Review: Returnal (PS5)


Returnal should not be a roguelike, and I say this as someone who rather enjoys that genre. It’s a remarkable game in so many ways: full of the sort of frantic yet precise action that Housemarque is unrivalled at creating, but on a whole new level of scale and ambition, with an intriguing Alien-esque setting, a dose of psychological horror, and some of the best boss fights I’ve ever seen in a videogame. But what makes Returnal‘s strengths work as well as they is how meticulous and finely crafted they are, which is at direct odds with the unpredictability and deliberate unfairness that makes a roguelike tick.

You play as Selene, a spacefaring scout who crash-lands on a hostile alien planet while following a strange broadcast called “White Shadow”. If the unsettling atmosphere and swarms of deadly creatures aren’t enough, it’s also a place that’s seemingly caught in a time loop: whenever Selene dies, she wakes up again at the moment of her crash, with a planet that’s seemingly reconfigured itself. With no other chance to escape, delving into Atropos’ many secrets—and her own lost memories—through death after death is her only way out.

This lays the groundwork for an incredible third-person shooter. Housemarque is unrivalled when it comes to building action that is chaotic and frenzied, but also surgical in its precision; the sort of thing that you can easily jump into, but spend a long time mastering. Returnal brings that to a new extreme, with the added dimension bringing a new dynamic. Using the level geometry to your advantage becomes core, both for cover and for mobility, as you weave through enemy bullet onslaughts and try to stay alive. Each fight is a rush, always keeping you on your toes and letting pinpoint accuracy and awareness of your surroundings be the things that let you triumph.

With each new “cycle” comes a new level layout, new combinations of different enemies and rooms—each individually familiar after you’ve seen them the first time, but combining in ways that keep things dynamic and unpredictable. There’s a light platforming touch, with most rooms having some sort navigational puzzle that can double as protection or an escape route in a fight. There’s even a neat little Metroid-like touch, with the discovery of alien technology (which persists through deaths, thankfully) like a grappling hook that expand the exploratory possibilities of future cycles, even through familiar locations.

Boss fights the energy that drives regular combat encounters to even higher levels, with the sort of mesmerising bullet hell patterns that you’d expect to see in a Cave shooter. Lots of games have tried to make bullet hell work in a 3D game, but few succeed quite like Returnal does; its patterns are complex and meticulous, making full use of the 3D space without ever letting the camera get in the way of the full view you need to effectively dodge. Like any danmaku game, figuring out the way through these onslaughts takes practice, but fighting your way through the multiple stages of each boss fight is pure exhilaration.

Despite how energetic and action-packed it can get, Returnal is still a game steeped in atmosphere. From thick, fog-drenched forests to desolate desert wastelands to strange alien structures, Atropos is an eerie, unsettling place, and the quiet moments between encounters let that really sink in. The deeper you go, and the more you piece together the mystery surrounding the whole place, the creepier it all gets. Impressive use of the PS5’s haptic controller feedback and layered, detailed audio design add even more texture to that eerie atmosphere, making Atropos you can become wholly absorbed in—a terrifying place, certainly, but also one with the kind of awe and beauty that only a desolate alien hellscape can deliver.

When all these things come together, Returnal is a sublime mix of energy and atmosphere, moving seamlessly between frantic encounters, boss fights that demand practised, perfect execution, and the oppressive mood of being alone in a terrible, terrifying place.

But it’s also a roguelike, and the unpredictability and deliberate unfairness that comes with that sits at direct odds with everything Returnal does so well.

In Rogue and the many games it’s inspired, death comes frequently, often in a random, cruel fashion. But with the right pieces in place, that works—death isn’t just part of the experience, but a fundamental part of what makes the experience enjoyable. You obviously want to win, but losing can be almost as much fun when the circumstances of your death are exciting. The most important thing is that dying should rarely, if ever, feel like a waste of time; whether through “roguelite” permanent upgrade systems, a progressive narrative that develops through each death, the process of constantly building knowledge of the game’s systems, or just the sheer chaotic joy of scrambling to find a winning strategy with whatever bag of sticks the dice have rolled for you, a good roguelike makes death feel meaningful. Even when you don’t beat the game, you feel like you’ve gained something.

In Returnal, death comes frequently, often in a random, cruel fashion, but here, the majority of those deaths feel like a complete waste of time. There are firm lines in the sand that equal “progress” in some sense or another, but any run that doesn’t cross one of those—which will be most of them—is just wasted like wasted effort. A good roguelike makes getting up after a fall almost a necessary compulsion; dying in Returnal just makes me feel like I’ve pissed the last two hours of my life down the drain for no good reason, and turn it off to go do something else.

There’s a wide range of different weapons, upgrades, detrimental suit malfunctions, and the like to create a unique loadout for each new cycle, but nothing that really alters the fundamental core of the combat loop. In practice, everything either increases your damage output or ability to take a hit (or decreases them, in the case of malfunctions), so there’s little room for the kind of dynamic interplay between systems and different item and skill combinations that can make even a losing run in a roguelike feel worthwhile. 

Regular enemies are straightforward enough in their design that there’s not much to learn through repeat encounters—one or two fights is enough to know everything a new enemy is going to do and how best to respond to it. That doesn’t mean fighting them stops being interesting, and the shifting dynamic of fighting those familiar foes in different configurations and levels is always exciting, but it does mean Returnal doesn’t have the kind of indirect meta-progression of learning the nuances of a game’s systems that a lot of other roguelikes do. 

By contrast, boss fights, the absolute highlight of Returnal‘s meticulous combat systems, demand practice and the patience to master—the kind of practice and mastery that only comes through repeated attempts and repeated deaths. That’s a design that can work wonderfully, but not so much in a game where every death, as much as you may learn from it, results in at least 15 minutes of trudging your way back, even with the shortcuts that come with reaching certain narrative milestones. And that’s if you’re lucky; the death run can be a lot longer if you get a bad roll with map layouts, some unlucky deaths along the way, or if you (sensibly) want to invest time in gearing up for the upcoming fight.

Even the story, despite the narrative framing built around the cyclical nature of a roguelike, does little to make those deaths meaningful. Major plot beats come solely from absolute progress in how far you can make it in one cycle—once you’ve reached a certain destination and witnessed the developments that come with it, no amount of death and retrying will let you uncover more of the narrative until you can reach the next objective. At least you don’t have to replay those same story moments with each cycle, with narrative progress being persistent. 

Other fragments of lore and narrative come from scout logs scattered about the world, left behind by past versions of Selene. Given the setup, you’d expect these to be generated by your own deaths: die in one cycle, then if you can find your old corpse in the next, you get a new snippet of story along with it. As far as I can tell, that isn’t what happens, though; the scout logs I’ve found have all been in random places where I don’t recall dying, and often in places I’m only just exploring for the first time. There’s a missed opportunity here to make dying itself a crucial piece of how the story unfolds, despite the game’s premise setting it up for exactly that.

So I’m torn. On the one hand, Returnal is one of the best third-person shooters you’ll find, full of the kind of frantic, precise action that’s so satisfying to master, but on a scale and with a sense of atmosphere that’s far beyond anything Housemarque has done before. On the other, the ill-conceived idea to make it a roguelike sits at odds with everything the game does best, undermining its greatest strengths and turning an exciting, intense game into a tedious and frustrating one. If you’ve got the patience for it, this is an adventure that’s absolutely worth taking, but I can’t help but wonder how incredible Returnal could be if it didn’t keep getting in its own way.

Title: Returnal
Developer: Housemarque
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed)
Release date: 30 April 2021

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.


About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.