Returnal Review – Risk That Pays Off

Developer – Housemarque

Publisher – Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platform(s) – PlayStation 5

MSRP – $69.99

Release Date – April 30, 2021

Disclaimer: Review Copy was Provided for this Review

If we’re not counting remakes like Demon’s Souls, Returnal is officially the first true PlayStation 5 exclusive. Games like Spider-Man Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure have released on PlayStation 5 and made use of its features but they were also released on previous hardware in the PlayStation 4. So by those standards, Housemarque holds the distinction of being the first exclusive on Sony’s new hardware.

Returnal is a unique game for the main reason that it marks a few firsts for me personally. This is my first Housemarque game, for years, I’ve been aware of a few of their previous games such as Resogun and Nex Machina but have never played any of them. It also marks my first roguelike game from any developer, so this review is going to be told from a fresh outlook on the genre.

Housemarque said themselves that their previous games haven’t performed the best in terms of sales. Keeping that in mind, the developer still wanted to take a risk in Returnal. I purposely avoided a lot of the previews for this game in the weeks leading up to launch to be more surprised by its many aspects. If it wasn’t clear already, I was intrigued by Returnal due to the mystery surrounding it. After my 19 hour playthrough, I have officially rolled credits and I have a whole lot to say about my experience.

In Returnal, you play as Selene, an astronaut who has crash-landed on the mysterious planet known as Atropos to investigate a signal known as the white shadow. As you progress through Atropos, you piece together a puzzle to understand the white shadow signal and where it’s coming from.

This narrative is one of the only aspects of Returnal that didn’t hit the mark for me. I usually enjoy stories that have an emphasis on mystery but Returnal didn’t grab me like I hoped it would in this regard, this isn’t to say I dislike the narrative completely. Selene’s childhood home exists on Atropos and is the setting for an array of sequences that give context to Selene and her old memories. I love the storytelling, tension, and sound design that comes along with these sequences. It’s just that a lot of other sequences don’t give me that same feeling.

Across Atropos, you’ll find different commodities (Scout Logs, Xeno-Archives, Xenoglyphs) that contribute to learning more about Selene and the mysterious planet of Atropos.

  • Scout Logs – Recordings left by Selene in past incarnations
  • Xeno-Archives – Particles that form events related to Atropos
  • Xenoglyphs – Rocks that can be used to decipher a language that gives information on Atropos

These commodities are there to give you more lore towards the overall narrative structure in Returnal. I appreciate that they’re there but I also never felt compelled by any of them. I like that Housemarque leaves a lot of open interpretation, I just feel the execution could’ve been handled better. I can’t tell you I dislike the mysterious nature of Returnal as a narrative, I simply have mixed feelings as a whole. There are things to like and dislike, overall, I just don’t feel this aspect stands out on its own.

From a gameplay perspective, Returnal has more depth to it than I could’ve imagined. I recently reviewed Outriders and I mentioned that the game is designed for you to always be shifting in some way, Returnal takes it to another level in this regard. If you stay still for even a second, it could be the end of you. There isn’t much room for error the deeper you dive into the game.

Housemarqure makes incredible use of the DualSense when it comes to firing a weapon, you have two fire-types in regular fire and alt-fire. Regular firing of a weapon has you push down the left trigger halfway until the resistance kicks in stopping you from pushing down all the way. Alt-fire of a weapon is pushing down completely on the left trigger to spur an attack that deals a significant amount of damage to an enemy or shields. I’ve been excited to see how developers utilize features of the DualSense and if we’re at this point now, imagine where we’ll be in a few years.

Apart from the weapons, which are excellent and dynamic in their own right, Returnal has a ton of other facets that contribute to gameplay and combat overall. Parasites are small living creatures that can attach to Selene and offer positive and negative effects that will last until you die or remove them by other means. There are also suit artifacts that give you a bonus that also lasts until you die or get hit with a malfunction. Speaking of malfunctions, these are negative such as -50 weapon damage or a fractured map, these can be extracted by completing a certain task given which can vary in difficulty to complete.

Consumables are one-time-use items that give you a mini advantage for whatever the situation permits. Integrity is your health and can be upgraded by collecting resin scattered across Atropos. There’s so much more to unpack such as Artifacts (Not Suit Artifcats), Malignant, and Fabricators but we’d be here forever by that point.

The reasons I bring up so much surrounding gameplay and combat that there’s a lot under the layers besides firing a weapon at enemies. Housemarque put so much effort into the mechanics behind Returnal and it shows. You have to put thought into what you pick and up and how it could affect you for the rest of your run. These are the type of design decisions that I grew to appreciate the more I played.

As stated earlier, Returnal is set on Atropos, but Artopos is the stage for 6 different biomes that host 5 boss battles with a collection of enemies along the way. With the exception of Biomes 1 & 4, the biomes look and feel varied to each other in terms of environment and enemy type. Biome 6 is especially my favorite, I won’t spoil what it is for anyone who hasn’t played the game and is reading this review, but that level just clicks well in so many different ways.

