It always starts the same. A crashed spaceship. A lone astronaut. An alien planet teeming with incredibly hostile life. Returnal is a game built around the idea of loops, with death being a natural part of a terrifying cycle of rebirth where you never know what’s coming for you next.
Returnal, Housemarque’s latest video game, is a game about solitude and survival on an alien planet. With the odds stacked against her…wait a minute didn’t I just do an introductory paragraph?
Imagine the horror of space, with no back-up and an entire planet populated by murderous wildlife that’s hellbent on driving you mad before putting you out of your misery. That’s a pretty accurate summary of Returnal, the latest game from Housemarque that’s…Okay I swear I’ve written something along these lines before, but something went…wrong. Maybe some lethal variant of writer’s block but maybe the third time will be the charm.
It’s no secret that Housemarque is one of the most underrated gems in the industry today. This is the studio that kept Sony’s PlayStation 4 console chugging along long after the likes of Knack and Killzone: Shadowfall had outstayed their welcome, thanks in no small part to the addictive nature of the schmup-defining masterpiece that is Resogun.
From there, the studio just kept churning out hits that featured one of the brightest visual designs in the industry. Alienation is twin-stick perfection as hordes of aliens fall beneath your guns, Nex Machina is an old-school high score attack for the ages and Matterfall is…Actually let’s not talk about that one.
So what does Returnal feel like? In an age where originality isn’t enough, Returnal is a game that borrows liberally from a genre that has become popular in recent years, while throwing a few new ideas into the mix, and still somehow managing to retain the DNA of design that is unmistakably intertwined with Housemarque’s powerhouse genetics.
It is also both frustrating and exhilarating, a no-holds barred rogue-like that will drive you to the edge of madness, and leave you grinning from ear to ear when you get that victory that counts over a boss that threatens to rip your sanity to shreds. I can’t explain just how much I love and loathe this game, which has had me assume the most serious of lean-forward pose during some of its more twisted dungeons as I faced an assortment of monsters capable of launching entire artillery strikes at my face.
But that perseverance has paid off. I’m not going to mince words here, because Returnal will kick your ass. Maybe if you spend 12 hours a day running Hades challenge rooms you’ll find it a breeze, but for the average gamer it’s going to be one of the greatest challenges that they’ll ever undertake. As difficult as it is, Returnal never feels unfair in what it throws at the player.
Death creates experience, and that experience builds on the game when the protagonist Selene makes enough headway to restart the cycle and finds herself equipped with a handy laser-sword or a grappling hook to reach new shortcuts. Selene also has a fairly chunky arsenal at her disposal; what starts with a traditional sidearm holstered to her hip soon evolves as she discovers more heavy-duty weapons, each one equipped with its own alternate-firing mode.
Fancy being a sniper? Train your eye and unleash a massive bolt of armour-piercing energy. Want to let the AI do the heavy-lifting? Homing rounds have your back. From alien shotguns to acid bomb-lobbing grenade launchers, Selene’s collection of guns are more than up to the task, augmented by weapon proficiency that increases their damage output and adds special bonuses like phase-shifting rounds or ammo that deals bonus damage to weak points on an obelisk of doom.
Selene can also equip artifacts that provide other beneficial mods to her suit, such as added protection or the ability to slowly repair her gear when it reaches a critical point. Throw in a handy dash that renders her immune to damage for an advantageous split-second, and this astronaut is more than capable of holding her own in combat.
But as a rogue-like, there’s a catch to all this: You never know what you’re going to get in any single run. Having the right mods and weapons to take down bullet-spamming monsters from beyond mortal ken is one thing, but you can never be certain if this cycle you’re on will be the one that properly prepares you.
This idea is compounded on by an environment full of malignant elements. Parasites can attach themselves to your suit but its quid pro quo as they’ll demand something in exchange for their gifts. Maybe that’s sapping your spacesuit of integrity every time you open a treasure box in exchange for added firepower. Maybe it’ll alter reality so that you can earn more resources for upgrades while enemies leave behind a puddle of harmful acid when defeated.
