When I reviewed Control back in 2019, I came out of that experience feeling positive about the future of third-person action shooters that break the cover-shooter mould made popular by games such as Gears of War and the Uncharted series.
Housemarque, for me, has always been console innovators, taking advantage of PlayStation hardware. With titles such as Superstar Dust HD on the PlayStation 3, which delivered impressive 3D eye-popping immersion. To newer releases such as Resogun and its equally intense voxel-based assault on the senses.
Flashforward to 2021 and Housemarque is once again under the limelight, this time with their ambitious story focused third-person roguelike shooter, Returnal. Returnal, aside from being a roguelike shooter, is Housemarque’s most ambitious title to date, taking full advantage of PlayStation 5’s rendering horsepower and super-fast SSD. Unlike previous games under Housemarque’s belt, which were arcade-inspired bite-sized shoot-em-ups, Returnal ups the ante in its presentation and storytelling, both through worldbuilding and exposition. In Returnal, players’ assume the role of Selene, a seemingly well-established astronaut scout who crash lands on a mysterious planet known as Atropos. Unlike other titles within the genre, Returnal uses its roguelike approach to gameplay within the narrative of the game itself, that being, Selene is stuck in a time loop.
Forced to wake at the crash site of her ship, Helios, after every failed attempt, the player must guide Selene deeper into the hostile alien-filled planet of Atropos. Returnal’s actual game-world is made up of six distinct biomes that all feature unique layouts that randomly shift upon each cycle or attempt.
The first couple of hours in Returnal will feel tough and unfamiliar, compounded by items that often do more harm than good. Thankfully, these early hours can be considered to be nothing more than growing pains. Once accustomed to what certain rooms offer and how to utilize the monkey-paw esque approach to consumables, players should be able to find what works best for them in terms of securing passage ahead. Graciously, HouseMarque has made certain unlocks in Returnal permanent, such as weapons that will get added to the pool of drops once acquired for the first time. Additionally, vanquishing the end-boss of an area once, will be all it takes to permanently open the doors to one of the six biomes present in the game.
Integrity, Proficiency and Adrenaline, in addition to repair efficiency, weapon damage and alt-fire metrics, make up the bulk of your stats that are integral to survival in Returnal. Integrity acts as your health points and can be augmented to 200% efficiency by successfully stacking green restorative items found strewn about the game world. Artefacts and other curios which can be either found or crafted can also augment your integrity level. Finally, parasites which can be found in Xenomorph inspired egg chambers (and sometimes in other rooms) act as symbiotic powerups that often grant boons such as higher integrity and weapon proficiency while also infecting the player with a debilitating side effect. These include but are not limited to taking fall damage or not being able to switch weapons while harboring a parasite. Parasites can be stacked, with some even removing the ill effects of others.
The back and forth, risk and reward elements weave themselves into every gameplay facet of Returnal, not just the parasites. Item pickups and doors can often be malignant, which can cause suit malfunctions, which like parasites, usually mean some form of handicap placed on the player. Unlike parasites, however, malfunctions typically come with instructions on removing them, such as getting X amount of kills or picking up X amount of something to negate the adverse effects.
In-game currency includes Obolites and Ether. Obolites being the most common can be found by slaying enemies and are hidden in the environment, acting as the primary currency. In contrast, Ether, a substantially rarer item, acts as a special form of currency used to purchase expensive but often valuable boons such as the ability to respawn.
Both malignant items, unique weapon perks and boons granted by Ether and Obolites help make each run feel unique while balancing out the steep difficulty curb in Returnal. Finding how you want to augment Selene in ways that best caters to your own playstyle feels rewarding, while the randomness of not knowing what lies ahead adds to the overall risk and reward gamble that permeates each cycle.
Selene can only wield a single weapon. However, certain abilities such as the melee and the grapple shot ability are permanent once found. New weapons can be found in chests and sometimes as rare enemy drops. Weapon proficiency can be upgraded and augmented by finding certain artefacts of your past self. Additionally, proficiency can be altered by parasites and Xeno-structures that randomly have a chance of spawning in a room which in essence act as vending machines for Selene to use.
Weapons range from your typical sidearm to more exotic alien-fair, such as a three-pronged shotgun and an acid-laden burst gun that would make a Queen Xenomorph blush. Each weapon also features a powerful secondary shot that must be charged after each use and should be reserved for dealing damage to tougher enemies or quick crowd control situations. A sword can also be unlocked early on that, despite its risky nature, can one-shot a good number of enemies in the game.
Finally, Adrenaline affects the drop rate of Obolites by enemies, which max out at level 5, doubling the rewards from fallen hostiles, resetting upon getting hit (think of it as a combo bonus). Certain parasites can also give additional boons that further sweeten the pot in regards to Adrenaline fueled rewards.
Consumable abilities and items that can be carried by Selene fill out the remaining roster of items, including green Silphium canisters that act as health packs, Adrenaline shots that instantly set Adrenaline levels to max, amongst many more that augment the moment-to-moment gameplay of Returnal. Additional item slots can be unlocked by progressing further into newer biomes which ultimately can mean the difference between life and another cycle.
Initially, Returnal may feel overwhelming with its many different mechanics at play. Still, Housemarque manages to eloquently balance these elements in a way that feels organic and digestible, even to those like me who typically do not enjoy roguelike titles.
In terms of technical achievements, Returnal is an impressive feat of software engineering that takes full advantage of the PlayStation 5 —delivering what appears to be a dynamic 4k picture with raytracing that brings the neon-soaked life forms and Xeno structures to life in the otherwise dreary and overwhelming oppressive world of Returnal.
Art direction in the game feels wholly inspired by sci-fi staples such as H.R. Giger, H. P. Lovecraft and even Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński’s hellscapes make an appearance in some of the later biomes found within Returnal. Amazingly, all of the above seems to run at a very steady 60FPS, something that is paramount in a game in which a split-second delay in a reaction can result in an untimely death.
Parallels to other games can also be seen reflected in Returnal’s aesthetics. Specifically, the sprawling world of Metroid Prime and the tough-as-nails randomly generated chalice dungeon of Bloodborne come to mind when playing Returnal.
Sound design, both in the delivery of its 3D audio capabilities, help give a well-established sense of place. While the Dualsense controller, which convincingly employs haptics, particularly when collecting Obolites, standing in the rain or firing off shots with one of the many guns Selene has at her disposable, all lend in creating a better sense of immersion that feel just as well polished as the gameplay itself.
If I had to nitpick any issues, I had with Returnal, it would be in its protagonist. While enjoyable enough to keep me engaged, I never particularly cared for Selene’s plight, perhaps due to the cryptic nature of how story beats are delivered in Returnal, or maybe due to Selene being the only human character (for the most part) present in the game. I never cared for her character beyond wanting to unravel the core mystery of the plot. Overall, however, Housemarque has done an admirable job in crafting a game that evokes that signature particle-effect filled arcade experience with new story elements never-before-seen by the studio.