Returnal Review

It’s hard to believe, but true – gaming is still in its infancy. Or at least it’s teenage years. Sometime over the last decade, a brand-new genre dubbed “Roguelike” has emerged, and new release (and PlayStation 5 exclusive) Returnal falls under this label. And it could be loved or loathed, depending on personal taste and preferences. It’s also a genre foreign to many mainstream gamers. Sure, independent titles such as Hades and The Binding of Isaac have racked up consumer and industry awards, but it’s still fresh enough to where passionate gamers such as me have never gotten around to playing one. Housemarque (known for more minor, arcadey PlayStation exclusives like Super Stardust HD and Resogun) feel it’s time to popularize the style, but can something so hardcore find broad appeal?

The answer is yes and no, but with specifics remaining unearthed following whatever data comes from this AAA experiment.

For those unaware of what Roguelike means: once you die, you respawn back at the beginning. Of course, individual development studios have their variations, but here in Returnal, failing results in starting over with only plot-centric items/abilities remaining in your possession (a nifty melee sword, a grappling hook for traversal, etc.). Further disorienting the player, the environments, battles, and item locations are randomized. To be fair, that’s highly fitting since Returnal also doubles as third-person survival horror.

Ignoring orders from her superiors and inexplicably being drawn to a broadcast labeled “White Shadow,” space explorer Seline crash lands her vessel Helios (a name crucial to understanding the story) on fictional planet Atropos. She finds herself in a calm forest pulsating with bright colors radiating from alien lifeforms, and these early moments show off the PlayStation 5 ray tracing capabilities, demonstrating arguably the most impressive lighting in a game to date. But there is also a profoundly haunting and existential vibe. Soon, Seline comes across her own dead body, and she quickly realizes she is stuck in a time loop.

Returnal‘s goal then becomes to reach that mysterious broadcast at any cost. Scattered throughout the randomly generated locales are audio logs that speak to a combination of things; the mental state of Seline alongside some traumatic backstory, her descent into madness from repeating the time loop, and assessments from alien lifeforms who also clearly went mad while seeking something from a higher being. Spookily, there’s also a 20th century home that can be returned to and explored upon making critical game progress. This is also where the brunt of the mystery is uncovered. Yes, that means if you do rush to the ending, you will finish Returnal, but it’s likely to not make any sense.

With that in mind, player repetition is rewarded. Whether or not the average gamer will put up with repeating sections over and over (with alterations) to both dig more into the story and hone their skills is a coin flip. Admittedly, Returnal is not my kind of game, as I’ve never been the type to enjoy punishing difficulty for the sake of bragging rights. Value should never be defined by length or time consumption, so the genre by default is going to be off-putting toward many casual gamers.

Here’s what tips the scale in favor of Returnal: it’s an exhilarating gameplay experience through each cycle. The third-person shooter mechanics are tossed into a blender with the studio’s knack for bullet-hell insanity (think of your character as a spaceship trying to dodge hundreds of asteroids simultaneously soaring your way), with moves such as thruster dashing, quicktime reloads that grants additional ammunition, alternative modes of fire for each weapon (the haptic feedback on the controller comes into play here with the L2 aim function operating differently depending on how deep it’s held down), and a boatload of artifacts, parasites, and unique (sometimes dangerous) item drops that offer a combination of positive and negative side effects. It’s reasonable to say that fortuitous luck of the draw with randomly generated upgrades could make the game significantly easier for the most inexperienced gamers should they continue to plug away. Grinding weapon experience upgrades and currency to purchase revival items upon death is also encouraged.

The bosses are also massive monstrosities broken up into three endurance testing phases. Returnal draws inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus when it comes to enemies and setting – there are even collectible xenoglyphs that will teach Seline how to read an ancient language scribbled on various walls, further fleshing out the lore. The bosses feel ripped straight from H.P. Lovecraft. One of the biomes players explore sees Seline lowered into an underwater abyss, which has a sickly designed surprise at the bottom. Other areas, such as a dusty Citadel, seem to be looking towards Roger Deakins’ cinematography on Blade Runner 2049 for visual creativity. 

But there is one huge issue: there is no way to save your game mid-run. Technically, the game is broken up into two halves, so there is one checkpoint, but one is still looking at hours per run. There are options to skip over defeated bosses on subsequent runs and great shortcuts, but the lack of a saving functionality takes this experience from challenge to disrespecting players’ time. It also could be an insurmountable hurdle for someone that just wants to play for the story. Housemarque has acknowledged the lack of saving, so something may indeed come of this; I hope they don’t enjoy being gatekeepers and instead make the time sink slightly more accessible. It would be simple to program a save file to self-destruct upon loading one time, maintaining the high stakes of a roguelike while respecting the player’s time.

The story of the game, even after watching videos diving into more delicate details, it’s ambiguous and unclear. However, there are affecting themes of resentment, obsession, neglect, passion, and family all wrapped up into a horrifying nightmare on repeat. Ramping up that terror is an astronaut figure stalking Seline that sometimes manifests into a towering mini-boss resembling a Bioshock Big Daddy. The narrative could be better paced, but the bullet-hell mayhem should satiate that craving in-between doses of story. Visually, it’s the first PlayStation 5 title that feels like a new generation of gaming, so that alone should put this game on the radar of anyone who owns the new system.

Trepidation is fine for genre newcomers, but if you want to dip your toes into a roguelike game, Returnal is a good start that will scratch the edge for addictively fast-paced and tense gameplay and thoughtful storytelling. If it’s already your jam, prepare to live, die, smash controller, repeat.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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