Before we start this Returnal review, I feel it’s important to highlight my relationship with games of its ilk. For the most part Returnal is a Roguelite, a genre I’ve never been particularly fond of. To that end Returnal bares the distinction of being one of several games (the other being Resident Evil 7) in making me actually enjoy it despite not liking the genre.
That being said, just a glimpse of the game’s trailer will show fast paced combat, creepy space horror and a lot of dying, which are things I’m a fan of. The final result of Returnal is an interesting blend of what happens when you don’t necessarily design a game with mass market in mind- a total net positive for fans of what the game is, rather than what it should be.
If The Space Jockey Were A Whole Game
You play as Selene, an astronaut who crash lands on the planet Atropos. When you get there, you quickly find your own corpse, before being violently murdered by the local fauna. You then wake up, having crash landed on the planet again, realizing you’re trapped in a loop. Except it’s not quite a loop, since the map seems to change every cycle.
While many Roguelites work their cycles into their story, Returnal is probably the only one I’ve seen that supports it with a horror element. Selene discovers that there’s a precursor race on the planet that all seemingly went through the same thing, finding corpses everywhere as well as remnants of their technology.
I absolutely love how alien these precursors are, too. As a result of its setting Returnal pretty much feels like the Space Jockey scene from Alien, but turned into a game. Some of the structures you encounter are pretty Geiger-esque too, so it’s really hard to think that that wasn’t the inspiration.
On top of that you can find Selene’s own voice logs, scattered across the planet with stories from other cycles. They’re generally given out of order due to the nature of the randomization, and it just really makes you feel trapped on the planet.
I really like how the game doesn’t spend any time having Selene angst about all the cycles. For the most part the game is her just trying to get off the planet, and she spends very little time whining about how many times she’s done this. I feel like it would have been very tempting to have her go on a diatribe about the pain of constantly coming back from the dead, but the result of having not done this is really appreciated.
Rise of the Hyper-Shooter
Story aside, Returnal is definitely up there for some of the best gameplay I’ve ever seen. Unlike many Roguelites who adopt a 2D or isometric perspective, Returnal adopts a third person over-the-shoulder look. Unlike the majority of third person shooters though, Returnal doesn’t abide by the holy creed of hugging knee-high walls and hiding from the game’s enemies.
Instead, it gives you an amazing dash with good range and invulnerability, as well as a variety of systems to promote a more aggressive playstyle. Enemies fire shots in patterns that you can easily dodge or jump over, and your dash cooldown is short enough that each battle becomes a really aggressive fight of getting the most advantageous spot to blow the brains out of some alien fauna.
My one gripe here is that early in a run, your guns are definitely not doing enough damage to kill a lot of the enemies. Considering the game does actually seem to scale a little with your progress it would have been nice if they did something similar for enemy health. The game has a Proficiency system, where raising the level of your proficiency guarantees a better minimum loot quality. I kinda wish they’d used this as the basis for enemy health too, because it does take away from the frenetic combat when the whole swarm of bat-enemies just refuse to die.
The Answer Is Knife Crime
That being said, once you unlock the game’s melee attack, this problem does tend to disappear. The melee is laughably the best attack in the game, having a wide arc and insane damage. It also has forward momentum, so you can use it to artificially extend your dash and just eviscerate swarms of enemies.
Considering you get it pretty early in the game, I feel like it pretty much renders my point about gun damage moot. After all, you have to play *really* aggressive to utilize the melee properly, so there’s probably some intentional design going on to make hanging back and shooting feel like dirt.
The other gimmick I wanted to highlight in this Returnal review is the game’s Adrenaline system. The game rewards you for successive kills without getting hit with stacks of buffs, and takes them away if you get hit. These tend to vary in quality from Enhanced Vision to enhanced melee attacks, to straight up just getting more money per kill.
To reiterate, not getting hit can be pretty hard if you try to play the game safe. The basic enemy swarms you with projectiles and if you’re just running backwards trying to get shots in, you’re going to eventually trip up and lose everything you’ve built up.
