Genre: Third-Person Roguelike Action Bullet Hell Game
Returnal is the PS5’s first true exclusive in a while and it has a lot to prove. Developer Housemarque is best known for 2013’s Resogun and 2016’s Alienation), but this is their first attempt at making a AAA game. After finally playing it, I can say that this is definitely a roguelike game that isn’t afraid to ramp up the difficulty to the extreme.
The biggest question of all is: Can a roguelike game be worth a whopping US$70 (or RM299 in Malaysia)? Read on to find out more.
Groundhog Day Meets Alien And Lovecraft
The time loop is a common trope in science fiction properties. Every sci-fi franchise has gone the time loop route in a story or episode (Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone, etc), and some are even based entirely on that premise alone (most notably, movies like Groundhog Day and Edge Of Tomorrow). It’s been done to death, but new stories often put their own spin on the tired trope, and that includes Returnal.
What makes a time loop story compelling are what caused it to start happening in the first place (the origin) and what the protagonist has to do in order to stop the repeating cycle (the solution). The former is often what drives the mystery of the narrative. Returnal drops players as Selene mid-cycle, as she discovers that she’s on a time loop after discovering her own rotting corpse on the alien planet Atropos after seemingly crash landing there for the first time.
I won’t spoil any details from the plot of Returnal, of course, but it feels like the game is trying hard to be vaguer than it really is. Things aren’t spelt out for players, so don’t expect a heap of exposition to simply drop on your lap via a few lines of dialogue. The game is going for a “show, don’t tell” core philosophy and it shows. There are layers upon layers of a deepening mystery to uncover.
The game’s narrative is told via various mediums, including audio logs from other versions of Selene strewn throughout the biomes, as well as alien scribblings to learn about the planet’s lore and cinematic House segments, which take place in first-person. There are only six House segments in the game, but they reveal Selene’s backstory and past.
As a science fiction enthusiast, I appreciate the atmospheric tone of the game. It seems like the developers were really inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. Some of the alien humanoids and architecture look distinctly like they’re a homage to the late H.R. Giger’s work.
Lovecraftian elements can also be seen in the designs, especially the enemies, many of which are floating squid-like creatures with tentacles.
In addition, the music also helps set the tone for the game’s dark setting and intense combat. Fun fact: Returnal‘s original soundtrack is composed by Bobby Krlic, who was responsible for the music in 2019’s acclaimed horror movie Midsommar by Ari Aster. That guy really knows how to set a proper mood.
However, I feel like the most important thing I can point out in my review for Returnal is this, and it’s something that I would like to emphasize very much to those contemplating whether to buy this game:
This game is hard as hell.
Dark Souls Of Roguelikes
Yes, Returnal is a first-party AAA PlayStation exclusive, but it has more in common with From Software’s Bloodborne than its cousins. What do I mean by that? Well, in a majority of first-party AAA PlayStation exclusives like God Of War, Uncharted, Ghost Of Tsushima, The Last Of Us and Marvel’s Spider-Man, you can pretty much set the game on the lowest difficulty and easily plough through the game if you’re only in it to enjoy the story.
That is not the case with Returnal. There are no difficulty options in Returnal, and no way to tweak them. If you’re expecting accessibility options to make the game playable to your standards, you’re out of luck.
It’s YOU who must play to Returnal‘s standards. If you think I’m a weak & whiny games journalist just for saying that, I’ll have to remind you that I’ve played and reviewed games like Nioh 2 and Sekiro Shadows Die Twice. This isn’t my first rodeo.
I feel like I should point out how hard Returnal is because most gamers tend to see first-party AAA PlayStation exclusives as cinematic blockbuster games that are fun and not too challenging to play. That’s because most actually are, but there are exceptions to the rule, like Bloodborne and now, