shooting and roguelike elements in Returnal, one of my personal favorite PlayStation 5 titles so far.
- Third person shooting, roguelike loop, and enough combat depth to have the two systems overlap without friction
- Dozens of artifacts and parasites to give Selene a fighting chance
- Excellent implementation of all DualSense features
- Each map is randomly generated but filled with handcrafted maps and combat arenas
- A good Dreadbound build is my favorite playstyle in all of Returnal
- Each complete run lasts up to an hour and a half
- Being struck by unseen enemies and losing half your life is a common occurrence
- Half the weapon roster either underpowered or utterly useless for long range encounters
- Story falls apart and fails to answer Selene's greatest mysteries in the second half, leaving it up to the player to interpret her fate
- Getting your corpse scavenged and taking a negative ailment in an otherwise perfect run isn't cool
- Many lore pieces relegated to audio logs and alien scripture tucked away across randomly generated stages
- Occasional dips below 60 FPS during firefights with high explosion counts
- Malignancy effects are rampant in Act Two with nearly 50% of every item drop covered in negative effects