Review: Returnal

What would it be like to play a bullet-hell roguelike in third-person, with heavy Metroid Prime vibes, but also a bit of Dark Souls? That's what Housemarque wondered when she made Returnal for the Playstation 5.

Returnal is a brand new Playstation 5 exclusive from the makers of Resogun, Matterfall and Alienation. All very popular, color explosive and gameplay catchy titles. They are easy to pick up, offer a challenge for a long period of time and play away wonderfully. It's one of those games where you think: I'll try it one more time. I went so well! Housemarque 's latest creation, Returnal, fits nicely into that alley, but kicks it all just a few notches higher.

Welcome to Returnal

We put ourselves in the shoes of Selene. She crashes her ship, Helios, on an unknown planet called Astropos. There are very strange things going on on this planet because she is stuck. There is no way to escape, not even through death. She keeps coming back, but every time she comes back everything is just a little bit different. How is it possible? Who does this? How do I get out of here? These are questions that Selene and the player will ask themselves while playing. You have to look for the answers to these questions in the 6 different vegetation zones on Astropos. These are basically your themed levels. You follow this chronologically based on the common thread that runs through the story. Along this common thread you make sideways to learn more about the world, the inhabitants and basically everything you see and encounter along the way.

Astropos is richly filled with knowledge and story. Despite the world around you looking slightly different every time, Housemarque succeeds very well in making this place seem fascinating. It's not just a randomly generated sequence of spaces and monsters. Basically yes, but it doesn't feel that way. It fits the story that Returnal tells, and it fits everything that the game shows and lets you experience while playing. It also fits very well with the mysterious setting that prevails in this game.

With many games in this genre you often resign yourself to the fact that the randomly generated spaces are an ingredient in those kinds of games. Otherwise it won't work. In Returnal, everything melts together in such a way that it seems very natural, interesting and logical, rather than fitting to the genre of the game.

You are not welcome here

Astropos has many dangers. Every new area has more and new dangers. You are absolutely not loved on this planet. All forms of life you come across are targeting you. Despite you keep returning, the life forms on this planet love nothing more than to cut you down again. Fortunately, there are several tools available to counter these dangers.

Weapons with different types of fire modes, special tools to reach new areas, parasites and useful items. This is mainly what you have to do. And the best part of all is: When you die, you lose almost everything. Except for special items like a grappling hook. These are essential, but you only unlock them after some time in the game. From this point on, you'll never lose it again, and it even comes in handy in earlier segments that you'll have to replay anyway.

Something you will do very often in Returnal, is return to your crashed ship, at the very beginning of the first level. Your gun is gone and you suddenly have your old hand gun again. All your useful items are gone, your total health is reset and you have to redo almost everything.

Returnal is difficult and unforgiving. Resources are scarce, punishments are severe. You are all alone in Astropos and even the little things that help you often come with a caveat. Despite this, the game is horribly gruesome, addictive (not in a bad way) and has exactly the same "I'll try it one more time" energy as previous Housemarque titles.

That again. Try again.

With almost all of your progress cleared, you start a new cycle in Returnal. This is the loop around which the gameplay revolves and where the story is built. Your ultimate goal is to break this never-ending loop. "Break the Cycle". And that's pretty difficult. Think of it a bit like a Dark Souls shooter, but every time you die you start over at Firelink Shrine, with your starting weapon and again at Soul Level 1. All that's left from your previous session are all the shortcuts and records bosses. That's Returnal.

You have to go through all the areas you just crossed again to get back to the point where you fell last time. Only, the world has changed. So completely memorizing certain battles in certain areas isn't going to save you. You have to constantly adapt to the game and its rules. Not yours. Fortunately, you don't have to redo the bosses of your completed level and you'll find the passage to the next level a lot faster if you've seen it before. Sometimes you'll even find gates that let you skip past areas. Convenient, but it comes with a price.

Since almost all of your progress is tied to one particular cycle, and each area gets exponentially harder, you'll miss out on a lot of potential weapon upgrades and other upgrades to make the next area a little more enjoyable. What do you choose?

Returnal on Playstation 5

The feeling that Returnal gives is very nicely enhanced by the Playstation 5. The DualSense support in this game is perhaps better than Astro's Playroom. Depending on how you use the triggers, you fire your weapon in a certain mode. You feel impact in the controller, even from the raindrops. You just have to experience it for yourself to really understand. How the hell do you explain a sense if you can't see, smell or feel it yourself? DualSense doesn't make sense until you've played Returnal.

Verdict

Returnal is spicy. Very spicy, but very fatty. You want to keep trying and you always get a little further than before. You get a feel for the weapons, special powers, the enemies and the environments. Besides this immersion in the gripping gameplay and DualSense features, the game is also quite interesting. The mysterious Metroid vibe really drags you through your twentieth playthrough of the first forest to learn about the story and the strange things going on on Astropos.

If I have to mention something less positive it is that the first few areas after hours of playing start to feel very repetitive. It becomes necessary to look for upgrades to continue where you left off before, but this actually applies to all games within the roguelike genre. Fortunately, Returnal tries here with its clever amalgamation of all the aforementioned elements to pull you through these ultimately less interesting pieces. And so far it has worked out pretty well.

 

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