Returnal can be equal parts exciting and frustrating, its peaks and valleys invoking a wide spectrum of emotions. Thematically, it is a dark psychological sci-fi story that plays with themes of identity, memory, anxiety, and isolation, all built and framed to be intentionally open for speculation. It is also a new gold standard for high-intensity bullet hell action that mixes together elements of roguelikes and metroidvanias that mixes into a deeply compelling gameplay loop. But these elements can occasionally clash with one another, coupled with some weirdly omitted quality of life features which can take hamper the experience in spots. Still the overall result is something genuinely special by Finnish developer Housemarque and the PlayStation 5's first true stellar new IP.
Escape From Bullet Hell
The set-up for Returnal is simple enough. You play as astronaut named Selene who has crashed on the alien planet of Atropos while trying to investigate a mysterious signal. The planet is full of hostile alien life, as well as ruins containing remnants of a long dead alien race. It is while exploring this world that Selene is eventually killed, but somehow wakes up next to her crashed ship, the entire planet of Atropos shifting and changing around her. This keeps happening every time she dies to Atropos' wildlife. Worse still, she keeps finding bodies of what can only be described as different versions of herself, cryptic and half-mad audio logs found on their remains. If Selene wants to break this deadly cycle with her sanity intact, she'll have to adapt and fight through the planet's deadliest biomes.
From that description, it shouldn't be surprising that Returnal is a roguelike at its core. You start every single run at Selene's wrecked ship and explore through a bunch of remixed rooms. You'll collect currency called obolites, which you can spend at different fabrication units which can give you helpful upgrades like defense or extra health, and one-use consumables that range from deployable forcefields to to powerful energy spike weapons.
These are important since the enemies you encounter are straight out of a bullet hell shooter. You will be ambushed by waves of monsters all throwing multicolored bullets in swarms at you. Each fight is an intense, almost balletic struggle as you weave through attacks and prioritize your targets. All it takes are a few well-placed shots to interrupt an attack, giving you enough breathing room to take out a room. On the other hand, all it takes is one stray shot to put you down, ending your run and resetting you back to the start.
Without a doubt, this core loop is the reason to play Returnal. Housemarque has cut their teeth on making exciting arcade-style shmups before: Super Stardust, Resogun, Nex Mechanica, etc., and translating that experience and polish into a third-person action game feels utterly seamless here. Enemy attacks are telegraphed with distinct animation and pitch-perfect color clarity. The weapons Selene can use all feel useful and immediately understandable from the standard sidearm and combine to the more eccentric acid-grenade launcher and the electric pylon launcher. Taking down a single enemy, whether it be a gnarled dog creature or a towering tentacled monstrosity is utterly packed to the brim with juicy satisfaction.
Complementing this great combat even further is how the game constantly introduces and rewards risk-taking and conservative play in equal measure. Enter parasites, creatures which latch on to Selene and grant special bonuses but with a downside attached. These include things like instantly reviving you during a fight, but permanently reducing your maximum health afterwards, or having a chance to get a consumable item back after using it but taking damage every time you pick up an item. On top of this are Malfunctions, ongoing penalties you take until you complete a certain task. You can get Malfunctions from opening certain chests or even getting hit by certain enemy attacks later on. If you prefer not to roll the dice too much, there are plenty of elements that reward more meticulous play. These include hidden treasure rooms, secret chests, and shop rooms where you can pick out exactly what you're looking for during your run.
The only issues I have with this gameplay mostly come down some issues inherent to the genre. Simply put, there are certain enemy and terrain configurations in Returnal that will shred you within seconds. It will not feel fair and it will be sudden. This is especially felt when you reach the third area of Act 1 where enemies can perform a ground slam on top of you without warning followed up by a hail of gunfire while you're stunned. In some cases it makes the areas you play through more hellish than the boss fights which feel more like flashy setpieces in comparison. This kind of imbalance can be even worse if you are just unlucky on certain runs. For every half decent run that goes for about an hour before getting overwhelmed, there were a few that ended within ten minutes because of too many cheap shots happening all at once.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is no way to suspend your run if you're doing really well. Close out Returnal, shut off your console, or get hit with a dreaded software update, and your entire run will be wasted.
This is maddening for a number of reasons. First and foremost, a successful run of this game can clock in at around four to five hours. That is almost nonstop combat, platforming, and multiple multi-stage boss fights, which need to be handled in one sitting. While there's been a lot of discourse around difficulty in this game, the biggest sticking point has been how exhausting a good run feels. No matter how good you are at games of this type, you can't sustain this level of attention forever. Second, there are permanent forms of progression in the game. Certain suit upgrades carry over across runs, boss fights become optional after you've beaten them once. The only thing this does is turn certain runs into slogs where you're just trying to get back to where you were before. A suspend point system where you can safely put the game down and relax without losing your progress would go a long way here.
This format does lead to some interesting challenges for Returnal's atmosphere and story. In a lot of ways, the game has all of the trademarks of a prestige Sony title. The audio is extremely atmospheric and subtle before exploding into orchestral bombast when boss fights are on display. Visually it's a gorgeous technical showcase of particle physics and a buttery smooth framerate coupled with a visual aesthetic somewhere between H.R. Giger and modern Ridley Scott. The DualSense Controller's haptic feedback and built-in mic is used constantly to simulate everything from the light pattering of raindrops or the low rumbling of ground crumbling, all to great effect. Even the conceit of having the protagonist of the game be a woman in her 50s with emotional conflict stemming from real mid-life angst is an angle not a lot of mainstream entertainment explores.
Between the aforementioned audio logs showing Selene's increasingly unreliable mental state, there are several first-person perspective vignettes that are genuinely unsettling that take place in her old home on Earth. Taken on their own, these sequences are suspenseful and unsettling, as they slowly fill in pieces of Selene's backstory and why she was out near Atropos to begin with. It even adds a level of uncertainty about her whole journey. Has something genuinely alien begun to fundamentally change Selene by being on the planet for too long or has this all been something more metaphysical in nature?
As an exercise in atmosphere and tone, it is deeply gripping and begs for discussion and debate, but it does feel like the central driving focus gets lost. In addition to the frustrations with the game as it stands, Returnal's three acts feel less like natural progression of the story or Selene's understanding of her situation and more like an arbitrary moving of the goalposts. Considering that this is the first time Housemarque has attempted straightforward elaborate storytelling, there is a lot they get right, but their comfort zone is clearly in the action itself rather than the context around it.
Returnal | Final Thoughts
While there are complaints regarding progression and difficulty spikes, Returnal is a fantastic mix of dark psychological sci-fi tension juxtaposed with bloodpumping bullet hell arcade action. If you have a PlayStation 5 and enjoy roguelike action with a mix of existential dread, pick this up as soon as you can. Just be ready to put time aside for a play session until a more forgiving checkpoint system is put in.
TechRaptor reviewed Returnal on PlayStation 5 using a copy provided by the publisher.
- Exciting, Rewarding Roguelike Progression
- True Next Gen Technical Presentation
- Atmospheric, Moody Sci-Fi Story
- No Checkpoint or Suspend Point System
- Increasingly Muddy Plot