Review: Returnal’s Fresh Take on a Familiar Loop is Mostly a Great Time

Modern run-based games owe a great deal to arcade experiences of yesteryear. They are both traditionally frantic in their gameplay, feature engaging progression mechanics that may go away upon death and can be unapologetically difficult. Returnal is all of these things, flipping a modern spin on the best parts while also retaining others that should be kept in the past.

Housemarque is a Finland-based studio known for its arcade pedigree with beloved titles like Resogun and Nex Machina among others, though this is the first time it’s really flexed muscles in the purely third-person, bigger budget shooter genre. The team smartly borrows traditional roguelike elements where each session is unique in terms of weapons and power-ups, the player loses certain progress when they die and the game world transforms itself so that no playthru looks the same.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect. The player controls Selene Vassos, a Scout for fictional space exploration company Astra Corporation who crash lands on a planet called Atropos. Selene sets out initially to find a signal, learning in the process that she’s trapped within this seemingly never-ending cycle. It’s lonely, and harrowing. She somehow stumbles upon her own house within this world, then upon entering the view shifts to first-person in mini playable sections where the bulk of story is introduced via exploration.

Returnal is single-handedly one of the most engaging time-loop setups in the history of games, a psychological sci-fi thriller that uses infinite spawning on a distant planet expertly while slowly revealing how its story is much closer to home than it first presents. There’s three distinct acts across six biomes, the last of which unveils the “true” ending. While its presentation is staggered and jarring at times, that’s the nature of time-bending tales. I ended up adoring it. This works because its collectibles and cut scenes intrigue all along the way, making it feel like the player is learning about this unfortunate predicament and her own history at the same time as Selene.

Foreign world Atropos features the aforementioned playable areas and a scattering of history from a race Selene dubs Sentients. She lands in the Overgrown Ruins, a dreary yet gorgeous rain forest contrasted with bright flora and angry fauna. The game’s first act starts in this space, moves thru the Crimson Wastes desert then an imposing alien Derelict Citadel. Once the player beats the boss in a particular sub-segment, Returnal allows teleporting to the next biome which makes for better flexibility in subsequent tries. It’s a bit of much-needed restraint in an otherwise punishing ordeal.

Once the first act is complete, players transition to almost a remixed version of the first three locales. For instance, the fourth biome is called the Echoing Ruins, bearing a stark resemblance to the very first crash landing site. What’s great is the second act is essentially its own run entirely, as the player respawns here in the Echoing Ruins as opposed to way back at the beginning. This makes endgame tries feel manageable, significantly less dejecting when one fails.

An aspect I’d like to specifically praise in Returnal is its genius map implementation. It’s best-in-class, displaying a three dimensional mini-map on the heads up display then expanding to a more isometric view full of markers and indicators. It clearly marks optional routes, fast travel spots and certain types such as boss locations or particularly challenging fights. An incredible feature that I now wish to see in every game.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

In terms of mechanics and arsenal, it’s a familiar feel for quick, over-the-shoulder shooters. Selene begins each run with a low level pistol, then can replace that with guns that spawn from enemies or found in chests. Each has its own set of potential perks, Leech Rounds being my ideal because they can heal, plus an alternate fire mode that could be a number of different attacks. Grenade, powerful sniper shot, proximity mine etc. Weapon variety is solid, ranging from traditional automatic carbine to close-range shotgun that spouts goo all over the place. There’s rocket and grenade launches then more unique designs like the Dreadbound that has projectiles launching then returning automatically to the magazine. The aesthetic here is alien engineering fused with biological organisms, making for peculiar and effective feature sets.

Speaking of, Returnal boasts one of the most satisfying interactions: active reload. Gears of War popularized this tactic, whereby hitting a button within a certain window allows for instant reloading. It’s a little clumsier here, with the right trigger acting as the same button to shoot and reload. Plus the player can’t manually load their weapon, it only happens automatically when ammo runs out. This combined with alternate fire makes for rewarding engagements.