Meanwhile, charging towards the enemy with nothing but the intent to commit knife crime in your heart tends to work out way better, and you’ll notice just how quickly you can get to max adrenaline as you time your dodges through the bullet hell and score some big wins.
Further pushing the hyper-shooter agenda is the fact that Returnal doesn’t have an ammo count. Guns have unlimited ammo, but you’ll need to let them cool down once they’re spent. The game has a quick reload system similar to Battlefront, which the game calls Overloading. This immediately brings back your gun, along with extra rounds so you can keep blasting before needing to do it all over again.
Guns guns guns
So aside from your god-tier melee attack, Returnal has a pretty solid selection of guns. Guns can have multiple upgrades that you get by getting kills with them. These unlock permanently, adding to the pool of randomly generated features every time you discover a gun.
On top of each gun’s regular traits, they can also have an alt-fire, which for some cases might be the only way you do damage with them. It kinda sucks that all guns seem to draw from the same pool of alt-fires, since it really does pull back the curtain a little too much on how everything in the game is just stat tables rolled together.
The guns are pretty great, for the most part. I feel like the Pistol is one of the weakest entries in the game, though, since it’s relatively slow and not high on damage either. Eventually it comes to a point that you’d even turn down a higher-level pistol just for the sake of not having to use the pistol.
That being said guns are absolutely necessary, since the game requires you to have a balanced toolset to handle all your problems. Smaller enemies are pretty agile, so the opportunity to slice them up is actually on the rarer end. It leads to the combat being this very mecha-esque dance of peppering your opponent with shots from a distance, before getting in close to finish them off with a big melee attack. It feels great, and definitely makes the resets more bearable since the combat is such a delight.
Returnal’s runs are actually pretty fun, though confined to a lot of the usual pitfalls of the Roguelite genre. Unlike the more intense rogue-like, Returnal does have hard progress points, meaning that sometimes you can throw enough corpses at a problem to find a solution.
There’s also a variety of modifiers you can get to change your gameplay experience. Artifacts can change the rules of the game, giving you abilities like a free respawn or boosting your maximum health. Meanwhile there’s also the game’s parasites, which give you 50-50 splits of one bad trait and one good one. Getting good sets of these can be really fun, but admittedly they can be pretty disheartening when you eventually die and lose all of it.
That’s not a point against the game, though, them’s the rules of the roguelite. The game also has Consumables, which are single-use abilities you can deploy. I feel like these are arguably the worst of the game’s items, since they run the gamut of quality from pretty great to basically garbage. The best example of this is an item that doesn’t heal you, but temporarily raises the quality of any healing you might get. The idea that I’d be in a situation where I’m a) low on health b) with healing items nearby and c) have chosen this item instead of any other consumable is pretty rare, and you’re really just better off taking anything else.
As I mentioned earlier the dying can be extremely soul-crushing, so don’t be surprised if the game ends up just not being for you because you hate the idea of starting back from scratch. The soul damage hits extra hard when you realize that even the map layout is randomized, so unless you’re ready to do a *lot* of runs until you start seeing every combination, even the Souls mentality of corpse running is going to feel like its futile.
I think it’s important to note in this review that Returnal is easily one of my favorite games on the PS5 right now. Like Destruction All Stars and Demon’s Souls, the game has great PS5 integration, using the game’s haptic feedback to mimic a human pulse while having the adaptive triggers mean the difference between aiming down sights and activating your alt fire.
On top of all that though, Returnal is just a really good game. It does enough new with the Roguelite formula by having the new sub-genres attached to it, creating a really unique feeling game. Despite being a horror game, the focus on hyper aggressive combat makes you feel like the game is letting you take the experience you want from it, rather than being forced down the logical train of “Horror means scared, scared means defensive gameplay”.
It’s also keeping up this weirdly refreshing trend that Sony has been doing for their first-party games, where they invest in good, niche games a la Demon’s Souls instead of only going for mass-appeal hits. Returnal is blatantly not for everyone- but people who are seeking out a fun, frenetic and frustrating time will definitely find themselves pleased.
Returnal Review copy provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment
- Amazing fast-placed gameplay
- Looks great
- Creepy atmosphere
- Bad loot is laughably bad
Worth dying over and over