Returnal Review: Housemarque keeps you returning to its compelling atmosphere, mysterious story, and innovative gameplay
Played On: PS5 (Original)
Arguably the first big game of the year, developer Housemarque gives PlayStation its first big PS5 exclusive of 2021 in the atmospheric and challenging rougelike Returnal.
Those that know Housemarque’s previous works well, games like Resogun and Nex Machina, know that they’re modern masters at creating arcade games with incredibly addicting gameplay loops. Returnal is no exception as it showcases the kind of top-tier gameplay chops that Housemarque is known for. However, Returnal is completely new territory for Housemarque and their efforts showcase them to be equally masters of storytelling and understanding the mechanics of the ever-growing rougelike genre.
Sheerly in terms scale and atmosphere, Returnal is Housemarque’s biggest game yet. The strange alien planet players land on is quite a marvel with the dark and mysterious world that’s presented. The world instantly gives off vibes of modern sci-fi horror films like Prometheus and there’s a Lovecraftian feel to the tentacle spewing hostiles players come across. Each biome has unique landscapes, color palette, and enemy designs that give the area its own feel and sense of progression. The transition from the first biome to the second is especially crazy given that you leave dark, green-tinted forest for the desolate orangish-red desert. Each environment is really like jumping into a dangerous new landscape because of this and the unique elements of them are elevated through the game’s excellent level and sound design.
The mysteriousness of Returnal doesn’t stop at its intriguing atmosphere as there’re story beats surrounding the lore of the planet and the haunting past of stranded astronaut Selene (voiced by Jane Perry). Returnal instantly piques your interest with the simple mysteries it presents from the start. What is this white shadow broadcast that Selene is following? Why is her childhood house suddenly here in the middle of this distant planet? Who is this ominous Apollo astronaut following her? What happened to this planet? More importantly, how can she escape this planet’s death loop that keeps her trapped there?
The way that these questions are answered builds this slow-burning mystery that Housemarque excellently tells. There’s an eerie chill that comes from Selene having to listen to the voice recordings of her past self to learn more about past discoveries she’s made. Every time you see the lights on at Selene’s house, you almost feel compelled to go in and end up gaining a greater understanding of Selene’s past as well as that creepy Apollo astronaut. I have to say that although I haven’t been able to roll credits yet because the sheer difficulty of the game has kept me stuck in the icy fifth biome, there’re some incredibly memorable and mind-blowing story moments for Selene. There’s an excellent false ending that’s super fitting with how cruel Selene’s situation is and every time I see that Apollo astronaut I just want to know more.
As for the story of the alien planet, it’s equally keeps your interest and unfolds in a very engaging way. Players will find glyphs on the walls that will help Selene understand the language of these aliens and uncover the meanings of certain slabs that flesh out the world a little more. There’re these images that players can find that Selene will decipher and give her own opinion on what happened to the original inhabitants of this planet. Players can even check out more on the aliens and locations they’ve come across through their databank. Housemarque really steps it up in the storytelling department with Returnal and creates a tantalizing mystery that keeps you on its hook through its truly difficult challenge.
Now, rougelikes are kind of a new trend in the gaming world that are growing evermore popular. Last year, Hades was a major top contender for game of the year awards and really introduced the subgenre to the wider gaming community – just like Returnal will. For me, this was my big introduction into rougelikes and its truly a world of its own. Essentially, they’re dungeon-crawlers that have players roam from room to room in search of better weapons, consumables, and upgrades in order to defeat bosses and waves of challenge enemies. However, there’s one major aspect that truly sets them apart and truly knocks the wind out of you – when you die, you start at the beginning again. No, not at beginning of the area or the beginning of a fight, the beginning of the entire game.
This is without a doubt what makes Returnal a tough game and as someone who has platinumed Bloodborne, it’s probably the hardest game I’ve ever played. Death in Returnal comes at a grave price as you lose the weapons you’ve been using, any consumables you’ve stored up, and any currency you’ve gained aside from Ether. Also, item, room, and enemy layouts are procedurally generated between different runs so no run is ever the same forcing players to adapt to survive. Don’t get me wrong, these elements are what make the rougelike subgenre unique and presents a different kind of challenge that I really liked. It’s crushing in a way that’s much more impactful than dying in other games and is fitting for Housemarque’s arcade background given that when you die in arcade games you start at the beginning anyway.
