Returnal is a sci-fi video game about a person constantly reliving the past in order to find a new future. In some ways, it feels like a pointed metaphor for the game’s creators.
PlayStation fans are likely familiar with Finnish game studio Housemarque, whose best modern games have masterfully combined classic arcade chops with modern flourishes. Yet even its biggest PS3 and PS4 games (Super Stardust HD, Resogun, Nex Machina) have mostly felt like translations from classic cabinets, thanks to fixed perspectives and allegiant action. Blow stuff up, aim for the high score, game over, and repeat.
This week, Returnal sees the studio aim its pedigree at a much higher scope: a game that combines the pure action of ’80s arcade games with the plot, production value, and world exploration of a full-blown “adventure” game. It’s as if someone at Housemarque looked at 1981’s Galaga running next to 2018’s God of War and said, “Can we somehow combine these two?”
The result feels like a statement game for Housemarque, arguably in the same way that 2019’s Control solidified Remedy Studios’ own reputation—though this effort isn’t quite as successful. At its best, Returnal delivers the studio’s finest-yet action and tension within a phenomenal 3D-shooting system. I’ve gone to sleep thinking about the game’s best blasting moments, eager to wake up the next day and return (returnal?) for “one more run.” Yet at its worst, Returnal‘s roguelite trappings sometimes threaten to bring the whole package down—especially if you’re not very good at high-speed shooter games.
Returnal will be some people’s favorite game of 2021. But even those players should prepare to strap in for a bumpy, weird start.
A Selene for every (deadly) occasion
Returnal stars a modern-day astronaut named Selene, whom players take control of the moment she crash-lands onto a mysterious planet named Atropos. You crawl out of your wrecked ship, get your bearings, and run (as seen from a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective) to find a useful weapon… next to a dead astronaut with the same outfit and callsign as yours.
More dead Selenes appear, usually clutching personal audio recording devices that spoonfeed more of the game’s mysterious plot. You’ll add to that pile of corpses before long, since the opening tutorial segment includes a brutally difficult monster that traps you in a pit and kills in two hits. Immediately after your death, the screen flashes black, and the opening crash-on-a-planet sequence plays again with different camera angles; Groundhog Day stuff, but instead of “I’ve Got You, Babe,” your mornings always open with screams and smoke.
Your version of Selene remembers dying and coming back to life this time, but the world you’ve landed on looks different. The opening door reveals a new zone to run through. Different dead Selenes lie in different places (sometimes with new audio logs). Different rooms, lairs, and caverns appear, now full of new arrangements of enemies, items, and secrets.
Hence, we’re in roguelite territory, and the object is to die-and-retry while unraveling Atropos’ mysteries and finding a mix of temporary and permanent upgrades within every randomly generated sequence. That’s different than a roguelike, where each death starts you from scratch; roguelites bring you back to life with some upgrades remaining persistent after every death, while other stuff vanishes if you don’t use or spend it before you die. (The latter is much more common in the modern gaming era, with popular examples like Hades and Dead Cells; comparatively, Spelunky is the best example of a modern roguelike, if not the titular PC classic itself, Rogue.)
You’ll get stronger, you’ll keep going, you’ll keep dying
By the time you find that stronger monster again, you’ll have recovered a permanent “alt-fire” mode for your gun that shoots a charged, concentrated blast, along with a likely assortment of temporary upgrades. You’ll get stronger, in both permanent and temporary ways, and you’ll keep going.
But you’ll also keep dying.
Selene’s spacesuit has some nice batteries built in.
Returnal would rather you learn its systems within the course of the game’s die-and-retry loop, instead of breaking its brutality out to a tutorial. To some extent, I get it. This serves a plot that hinges on Selene’s confused dedication to breaking a time loop, and plot morsels emerge at a steady rate—which, I assure you, I haven’t spoiled here in the slightest. Still, you’ll have a better time if you understand the type of difficulty you’re getting yourself into.
Like Demon’s Souls before it, Returnal establishes a unique, tough-as-nails ruleset for combat, only this game’s take feels so much more like a Housemarque game. In a major departure from the Souls-like genre, Selene’s default movement speed is “damned fast,” and this is helped by unlimited “run” stamina (for even faster movement) and an instant dash-dodge button, which needs a second to recharge. In fact, there’s no “stamina” limitation anywhere in Returnal. Selene’s spacesuit clearly has some nice batteries built in.
This speed is imperative because players see Selene from a tight third-person angle as she runs through a mix of open fields and fallen-apart architecture. To live, you’ll have to keep moving, lest you get caught by waves of enemy bullets (usually large, slow-moving laser orbs) coming from all sides, along with foes that hunt for Selene’s body and pounce with melee attacks. To organically encourage your “git gud” mentality, Housemarque offers built-in help in the form of “adrenaline,” a meter that fills up every time Selene kills a foe without taking damage. Get your adrenaline high enough, and you’ll get perks. Some are combat boosts like increased melee damage (for the sword you eventually find), but others contribute directly to combat visibility. One perk makes ghosts of enemies appear if they’re behind cover. Another creates a warning radius around Selene’s body, lighting up to indicate whether you’re being targeted by bullets (white), turrets (purple), or pouncing foes (red) in any direction.