Box art - Returnal

What makes Returnal a roguelike?

Many gamers are hearing the term “roguelike” for the first time with the release of Returnal. This niche genre has been growing in popularity over the last decade, but Returnal is the first AAA roguelike to be released. As such, many players aren’t familiar with what attributes make a game a roguelike and how this one fits into the genre.

Is Returnal a roguelike or a rogue-lite?

Is Returnal a Roguelike or Rogue-lite

Whether or not Returnal is a roguelike or not depends on how anal of a definition a person has for a genre. There’s no international roguelike council that has to issue its stamp of approval for a game to be considered a roguelike. So, we’ll grade Returnal based on the Berlin Interpretation established at the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008 as it gives a firm set of requirements that we can compare it to.

The Berlin Interpretation defines whether a game is a roguelike or not based on a points system. We’re not going to get that into it. Instead, we’ll take a look at the eight high-value factors the Berlin Interpretation establishes:

  • The game uses randomization to increase replayability:
    • ☑ – Returnal’s map generates randomly each time Selene dies.
  • The game uses permadeath which forces players to restart after perishing:
    • ☑ – Returnal uses a variation in which all non-permanent progress is lost on death.
  • The game is non-modal; every action should be available at any time:
    • ☒ – Returnal requires upgrades to perform some actions.
  • The game has the complexity of multiple systems, which allow the play to accomplish one goal in various ways:
    • ½ – Returnal has combat variety, but progression requires linear action (e.g. finding a key to unlock a door).
  • The player must use resource management to survive:
    • ☑️ – Returnal generates a limited amount of resources that players can acquire each run.
  • The game is focused on hack-and-slash gameplay where the main goal is to kill monsters, and no peaceful solutions exist:
    • ☑️ – Returnal requires combat to progress and enemies can’t be reasoned with.
  • The game requires players to explore and discover the purpose of unidentified items in a manner that resets every playthrough:
    • ☑️ – Returnal’s weapons and artifacts spawn differently during each run, and certain pickups (like Parasites) have randomization.
  • The game is turn-based, giving the player as much time as needed to make a decision:
    • ☒ – Returnal is real-time and rather frantic.

So, we can see that Returnal meets 5.5 out of 8 factors. Since it doesn’t entirely fit all the requirements, some might say that it’s a rogue-lite instead of a roguelike. These are the type of people that are typically best avoided. It’s close enough to be called a roguelike. Some might even say it’s a Metroidvania since progression is gated to the obtaining of gear.

We’ll go ahead and dub it a roguelike since it fits so many aspects of the genre. Whether anyone else does is up to them.