Returnal Review – Hardcore Deja Vu

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, … Read More