I’ve discovered in recent years that I really enjoy stories centered around a time loop. I’ve seen some excellent films use the concept, and I’ve played even better games that use it. The Outer Wilds comes to mind as a perfect example, but when I saw a first-party PS5 title was using the concept in a roguelike with a AAA budget, I was absolutely on board.
Now that Returnal is here in all its glory, it’s time to find out if the latest title from veteran developers at Housemarque makes the leap from arcade bullet hell to third-person bullet hell while also navigating a complex time loop story. Strap in folk, this is one wild ride.
You’re Gonna Need Two Things: Time and Patience
I have a mixed relationship with roguelike titles, mostly because I like to feel like I’m making progress in a game, and when the very concept prohibits you from making consistent progress, it can be difficult to really get invested. For me, it’s all about the story. I can handle repeat runs if I feel like I’m receiving motivation to keep trying.
Hades is a perfect example of a title that nails this execution. Children of Morta also did well in this regard, offering bits of story between runs. With Returnal, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are audio logs you can find as you go through each randomly generated run into Atropos, and specific story set-pieces give you a glimpse into a house that shouldn’t exist on an alien planet, but the way the story is delivered is neither consistent nor reliable.
Depending on my performance, I can go several runs without a single piece of lore, translated text, or audio log to motivate me. Given the sheer budget here, I would have liked to see more invested into additional story elements that make each run feel like you learned something, or at the very least tease you with new potential narrative if you can get just a little further.
That’s not to say that what story Returnal does have isn’t good. The voice acting is excellent, with plenty emotion conveyed when the main character realizes she’s finding dead bodies of herself from other failed attempts to escape the loop. It’s all very compelling, and I certainly wanted to know what’s going on, but I think I would have stayed for another run or two per play session if I knew there was a narrative breadcrumb waiting for me at the end regardless of my performance.
Now, for most people this isn’t going to matter. Roguelikes live and die by their gameplay, after all, you’re going to be playing a lot of it. They also typically leverage randomized environments or layouts to try and keep things fresh. This is one place where Returnal does shine. It took me several runs to get out of the first biome, and the environments shifted around just enough between each run to keep me from getting bored, at least from a visual standpoint.
It also helps that gameplay feels fantastic in Returnal. The responsive controls combined with the interesting weapons and potential alt-fires all combine with a wide range of artifacts, parasites, and other drops like ether to really make you feel like exploration is rewarded and results in a better run.
In particular, the parasites are an interesting mechanic where you can choose to let something latch onto you in exchange for a buff and a debuff. These are removable, but it’s not easy, so you’re committing to the effect for a solid portion of your run.
Other things like health pickups or chests can also have Malignancy, which essentially attaches the potential for a negative effect in the form of a malfunction, which is removed through specific actions like purchasing items at a fabricator.
The risk and reward here is exhilarating, and I will say that taking the leap on some of these mechanics lead to equally empowering or crushing results, so the balance is just right. Now, this is the part where we talk about the difficulty and the much-discussed lack of a save feature for runs that aren’t finished.
Difficulty-wise, the game doesn’t hold your hand at all. Enemies and bosses in particular will shut your run down with shocking efficiency. However, there is a noticeable curve as you continue playing where you start to feel slightly stronger. It’s a combination of just getting better at the game, and also unlocking new artifacts and increasing weapon proficiency. Some runs are also better than others, and taking your time to explore will always yield better gear for the long run.
Beating a boss allows you to pass through the gate to the next biome without fighting it again, but you’ll receive a valuable drop if you decide to take them on a subsequent time. Using the only currency that carries over through runs, known as Ether, also lets you utilize reconstructors to give yourself a second life instead of an immediate reset.
With a full run of the game lasting upwards of two or three hours, there’s a lot of discussion as to whether the game should include a “save and quit” option that lets you jump back into a run with a one-time save file. There are those that argue that this ruins the game’s purpose, but I think if the save only counts for one continue that it beats the alternative, which is to put the PS5 in rest mode. Furthermore, if you’re in rest mode and the game auto-updates, you lose your progress, so it’s not a full-proof solution.
Superb Presentation and DualSense Support
Returnal is an absolutely gorgeous game, and one that truly showcases itself as a next-gen title. Graphically, the combination of 60 FPS gameplay with 4K visuals and elements of ray tracing helps it look leaps and bounds better than a PS4 game. Since this is an exclusive, it also makes great use of the DualSense.
By default you can press the left trigger in partway to aim down the sights, and all the way to trigger the alt-fire. This one took some getting used to, but I actually love it after getting a good feel for the trigger sensitivity.
Haptic feedback like raindrops splattering across the controller are just superb, and honestly something you don’t notice unless you’re feeling for it, which just adds to the immersion. When all is said and done, Returnal is an excellent roguelike bullet hell shooter that carries the true mark of Housemarque’s style and talent.
It’s amazing to see a AAA budget afforded to this kind of game, and while the style and difficulty won’t be for everyone, there’s no denying that this is a polished, stylish, and excellent crafted title for PS5. With some improvements to the saving mechanics, or lack thereof, it will be an even easier recommendation.
Final Score: 8.5/10
Article by – Bradley Ramsey
Insert date – 5/10/2021