Genre: Action, Roguelike, Horror
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Returnal is the next generation sci-fi based roguelike 3D person shooter from Housemarque that is exclusive to PS5. While this intro tries to summarise the game in a short sentence it doesn’t do this game the justice it deserves. The game thematically lies somewhere between sci-fi, mystery and some horror elements this is due to the Alien-esque nature of encounters with the enemies. The gameplay is a roguelike as you die a lot and lose the majority of your perks apart from a few permanent items as well. The game covers a lot of genres of game and themes too.
You are Selene who has crashed landed on Atropos (an alien planet) where you are searching for a broadcast signal and this is all you know and this is how the story is set up. From the initial frame, the impressive cinematics and the crash land help to set up the story and mystery of the game. Very little is given away which creates a level of intrigue and mystery, this is all set in the beautiful dark and wonderful of Atropos. The design and layout do give off Alien vibes throughout the game. As the game is a roguelike where you will die a lot, more story elements and your understanding of the world grows with every cycle (loop) of the game.
It’s difficult to pinpoint and place the game in one genre but the game has elements of Hades, a bullet hell shooter, Doom, Metroid Prime and the Hades comparison comes from the roguelike nature as well as some well-crafted storytelling wherein each cycle more is revealed. Doom in terms of the fast-paced shooter elements but 3rd person. The bullet hell feels of the enemies you encounter and just the manic nature of the enemies you encounter. There are lots of platforming elements too and an amount of discovery at each level.
The levels are procedurally generated so each run will have a varied gaming experience and a novel feel, also each run will have a slightly different difficulty level too depending on what power-ups are available.
The power-up system is varied due to various upgrades and collectable items. Straight-up power-ups that have a positive effect include weapon upgrades, health upgrades and efficiency upgrades. You can fabricate and make other upgrades too. Then you have malignant upgrades/power-ups that can have positive as well as negative effects, the negative effects can be removed by completing specific tasks or you may be lucky and avoid the negative malignant effect. The game has a multitude of effects and events that will vary each run and which can make the run easier or tougher as well. There is a huge emphasis on risk and reward throughout the choices you make. That’s why I’d also classify that the difficulty varies depending on your run, upgrades available and the procedural levels that are updated.
Each loop/cycle whereby you die and come back act as a learning and help to introduce into other devices in the game such as collectable items, upgrades and power-ups. It will take several deaths in the game before you start the whole power-up systems as well as the collectables available and their power. Every inevitable death allows you to progress further in the story but also allows you to start with more permanent power-ups. The game does a great job of walking you through each element and its potential effect. I enjoyed that you learned more and more things as you progressed.
The game starts in this dark rain-sodden forest where very little is known, the detailed environments add the dark atmospheric vibes. Even though the levels are procedurally generated there is a good mix of items to collect and platform elements amongst the all-out shooter action. The game uses some clever narrative technique including the use of 1st person view for story elements and that you pick up voice messages from yourself all over Atropos. You are primarily in 3rd person view which gives you a broad view of each area and heightens the gameplay elements. Each voice note adds a little more detail of what is going in the world and helps the drive.
The world reminds me a lot of the film Prometheus with a clear Alien vibe throughout the whole game. While I wouldn’t classify the game as a horror it does give that sense in large parts of the game as enemies spawn out of nothingness. Even though each level isn’t huge, the art style and level design give the game a huge sense of scale and the huge world that exists. The game melds level design, Alien themes and this dark atmospheric tone which gives the sense you are a small survivor in a huge vicious world.
A lush map that helps to guide you from level (“room”) to level provides a navigation mechanism and helps you to find upgrades and power-ups whilst giving a sense of direction. The map allows you to plot a path for gaining the most buffs and power-ups or you can bypass them and head more directly to a boss.
The dual sense and haptic feedback are integrated seamlessly into Returnal. Every feature of the dual sense has been considered in the design and gameplay elements. The first thing that hit was the haptic feedback, the gentle vibrations that mimic rain and the use of sound to further engross you into the world of Atropos. Dualsense gives feedback such as the ground you are treading on, rainfall and tremors from enemies. It’s all these little things that add to the whole sense of game immersion.
The L2 trigger serves as two buttons where pressing until halfway gives a zoomed fire whereas pushing past the tension point gives the L2 button an alternate fire. Again the haptic feedback provides a system whereby you feel more immersed in the game and these small but clever uses of the controller are enjoyable and make sense. The dual sense gives a real tactile feel to the game and what is going.
3D audio is the other buzzword and the game promotes amazing sound effects and soundtrack. I own just regular headphones but the world seems more alive when I play with headphones, I could hear every element of the world from the weather, enemies and my footsteps. The audio and soundtrack are superb.
The main game mode is the rogue-like one player shooter whereby you have to kill every enemy to reach a boss to progress to the next biome. There are two other modes available, online mode and challenges.
The online mode is more along the lines that you can avenge or take the gear of other fallen Selenes in your world, this is illustrated by a corpse of Selene that you will find with the Gamertag of the fallen Selene.
Challenges are like an arcade run where you have to achieve certain goals and you will be placed on a leaderboard to gain ultimate grabbing rights.
While I have only spent a few hours playing on the day 1 patch, the day 1 patch improves navigation and identifies exits to each room in the game. This improves the visual aids to the user which is noticeable in the first level. There are some texture improvements on both Selene and enemies you encounter too, the colours on the enemies are more vivid. The majority of the day 1 patches are extra visual polish on the game. The game does seem to run smoother however this is only a slight tweak and the difference isn’t massive compared to the 20 hours plus I played on the pre-day 1 patch version. Day 1 patch mainly is adding extra polish to a stunning game.
The game is quite challenging and can be unforgiving at times if I’m being honest, the learning curve is steep and I would classify the game as hard. It does become easier as you progress through every run and learn more about the powerups and shortcuts that are available. If you are used to bullet shooter or roguelike games, then you may find the difficulty level to your taste, the difficulty doesn’t detract from the experience but enhances the overall gameplay and longevity of the game.
I have to say from the first run through the game to my last run-through, I found myself in awe of different elements of the game. I was struck by the intro, the crash landing and just seeing this world, the cinematics is superb and it felt movie-like. The use of the dual sense and haptic feedback just made the whole experience more immersive, sound effects, and noises, while these may seem small, the whole Returnal experience was enhanced. The use of the story narrative where you piece a little bit more with each run adds a whole lot of mystery and intrigue. Finding voice messages from different versions of Selene dotted throughout the world makes the narrative even more powerful and a bit of mind bend. The gameplay has a mix of action, shooter and platformer with some puzzles thrown in for good measure. Big huge scary monsters are rendered and look amazing. The boss fights are big and epic. The game has lots of variety and requires several run-throughs before you gain a thorough understanding of all the gameplay mechanics and what is possible. It’s a game that has all the elements above but is great fun too, the pace is spot on, there is variety in how you play. The game is challenging, you will come back for more. Each game mechanic, each game design and each decision by developers all enhance the game and make it even more impactful. It’s a superb hell of a ride.
Enjoys more than the odd game, long time gamer, somewhat a technologist and everything else in between.
Also enjoys a good solid game of FIFA online. Currently PS4, XBOX 360 and STEAM.