The boss battles are the best of them all in terms of challenge, adrenaline, and scope. The pure sense of pride and accomplishment when you beat a boss in Returnal is something that I think almost everyone who played this game can attest to. Every boss battle had me on edge of my seat, which isn’t something I can say for a whole lot of games. Also as a quick side note, each boss is based on Greek mythology as well as the name of the planet itself, Atropos.

Enemies are varied per biome and get significantly harder to deal with the further you progress. The weapons and abilities you get along the way will increase in power as well, but that still didn’t hedge the challenge at all. Don’t expect enemies to feel the same in terms of attack style and difficulty because you’ll set yourself up for failure with that thinking. There’s a different way to go about fighting each enemy type and it’s what gives Returnal that dynamic feel.

Fighting enemies and bosses wouldn’t feel as intense as it does if it wasn’t for the colorful and bright attacks that all hostiles have. The vibrant feel you get from all the pigments and particles on screen at once just works in ways that Housemarque intended and delivered on in spades.

Returnal is a punishing and difficult game, Housemarque even admits that to you in a message before you even start the game. Challenge in video games doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as long as the challenge is executed properly as Returnal does. This game won’t be for everybody, I know there’s a contingent of people who don’t like hard games and would rather play something that has a more laid-back feel to it. Just remember that when you look at what Returnal is as an overall experience.

As this a roguelike, you start from the beginning of where you started your run each time you die without anything but a few permanent upgrades. The planet of Atropos shifts around everytime you die, each area suddenly is in a different section of a biome. Not to mention, the weapons and abilities are randomly generated each time, so the success of your run will somewhat depend on the RNG. The game only saves whenever you defeat one of the bosses. You can’t save your progress, if you’re in the middle of a run and don’t want to lose your progress you have to put your PlayStation 5 into rest mode and turn it on when you want to continue your run. If you turn off your console or turn on another game, your progress will be gone the next time you start Returnal.

This decision has caused a lot of dialogue online that Housemarque should implement a save option in Returnal. Tons of people feel that runs in this game can last for hours and something may come up that prevents them from finishing their run and are therefore forced to quit the game and give up their run. There have also been several people who have lost their runs to game crashes that are no fault of their own. Along with this was also a recent update that actively corrupted people’s saves. A multitude of circumstances can happen such as being in a room on lockdown with an enemy that can’t be killed because they’ve glitched in a wall, so you’re forced to restart your run.

To say the least, I understand people’s frustration when it comes to these kinds of things. I’ve been fortunate enough to not experience any bugs, glitches, or crashes in my entire experience with Returnal, I also know that others haven’t been as fortunate. My stance on save options in Returnal is that they wouldn’t hurt to have considering how many issues this game has had for tons of people. It never affected me personally and it won’t have an impact on my final opinion of this game but I think Housemarque should consider making some kind of compromise.

Exploration is something that I grew to enjoy the more I played. Everything is shown on the map so you’re not going to be exploring wondering where things are. The real joy in exploring is knowing that wherever you go, there’s always going to be something around whether it’s a room filled with artifacts or an enemy room on lockdown that gives tons of entities on completion. I love the 3D map design that Housemarque went with, it’s easy to comprehend and for the most part, you won’t get lost or confused.

I already briefly mentioned the capabilities of the DualSense with Returnal when it came to triggers. Now we can move on to haptics, which is as incredibly done as the triggers. The haptics kick in the moment you start the game and you crash land on Atropos. Throughout the game, it’s going to rain across certain biomes, and with that rain, you’ll feel the pitter-patter of raindrops in your hands and it couldn’t feel any better.

The power of the SSD in the PlayStation 5 is shown off tremendously in this game. Load times are pretty much instant across the entire duration of Returnal. There’s not much more I can add other than the fact that these types of features on next-gen hardware are welcome and it’s crazy to think these types of loading times will be the standard in a couple of years.

Technically, I didn’t experience many hiccups with Returnal. There were a few framerate drops in the later stages of the game, but they weren’t too frequent. The game is beautiful graphically, it’s not revolutionary but we’re at the start of a new generation, so let’s just see where developers take us years down the line. The attention to detail is apparent in the little things and is something I always appreciate.

I absolutely adore Returnal, speaking in technical terms, it’s the first AAA PlayStation 5 exclusive release. After this game, I can’t say I’m going to actively search for more roguelike titles but I am certainly familiar with the genre now. Returnal has also made me a fan of Housemarque as a developer and makes me intrigued by whatever they’re going to do next.

If you don’t mind a challenge, I recommend getting Returnal. I know the $70 is another big taking point and I realize everyone may not want to invest that much into a product especially in the middle of a pandemic. It’s entirely up to you what you consider worthy of that price but I feel Returnal is a worthy investment.

Returnal is a great start to the era of PlayStation 5 exclusive releases. Housemarque took a risk with this game and I feel it paid off. I’m not the biggest fan of the narrative, but besides that, there isn’t a single aspect that I have an issue with or think could’ve been improved on. Now it’s time to prepare for Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.

Rating - 9/10

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