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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Housemarque
Release Date: April 30, 2021


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PS5 Review - 'Returnal'

by Redmond Carolipio on April 30, 2021 @ 11:00 p.m. PDT

Returnal transforms roguelike gameplay into a third-person shooter where players fight to survive a hostile planet that changes with every death.

Buy Returnal

To enjoy Returnal, you must learn to enjoy death.

Your own death.

Your own repeated death.

You must make peace with your death coming in different forms and speeds: It can occur quickly in a barrage of malicious, high-speed enemy projectiles that arrive too fast for your reflexes, or it can come after nearly an hour or more of careful work, where you mitigated the fear of your mortality with planning and skillful fighting. Whether you're new to roguelikes or not, you might curse. You might yell. You might damage your controller. I have written in the middle of my notes, "I HATE THIS RIGHT NOW." About 30 seconds after I indented my notebook with those words, I jumped right back in. You'll probably do that, too.

You won't keep going because of all the clichés that come with the concepts of perseverance, dedication or simply "getting good," but because Housemarque has created something maddeningly brilliant enough to keep yanking you back into its world, enticing you to learn and experience just a little bit more before another one of your inevitable ends.

My anchor to this game remains the story, which feels odd to say since after a few dozen hours of playing, I feel like I'm still scrambling to piece things together. What you'll know early on is that you are in the role of Selene, an astronaut who crash-lands on a planet called Atropos. It's a classically alien hellscape, rife with all manner of flora and fauna (or monsters, if you want to get technical) that carry fatal power and intent.

As you play, something will definitely come along and kill you, only for you to witness Selene reawaken at her crash site and find the environments a little different than she remembers from, you know, the last time she died. She's aware of what's happening, and as you can imagine, it's a bit of process for her to absorb. This is where she (and you, the player) begin a harrowing live-die-repeat odyssey on a planet that messes with Selene's mind while administering some white-knuckle testing of your reflexes and survival instincts — a test you will fail many, many times. Every time you perish, it's back to the original crash site with you.

Atropos is a harsh place, in many ways designed to mystify and kill Selene in the fastest way possible, but it is also layered with lore, places to explore and pieces of narrative that illuminate a lot of the questions that you as the player might have: Who is Selene? Why is she there? What is a freaking house with lights on inside doing in the middle of the ruins of an alien civilization? Also, what even happened to this civilization? Answers to some of those questions come in the form of recordings from previous Selenes. Sometimes, you might find the corpses of defeated Selenes (who are actually other players) littering the landscape. Much of your time will be spent doing "runs," seeing how far you can get and how much you can see and learn before you die. That's the roguelike life.

Returnal has been difficult and exhausting, but not tedious. That's a credit to Housemarque's impeccable design behind it, which makes this challenging game easy to play and get sucked into even if you've bit the dust 20 times in a row. Let's start with the exploratory aspects of Atropos itself. Yes, the map resets every time you die, but one click of the dualsense button to bring up the map will show you plenty of helpful iconography that notes "main path" doorways, "side path" doorways that lead to different weapons, possible upgrades, doors that mark a boss battle (we'll get to those later), doors that mark a guaranteed fight against waves of creatures, portals, devices, etc. You can explore the world without getting completely lost.

I also enjoyed how the environment changed every time Selene came back to life. You don't walk into random, stupid chaos every time out. Rather, the changes are in where certain doors are located and the configuration of the area map. Some of the challenges within certain areas can change. For example, an area I visited within the aforementioned ruins in a past life now had laser beams swirling all over it, while another run featured the door to a boss battle only a few doors away, instead of the snaking, arduous path I took before. Other times, as you pile up deaths, you might find some new things that actually provide help. One time, I struggled to make my way back to the boss of a section of the planet called the Crimson Wastes. The journey involves Selene basically having to ascend to the top of a mountain and through a gantlet of dangerous foes before the confrontation. I died many times trying to make it back, and when I did, I was in very poor shape for the battle ahead.