Movement is as important as ever in a game like this, and Returnal is clear that the player is invulnerable when dashing. I coined my mantra “Always Be Dashing,” spamming the circle button to shoot across arenas to avoid enemy fire. Part of the way thru, both a sword unlock and grappling hook really open up fighting and traversal capabilities plus promote more efficient exploration. There’s nothing quite like dodging, launching across a map using a grappling point and slicing an enemy into a spectacular burst of colorful bits.

Progression systems are layered in Returnal, which is what really determines run variety and impacts how much one is able to achieve in a given try. Items, unlocks and upgrades come in a multitude of forms, most tending to disappear when a run is over. Permanent unlocks include key story items, weapon traits, world collectibles plus a powerful material called Ether that cleanses chests or can be used to activate a machine that allows one respawn per area.

The player loses almost everything else upon failure. The currency called Obelites, required for fabrication for various items. Valuable Artifacts that offer benefits, such as increased weapon power or reduced alternate fire cooldown. A favorite of mine is the Phantom Limb, which offers a 10% chance to boost health when killing an enemy.

Its most unique mid-run upgrades are Parasites, squishy insects that visually attach to Selene’s suit. These provide one associated benefit then an associated debuff that makes play more difficult. These trade-offs can make or break a given segment. Does one gain better drops from enemies at the expense of melee damage? What about increasing health repair when long falls cause damage?

Returnal’s Malfunction system also prompts important choices. Chests or pick-up with a glowing purple aura are “Malignant” or “Spoiled,” which mean there’s a chance the player can become infected upon grabbing them. The probability of infection is clearly displayed, from Moderate to Very High. Malfunctions cause some detriment until a criterion is satisfied. These can be brutal, and the player may suffer from more than one at once. Decreased weapon output, lower health, taking damage when collecting items and many more can outright ruin even the best of attempts.

These along with mini-progression systems like Weapon Proficiency, basically increasing weapon drop level, and Adrenaline that builds while racking up kills without being hit are all the ways that the developers keep players on their toes and give that wonderful sensation that every single venture is different. Its systems open an infinite number of opportunities for both success and failure, especially towards endgame in the last two areas which are increasingly devastating. My strategy tended towards health regeneration, though I could see a high damage output or super high proficiency build working as well with the right gun configuration. This is also a good reason for replaying content.

While progressing thru Returnal, Selene encounters enemies of all shapes and brutalities. There’s bio-luminescent animals that can pounce from a distance, stationary turrets scattered about, hard-shelled crustaceans that barrage with missiles, robotic atrocities who snatch up the player and the eternally dreaded flying enemies, whether airborne fish, overgrown bats or incessant drones. These are constantly remixed throughout the biomes, with variants like frozen or malformed in later spots. The most terrible of foes is probably the Severed, a bipedal sentient species that will constantly close the gap, never allowing any respite. Their tactics are clever, unrelenting. Combine these together and that’s part of the reason why the game has a reputation for being difficult.

Boss fights in particular are spectacular, monumental affairs. They all have three phases, making ongoing survivability essential. Most occur in an open area, forcing the player to quickly decipher patterns and figure out the optimal damage parameters. Then there’s Nemesis, one of the most epic, memorable battles I’ve ever played. I won’t spoil it here, suffice to say its scale is tremendous.

Now. To address the elephant in the room. Does all of this make Returnal too difficult? Is it for everyone?

The answer is exceeding complex, and warrants an entirely separate discussion on its own.

No doubt its genre is challenging by nature, which is unavoidable. Losing progress in games is deflating. Starting over is painful. Certain times, Returnal feels unfair. I believe this stems from a handful of reasons: Lack of certain quality of life features, its reliance on luck when it comes to build quality, limited accessibility options and inconsistent stability. It’s not that the game is impossible, it’s that there are too many aspects that make it unfriendly to a subset of players.

In lieu of a traditional save system, Housemarque literally shows a pop up alert after starting the game informing to use PlayStation 5’s famously finicky Rest Mode. Why not just offer a mid-run save system? A way for people to tend to life matters or take a rest? This could even be incorporated into the game world and have lore implications, it doesn’t have to be an auto-save. Even Dark Souls has bonfires. Even Alien Isolation has save stations. There’s usually some example of saving in modern gaming.

