Review | Returnal
Roguelike titles have continued to rise in recent years, with new titles pushing the boundaries of what they can be. Last year, we got Supergiant Games’ Hades, delivering a fun story with rewarding progression to critical acclaim. These games are starting to gain recognition as art, and Housemarque’s Returnal makes that next leap. Marking their PlayStation 5 debut, Housemarque presents a challenging yet engaging roguelike puzzle for players to put together. Even when you have all the pieces together, you’ll still be asking questions, but you’ll still have a feeling of satisfaction. It’s this satisfying feeling that makes Returnal so special.
You play as Selene, an Astra explorer who receives a signal from the hostile planet of Atropos. Crash landing onto the planet, her ship is beyond repair, forcing Selene to investigate the “White Shadow” signal. Upon further investigation, Selene starts to discover Astra corpses, but with her name on them. It doesn’t take long for the player to bring Selene to her untimely death, only for her to restart from the crash. She maintains her memories, but every time she comes back, Atropos changes on her. She starts getting strange visions and memories, and the planet reflects them onto her path. To get to the bottom of things, she pursues a way to escape the planet and break the cycle once and for all.
Returnal isn’t your typical story, as it chronicles the exploits of a woman delving deeper into madness. The constant deaths and resurrections get to her. She finds recordings that she herself leaves behind in previous lives. Her visions pursue her just as much as the alien lifeforms on the planet do. It’s relentless, and no matter how much Selene tries to compose herself, you can always catch those moments she starts to break. The journey here isn’t just moving through multiple procedurally generated biomes, but also diving into the psyche of a woman who is stranded on a dangerous planet alone. Selene’s story is practically the definition of insanity.
Gameplay puts players into a third person shooter with bullet Hell and platforming elements. Players control Selene as she wields various guns she’ll discover along the way. Each weapon will have a primary fire and a random secondary fire that cools down after each use. They’ll even have special passive abilities that increase in number as you gain weapon proficiency. As you uncover the local wildlife, you’ll experience various patterns and tactics, having to adapt on the fly. Most enemies will shoot a volley or projectiles, some in a straight path, others in a wide spread. Avoiding these projectiles takes some practice, but luckily Selene’s dash ability does include invincible frames for most of these attacks. Of course, players should learn not to rely on that alone, as they’ll find it will only get them so far.
Defeating enemies grants Obolites, which is the currency for the game. These Obolites will allow Selene to purchase stat upgrades, consumables, and even artifacts to strengthen her. Of course, defeating enemies without taking damage also powers up the Adrenaline system. Basically, killing multiple enemies will boost your Adrenaline level, granting new abilities as you play. These abilities can be seeing enemies through walls, more Obolite drops, or even damage siphons. Having a good Adrenaline rush makes you stronger, and even makes you feel a bit more invincible in fights. Of course, it can all be taken away after taking a single hit.
Exploring the six biomes of Atropos takes perserverence, each with many trials to overcome. Even though the layout is procedurally generated, there are still hints of familiarity throughout. From the rainy woods of the Overgrown Ruins to the underwater depths of the Abyssal Scar, most biomes have a distinct feel. You’ll uncover lore and remnants of a lost civilization known as the Severed as you journey forth. Their history will become a part of Selene’s findings, and she’ll also uncover their technology. It’s this technology that helps Selene survive and further explore the planet, albeit through much trial and error. This technology remains with Selene permanently, allowing her to take her new tools into new cycles.
Items like the Atropian Blade allow for players to perform powerful melee attacks that break shields and break Obolite clusters. The grappling hook allows Selene to reach new areas, giving an extension to her traversal options. Later, she’ll gain the ability to survive hazardous areas and even be able to view hidden platforms. These tools stay with your journey and provide game-changing abilities, but many other upgrades are temporary. Over the course of a run, you’ll collect artifacts that grant you abilities and stats. You’ll find new powerful weapons as you gain weapon proficiency, and you’ll boost your health with Silphium Resin. Should you die, all of these temporary upgrades are lost, and you’re set to do it all over again.
Living and learning is the key to completing Returnal. With each run, you’ll likely discover new information. I constantly discovered new things like breaking statues to grant Obolites, or even reveal a hidden enemy. Breaking purple pods can hatch parasites, a risk/reward creature that can make life easier (or a living Hell). Other findings include secret entrances, challenge rooms, balancing malignancy, and even treasure demons. Even after rolling the credits, there’s more secrets to uncover to get to the true ending of the game. Even then, I’m sure there’s still things I’ve been overlooking that were right in front of me the entire time.
When it comes to the graphics of the game, Returnal is a true showcase of what the PlayStation 5 is capable of. Incredible looking particle effects are all throughout, especially when using translocators. Enemies have a mixture of H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Giger in their design, showcasing plenty of tentacles and skeletal structure, and they look phenomenal. Environments also look fantastic, full of plenty of details that fill them with life. There’s even destructible elements, showcasing even more power when a statue crumbles to rubble. Of course, there are still some rough spots with the frame rate, especially during some of the house segments. Despite this, the game performs admirably in most other situations and looks fantastic in doing so.
One other big element of Returnal is the music. While this is an action game, there are tons of psychological horror themes. The music attributes to this with haunting tones, sending chills into your veins thanks to Midsommar composer Bobby Krlic. At some point, the music even becomes a part of the plot, resonating well into the visuals on screen. It’s somber and evocative, and it makes the game even more unforgettable. Jane Perry’s performance as Selene is also extremely captivating. The overall experience is incredibly immersive, especially with the DualSense feedback of the environment. Feeling the rain drops and the impact of an attack make you really feel like you’re there on Atropos during Selene’s journey.
For those that are more competitive, there’s the daily challenges that allow players to compete on the leaderboards. When I first started Returnal, there were some bugs that prevented me from enjoying this feature fully. I would enter the challenge, only for doors to never open, forcing me to quit. Since these challenges are daily, quitting means you can’t go again until the next day. Thanks to a recent patch, this seems to be fixed, allowing for modified challenges to earn Obolites on a multiplier for a high score. Completing these daily challenges earn rewards, like the valuable Ether resource.
It’s extremely satisfying to make your way through a treacherous biome to take down a difficult boss. Working through the challenge with a certain sense of momentum is what makes Returnal so great to play. The gameplay is excellent and the rewards feel like they make a difference. Unfortunately, this means you’ll have to get used to long play sessions. Like many roguelike titles, Returnal doesn’t have a save function. You save after each run, maintaining progress, but there’s no quick save function during the run. This means that if you’re deep into a run, you’ll have a handful of options: end your run voluntarily, use the PS5’s risky rest mode, or keep going. Basically, if you’re going to play this game, you have to make a commitment.
Overall, Returnal is a tour de force of the roguelike genre. Housemarque has created an interesting world that engages your senses and entrances you. Jumping into Selene’s world and discovering more about her and the planet is intense, but fulfilling. With beautiful visuals, gratifying combat, and surprises at every turn, this is what a AAA roguelike experience should feel like. While the challenge is high, the lessons learned along the way should help to make each run better. It’s not easy to break the cycle, but once you do, you’ll feel an amazing sense of accomplishment.
Final Score: 9 out of 10