Also, to give Housemarque some credit, they definitely add in some things to alleviate the gut-wrenching feeling of starting over. The fast load times definitely alleviate the frustration of death and make it easier to jump right in. There’re shortcuts implemented to make getting back to big story beats and bosses easier. Weapon progression and upgrades remain permanent between runs and being able to carry over a pretty universally used element like Ether is beneficial. The problems arise in how Returnal can be unfair at times in its procedurally generated nature and work against some of the great benefits of its explorative progression.
A seemingly perfect run can be dashed in a matter of moments because the game decided to procedurally generate a room with fifteen enemies that completely overwhelm you and make for a heartbreaking and infuriating failure. Most players will end up struggling to get to the boss than simply trying to defeat it. I remember there was this moment of me trying to get to third boss that left me absolutely defeated and left me wondering if I’d ever get past this section just because I could never get the pieces I needed together. It’s easy to appreciate the sense of difficulty Returnal presents, but there’re some things it could do better to mitigate its defeating nature.
The game’s procedurally generated nature creates some issues of consistency and affects the impact of learning and understanding the environment, weapons, and items. While it’s nice that my favorite gun’s progression remains intact, there’s a good chance that I’ll never find that gun on the next run. The same goes for consumables and upgrade items because I might find a certain combination of items that works, but there’s no consistent chance that I’ll be able to have it on different runs. More importantly, Ethers need to be a little more prevalent in the beginning because there’re would be multiple runs where I would never find one and not having enough Ethers locks you out of certain advantages.
There’s definitely a learning curve in the beginning that is undoubtedly interesting an opens up a lot of possibilities for more successful runs. Things like noticing certain pathing options, certain rooms that allow for advantages like creating checkpoints, and understanding how guns perform and items work can create a winning formula. However, the procedurally generated nature of the game makes this an unsure thing and the learning elements of the game do not stick as well. Even the way it procedurally generates enemy numbers and types can be frustrating and feel like the game is working overtime to work against you.
Frankly, all this game needs are some customization and accessibility options to help players feel like they have a better chance and develop more consistent patterns. The ability to have options like altering spawn rates, enemy speeds, and maybe even room designs could go a long way for players who just want to see the story to the end, and it still allows those wanting to endure the grueling challenge of Returnal a chance for glory and respect. More importantly, there needs to be some sort of save option when the game closes because Returnal asks players for time that no one is made of and losing progress on a run because the game crashes or you don’t feel like playing the game for hours straight is really annoying. All of this would alleviate some of the most infuriating parts of the game’s difficult nature and give them greater consistency in their experience.
Even for its grueling difficulty that’s kept me from beating it and certain setbacks from the randomness, Returnal remains incredibly addicting because of Housemarque’s bread and butter – the gameplay. The game is insanely fun to play and the game utilizing third-person shooter mechanics over the traditionally arcade gameplay of rougelikes makes it much more fast-paced and accessible to the wider gaming community. The gun variety is incredibly strong and comes with some devastating alt-fires. The melee is super useful in thinning out herds of enemies and the excellent dash and grapple mechanics make traversing very fluid. The enemy variety is equally strong, and I absolutely love their arcade, neon-colored attack patterns. As said before, Housemarque is a modern master at creating thrilling and fun gameplay loops and now stand as innovators with how they use the Dualsense’s capabilities here.
In order to differentiate between standard and alt-fire on all guns, Housemarque uses the Dualsense’s haptic feedback triggers to make switching between the two much easier. By pulling on the left trigger slightly, players will snap to standard aim and by pulling past the resistance felt from that slight pull, players can instantly switch into alt-fire. It’s a great showing of the Dualsense’s unique gameplay possibilities and adds to the ease of the gameplay that allows players to focus on the onslaught of enemies in front of them. Even in times of my greatest defeats, the gameplay kept reeling me back in and constantly made me feel like there was a possibility to overcome Returnal’s greatest challenges.
Yes, Returnal is just as hard as people are saying and could definitely use some accessibility options and better mechanics for its procedurally generated nature to mitigate its unnecessary challenges and frustrations. Every death that kicks you back to the beginning is undoubtedly defeating, but there’s so much more to Returnal that drives you to get back up again and keep playing. Housemarque continues to live up to its legacy in creating excellent and intuitive gameplay with Returnal, but also show new strengths in delivering an engaging and mysterious story, creating intriguing lore and atmosphere, and challenging players to overcome seemingly impossible odds.