If you are familiar with Housemarque’s previous titles, you’ll know they have made some awesome arcade titles. With the likes of Resogun, Super Stardust HD and Matterfall garnering high praise and additive gameplay. Now, they step into the rougelike genre with Returnal.
Step Into A New World
Returnal is a third person shooter, that sees you crash on a mysterious planet called Atropos. Stranded, you head out to explore your surroundings, finding the world filled with deadly creatures. Environments are dark and eerie, with a blanket of fog covering the floor. Ancient architecture reminds me of the Alien franchise, as standing columns, doors and rooms echo Prometheus or the planet LV-426. Ambient melodies from the soundtrack are inquisitive, yet tension filling. The strange world is rife interest.
Soon, you’ll find a weapon, take on some enemies and learn the basics to survive. Just as you are settling in, you will die and respawn at your ship. This is where you learn the planet has you locked into a constant loop. As you begin again, the world has reformed around you. This is only a hint to the dark and twisted story of Returnal.
Live, Die, Repeat
Like many rougelikes, when you die, you lose certain progress and begin from your ship. However, Returnal adds elements of MetroidVania games, as you will find certain equipment that give permanent traits. These include a melee attack that will smash enemy shields, grappling-hook to reach new locations on the map or a key to unlock a mysterious house. More on that later.
The minute-to-minute gamplay will have you explore an area, be attacked by huge, yet stunningly crafted enemies and survive onto the next area. The areas are procedually generated and contain beautiful scenes. Beams of ray traced light shine through cracks of walls, while a dusting of fog, snow or dust cover certain landscapes. Vegetation blows in the wind and there is also some destructibility, with pillars crumbling when taking gunfire. Projectiles glistens in the distance, as the lasers, bullets and enemy attacks illuminate the world up close. Particles cascade from fallen enemies and when you meet the bosses of the game, the screen becomes a barrage of rhythmic energy pules and bullet hell.
The game runs at a fairly tight 60 FPS and at 4K. For the most part, this is solid, but did notice some stutter at times of hectic battle. But overall, Returnal is truly stunning on PlayStation 5. It is one of the best looking titles to use Unreal Engine 4. The SSD allows for quick transitioning between portals, as there are no loading scenes between gameplay.
It expertly uses the DualSense for immersive sensations. It will buzz gently in the rain, as it quakes under heavy fire. Element of the sound will eminent from the speaker, as you collect items and the haptic triggers allow the alt-fire technique to be utilised brilliantly. The best game to showcase the controller, since Astro’s Playroom.
As you start your new run, you will find a number of non-permanent tools to help you survive. Weapons include high-powered riffle, gut punching shotguns and pylon energy weapons, which can be found dotted around the map, in locked chests or drop after killing stronger enemies. Each gun has an alt-fire, which takes time to charge. Press L2 to aim and when it’s ready to fire, hold L2 down to engage. Weapons also have random attributes, with damage, firerate and type of shot varying across similar guns. You can only carry one weapon at a time, so choose wisely. An active reload system can also help you reload faster. Activate it at the wrong time and your gun takes a couple of seconds to reload.
There are also a number of character altering items that litter the world. One use items like health pack, shields or adrenaline boosts, are mapped to L1. Useful to get you out of trouble and are found. Your movement is also important to surviving any encounter. Thankfully, this is a dream. A handy dash move can swiftly move you out of the way, while also allowing you to pass through some laser attacks.
Returnal has a dense risk and reward system, as some items cause more harm than good. Parasites are power-ups, that give the player a positive and negative effect. For example, one parasite may give you a health boost for your run,. The trade-off may see you lose health, when picking up items or add a longer cooldown to your melee attack. These are coupled with malignant items, which are corrupted items that may work as normal or cause your suit to malfunction. Sometimes, it is worth the chance to use these when found.
Collectibles, known as artifacts, boost your vitals. While you can upgrade your health by finding resin and health drops. Keeping high health, allows you to extend your lifebar. Finally, an item called ether, can transfer from run to run. This will allow you
There are six areas, known as biomes, in total to explore and they are split into two sets. Each set will see a run begin at your ship and the biomes have a familiar feel between sets. They will range from hazy ancient ruins, Mars-like red deserts, snow covered plateaus and water infused areas. Later in the game, you will have the opportunity to switch to a certain set, but this is only unlocked after act 2 of the story.
I won’t spoil anything major from the story, but there are aspects of physiological horror sprinkled into first person sections of exploring your ship and mysterious dwelling. As you explore the first biome, you will come across a house. This is seemingly your childhood home, which feels chilling when entering. A vision of a strange astronaut haunts your dreams, with giant tentacle monsters shadowing you at times. You will revisit the house several times, each adding more story and even more questions.
The story is drip fed through logs you pick up in the levels, reaching certain world events and of course, dying. These snippets are tangled webs of intrigue, that kept my interest throughout. Haunting memories may shed light into why you are experiencing this endless looping nightmare.
I truly loved my time with Returnal. To hit the credits you are looking at between 20-30 hours, depending on skill. But, Returnal has many mysterious to discover after the credits. You’ll easily stick the same amount, trying to get every last bit of information about the strange spaceman, find every scout log and discover every secret of Atropos.
Housemarque are masters of their craft, as Returnal is another finely crafted piece created by the talented devs. It feels like a natural evolution from previous games, which mixes their vast knowledge of arcade shooters, with classic rougelike elements. The game isn’t easy and can fell frustrating to some. Random weapon and items drops can make runs hard. While getting close to a new section, only to be wiped out, can bring your hour-long run to an abrupt end. But I found myself having one more go and unknowingly played for another few hours.
There are some daily challenges to play through, which are unlocked after completing the first biome. While nothing revolutionary, it adds some added replayability. Compete for the best score, as points are awards for discovering rooms, picking up items and defeating enemies. You can access these challenges in your ship.
Returnal is available for PlayStation 5 from April 30th. Developed by Housemarque, it is published by PlayStation.
Will you be checking out this bullet hell, rougelike shooter when it releases?
On the surface, Returnal is a tough arcade shooter. But, with time and knowledge of the games mechanics, this is a deep and addictive title. While some runs can be a breeze, the relentless nature of enemies can stop you dead in your tracks. I found myself returning for one more go, just to find that extra log or perfect weapon. Returnal is fantastic and I'll easily jumping back in for more runs.