Returnal Review for PS5.
Roguelikes and roguelites have almost been exclusively locked to the indie scene and are almost always either top-down or 2D. Although still technically an indie studio, Housemarque is changing that through Returnal, its Sony-published AAA roguelite shooter. Even though this is a departure for the Finnish developer and different take on the genre, it’s easily the team’s best and most well-realized game and an overall brilliant experience.
Returnal is a unique roguelite, but it still follows the rules that its two-dimensional counterparts have established. Dying or closing the game returns players to the starting point and forfeits all of the non-permanent items earned along the way. Levels, gear, and upgrades are procedurally compiled together to make each run different. And, since it is a roguelite and not a roguelike, there are a small handful of persistent upgrades that either make successive bouts a touch easier or unlock other areas of the map, Metroid-style.
Risk versus reward
From the most basic standpoint, Returnal doesn’t stray too far from genre staples, but it still uses that traditional framework to great effect. Almost everything in the game is some sort of risk or choice. Cursed chests, heath packs, or crystal clusters may yield powerful rewards, but could also unleash a malfunction; a risk that can be prematurely bypassed by spending a rare currency used for obtaining new stuff or a life-saving revive. Challenge rooms are difficult, but yield grand rewards upon completion. Attachable parasites boost some stats while harming other ones.
The game is intelligently designed in a way to push players to take risks and make their experience more interesting as the difficulty is stacked against those who play it safe. An easier game would be less exciting. Constantly weighing those dangers while also picking through the vast array of weapons and upgrades also ensures that no two runs feel similar.
The loop of starting fresh and seeing what mix of guns and gear the RNG gods have sprinkled around is an addictive treat, given the possibilities the ocean of variables grants players. And this ocean gets even deeper as the roguelite elements come into play and unlock progressively more mods, weapons, consumables, and more, further sweetening the loop as the hours fly by. Unfortunately, levels layouts aren’t as diverse and comparatively start repeating quite soon in a way that the items never do.
A Platinum effort
The combat puts the arsenal of gear to the test and is where the game comes into its own. It’s a fast-paced third-person shooter with the amount of precision that would make PlatinumGames jealous. An air dash, generous dodge, a blazing fast sprint speed, and a sparse amount of recovery frames give players the ultimate control over Selene, the protagonist, as she zips around slaying all sorts of aliens and robots that fill the screen with large projectiles and explosions.
It’s demanding, but routinely fulfilling because of the tightness of the controls, utility of the weapons, rock-solid high frame rate, and intuitive use of the DualSense’s adaptive triggers. Housemarque hasn’t made a third-person shooter like this before, but its work making responsive arcade games has truly paid off and translated to this new genre phenomenally well.
Returnal’s combat would be exceptional in a standard third-person shooter, but it’s made even better by its roguelite half and vice versa. Since the shooting is so satisfying by itself, it’s natural to want to do it over and over again in a replayable setting. And the engrossing roguelite loop of unlocking more stuff is improved because of the astonishingly smooth combat that’s required to get those unlocks. Rewarding shooting begets more rewarding unlocks which begets more rewarding shooting and that symbiotic process repeats over and over again — ironically — without feeling repetitive. It’s a perfect storm of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives.
An alien nation
Returnal’s world is about as unique and awe-inspiring as its gameplay, too. Each of its six biomes are radically different from one another, but are common in their truly alien feel. These places are so foreign and are not only riddled with bizarre extraterrestrial flora and fauna, but also gigantic statues and structures that belong to a mysterious sentient alien race not too unlike the space jockeys in Ridley Scott’s Alien (sans all the phallic imagery).
Fusing together technology and buildings from such otherworldly sources provides the constant sense of wonder that good sci-fi has — an aspect that becomes even more clear as the game leans more into its Lovecraftian inspirations. The Interstellar-esque soundtrack also further reinforces this mood and is equally chilling and breathtaking as the visuals it complements, creating an unforgettable and consistent audiovisual presentation.
The game’s world and roguelite nature are even justified in its story. Selene finds herself after she’s crashed on an alien planet and is reborn after every death for some unknown reason. And if that wasn’t absurd enough, she also stumbles upon audio logs of herself that she doesn’t remember recording.
The premise is an inherently engaging central mystery that seamlessly works in tandem with its mechanics and provides a narrative incentive to progress further in the loop to get some answers. Like Hades, additional story bits are even unlocked after dying as more recordings and alien tablets litter the newly configured environment. Listening to the journeys of all the other Selenes is unsettling as the logs slowly get darker and darker and further ratchets up the intrigue.
Like its gameplay, Returnal’s story is not force-fed to the player. It’s semi-Lynchian in its approach as a lot of its narrative is implied, found in audiotapes, or told in fragments or flashbacks. Very little of it seems to be an objective fact and is instead meant for players to infer their own meaning from the beats it presents. And while a more traditional presentation would have been more digestible, Returnal gives players enough to chew on to be gratifying in its vagueness, especially considering its dark, ambiguous ending. Understanding everything isn’t the point as the process of soaking in its tone and reflecting on the emotions it evokes can be as valuable as a more conventionally told tale.
Returnal Review: The final verdict
However, Returnal is unambiguously and thoroughly an outstanding game. Mixing the RPG progression and ever-evolving suite of roguelite hooks with a frenetic third-person shooter results in a new experience with two halves that make each other better. As it did with the PS3, Vita, and PS4, Housemarque has once again provided Sony with another launch-era hit and in doing so has created a rewarding, replayable, and revolutionary game that’s hopefully the foundation for other future AAA titles that are as clever with the roguelite blueprint.
GameRevolution reviewed Returnal on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.