There’s no difficulty setting or tuning allowed. Yet hardcore platformer Celeste or even last year’s excellent Hades are perfect examples where player choice in this context can work to everyone’s benefit. The former has an Assist Mode. The latter a God Mode. The rationale is offering these accessibility tweaks doesn’t impact players that don’t use them, it only broadens the audience of those that can play because of them.

The role of luck can’t be understated either. Randomness plays a major part in weapons, Parasites, room locations, enemy types and other temporary situations. Certain times, it just won’t go well. Others will fall into place beautifully. This is a byproduct of the decision to make a roguelike, just depends how well it’s balanced.

I understand the desire is to make a tricky, trying run-based game. There’s tension in knowing it could end at any moment. Yet that’s no longer generally practical, especially since attempts in Returnal last a couple hours on average. I had one go for a half dozen, crossing my fingers that the console wouldn’t update or crash when I stepped away to take a break.

These quality of life and accessibility considerations may not have been as important during the arcade days that inspired this genre, yet they should be accounted for now. It should allow for those that want the badge of honor associated with a marathon session while acknowledging those that balance real life.

Thing is, even with all that, I believe that many people can have a great time with Returnal if they are fine operating within these parameters. There’s the constant progression elements I discussed before, carrying over key abilities. The fast travel and teleporting opened by beating areas. Not to mention how player skill improves with each pass, learning tactics and forming strategies to make headway.

Returnal should absolutely be more flexible in its quality of life and accessibility settings. That doesn’t mean many players can’t build up to the point of victory.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect.

In terms of technology and performance, the title shows how it’s clearly one of the first developed specifically with the PlayStation 5 in mind. Its best feature is DualSense controller integration, with the best example of haptic feedback use to date. The game pad vibrates with each falling raindrop, or swerve of Selene’s ship upon entry to the atmosphere. It gives perfect directional feedback when items or foes are near. Returnal also uses the adaptive triggers in offering traditional shooting by pulling the left trigger halfway, then an alternative fire mode by squeezing it all the way. It’s way better in concept than execution, causing one to fumble in a tight spot and accidentally use the wrong shooting type. I swapped to a more standard customization within the first hour.

Graphical fidelity and general visual presentation is good, albeit not exceptional even at up-scaled 4K resolution. Art and environment work is superior. Textures can be rough and certain rooms are way too dark despite ray-tracing claims and lighting techniques. Its best moments are when enemy projectiles light up a space, resulting in a dazzling neon light show akin to an electronic music venue. Housemarque is a bunch of wizards when it comes to particle effects and destructibility. Performance is consistent throughout, that 60 frames per second shining in the most heated of battles.

There’s plenty of bottlenecks to deter from giving Returnal a go. The cost of a full price tag, knowing its lack of options, not being able to save, that feeling of desperation after getting this close to a win. I hear that. I still argue it’s worth an honest shot, and it’s one of the most surprising games for me this year because I was a skeptic going into my time with it. I was open to trying, and came away very much impressed.

When it comes to comparisons, I’d say it’s part Metroid, reminiscent of Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells plus plays like a blend of the best third-person action games with bullet hell elements where traversal and strategy are key. Going into a fight unprepared has its ramifications.

After over 35 hours and a couple dozen deaths, I firmly believe that Housemarque’s latest is its best game to date. A most clever take on a genre filled with run-of-the-mill releases, though it suffers some of the same setbacks as well. During a good run, Returnal is sublime. When things go poorly, it’s terribly exhausting. Especially having to spend time in earlier biomes to power up in preparation of later areas.

This is inherent to the genre, in which Returnal is one of the best despite its few flaws. It has the ability to produce both completely stressful play sessions and the most blissful moments of accomplishment. The latter outweighs the former, every single loop of time.

Title: Returnal

Release Date: April 30th, 2021

Developer: Housemarque

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 5

Recommendation: It’s an exquisite, well-designed roguelike that’s worth the price tag, though could desperately use a variety of modern options. Especially a save system, its most glaring omission that wouldn’t impact difficulty and would allow for a wider audience. It’s an essential early PlayStation 5 experience.

Sources: Screenshots from PlayStation 5, Sony Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

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