On top of that, there’s the chance that your suit may even malfunction when you interact with malignant-infected items. While they can be cleansed, taking a gamble will result in a malfuntion that can only be repaired by delivering a number of melee strikes or fabricating items. It wouldn’t be a Housemarque game if there wasn’t an arcade element at play, and Returnal delivers on that theme with how it pushes a player to achieve perfection.
Adding up kills without taking any damage will increase your adrenaline meter, each point increasing Selene’s ability to deal damage, recon the environment, and get the most out of her weapons. Mind you, just taking a single hit will reset the adrenaline meter back to zero, forcing players to play not just cleverly but cautiously as well lest they lose their advantage. There’s nothing more bittersweet than one enemy blindsiding you and stealing all of your sweet adrenaline process.
Combined with an active reload system called Overload in Returnal, Housemarque’s game absolutely shines when you find yourself caught in its rhythm. You’re narrowly dodging attacks, charging through enemies, and unleashing a bullet hell of your own as you return fire. You’re dancing on the edge of tomorrow, barely staying alive while popping consumable items to give yourself a slight advantage, but once all the elements align it’s harmony in motion.
Tight, precise, and perfect in its execution of blended ideas, Returnal isn’t just a tough as adamantium nails adventure. It’s also a surprisingly tense horror, one fraught with spine-tingling suspense as you never truly know what’s really going on until the very end of the game. And even then, you don’t know if you can trust your eyes once the credits roll.
There’s an unsettling atmosphere of dread, a sensation that something is behind you, always watching and plotting while Selene pushes forward. Having died multiple times by the time that Returnal begins, the undiluted terror of Selene discovering echoes of her past in the form of hew own corpse strewn about the planet is truly horrifying, with her story being told through multiple audio logs that detail a descent into madness and desperation.
So close to the end, yet never reaching her goal, each Selene desperately hopes that this time will be the last time that she has to face a universe of madness.
And yet there’s still more to Returnal’s design that deserves to be praised. After launching in November, the PS5 hasn’t been short of games but it has been dry when it comes to those killer titles that will truly define what this console is capable of. Returnal is an oasis in the current exclusives desert, a title which may not appear to have the AAA budget of your gods of war or horizons with zero dawn, but it certainly does feel like a big-budget experience wrapped up in a humble and focused frame.
In typical Housemarque fashion, the energy of this game is translated into the visuals which explode with some of the best particle effects in the business and will tickle the fancy of anyone who loves the tactile technology of tomorrow as seen in films such as Alien or Event Horizon. Selene herself has a number of small details at any given moment, the tentacle technology on each monster is impressive, and the worlds you’ll visit truly do feel alien in design.
The boss fights you’ll work your way towards are showcases for what Housemarque is capable of, pixel peril distilled into a brutal challenge that’ll leave you breathless and shaking by the time they’re done. Not just incredible to look at, Returnal is also a benchmark for what the DualSense controller is truly capable of.
Astro’s playroom may have gotten the ball rolling with its application of the new handheld technology, but Returnal kicks it up a notch with stellar sound design and haptic feedback. A number of options are available, but the default setting here is sublime. There’s a fine-tuned level of resistance on the adaptive triggers, the vibrations always feel just right, and hearing your equipped parasite slither around your suit through the DualSense speaker is incredibly immersive.
While I would recommend using a headset just to soak up the terror more adequately, Returnal’s sound design is phenomenal either way. The world around you sounds alien, the soundtrack always hits the right notes as it swaps from eerie to all hell breaking loose, and Selene’s voice actress does a brilliant job at portraying the stranded astronaut. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed feeling a game, as much as I have with Returnal.
Returnal always starts the same: A lone astronaut crashing on an alien planet that is populated with lethal life-forms hellbent on keeping her trapped in an eternal time-loop of death and exploration. It’s a…you ever get that feeling of Déjà vu? I swear I’ve been here before…but when? And for how long? Have I not typed these words already…
Returnal, Housemarque’s latest game…
Last Updated: April 29, 2021