During a run, I made it to the foot of the mountain and a gateway that had been dormant suddenly opened up. I stepped through it and boom, I'm at the top of the mountain, with the boss only a few jumps away. Yes, that's super convenient, but it also led to a choice: Do I run right into the confrontation and try my luck, or do I try to build myself up a little first — see if I can find a strong weapon I like, maybe gather some resources — and risk putting myself through some extra trouble that might actually weaken or kill me, thus spoiling my run? As I played, I found this kind of conflict to be at the very heart of the Returnal experience, especially when it came to combat and balance.

Despite its difficulty, what makes Returnal a "fair" game in my eyes is that Selene is a complete gunslinging badass capable of getting stronger as the title progresses, even as she dies and loses stuff she's gathered in a previous run, like the in-game currency or keys to open chests. Some of the changes she unlocks can be permanent, like an extra spot for "consumables" such as health packs or an item that triggers a special attack. My favorite permanent upgrade? An energy sword that Selene swings horizontally like a damn samurai. That's good stuff, and it can only add to a combat atmosphere that occasionally moves at a pace reminiscent of Doom or Devil May Cry.

The gunplay is exquisite, making innovative use of the PS5's haptic triggers: Pull halfway down on the left trigger (you'll feel the trigger "stop" you at a certain point) to zoom in for accurate fire, but pull it all the way down to prime your gun's alternate/special firing mode, be it a grenade, a swarm of homing projectiles, a shield-shattering beam or a burst of energy balls. The game randomly mixes alternate-fire weapons with any gun you pick up, and you can only pick up one weapon at a time. The guns range from pistols to shotguns to assault rifles to an SMG type, and occasionally, you'll happen across a gun that has a little extra behind it, like extra stopping power or greater range. Choosing which weapons you want to bring with you into battle can be a mental wrestling match, as is figuring out what kind of upgrades you want to pick up.

In a bit of a weird twist, Selene can also pick up "parasites" and attach them to her suit. Many of them offer a boost like a longer life meter but also come with a caveat called a "suit malfunction," which can be something like a reduction in the power of your melee attacks or weaker protection. This also extends to the kind of chests you want to open or items you want to collect, and some of these things are infected with "malignancy," which gives off a creepy, dark-purple aura and runs the risk of either damaging your suit or blessing you with a bad malfunction. I should note that Selene also has outstanding combat agility, as she can sprint relatively fast and "dash" to avoid oncoming attacks.

Selene needs every tool she can use because there aren't many moments in the game when she isn't assaulted from every angle. Housemarque's design team has mentioned how the creatures on Atropos were inspired by the creatures of the sea, and you'll see that kind of strange beauty in their luminescent glow and flowy, undulating appendages, whether they are on the ground or flying toward you. When there are groups of them together hurling variants of lasers, energy balls and other gooey bits of their arsenal at you, there will be times you'll think the game might be plotting against you.

Each conflict has a chance to end you if you're sloppy, especially some of the larger, major enemies. There are a handful of areas on Atropos to check out, and each of them has some kind of powerful boss that awaits. These are multi-level, grueling duels that ask experienced players to recall their techniques and skills of pattern recognition and inexperienced players to simply get better through attrition. You have to knock down their life meter several times to defeat them, and every time you succeed in emptying their tank, their attacks get just a bit crazier. Although difficult, they are not hopelessly impossible (at least not so far). Each time through, you'll get a better sense of how they like to attack and how best to elude them. All you have to do is execute.

If there's a sticking point to Returnal, it's that it's a big PS5 exclusive that is most definitely not for everyone. It's next-gen beautiful all the way, but if you've never played a game like this before, even all that beauty and amazing design might not be worth the sense of dejection you might feel as the body count starts mounting. Returnal and other games like it will force newer players to ask questions about what kind of games they want to experience. It takes a little bit of weird thinking to relish the prospect of repeated punishment. I recommend it, just for the experience of it. If you're part of that wider audience who wants to give a next-gen roguelike a shot, then be prepared for an awakening. And another one. And … another one.

Score: 8.8/10

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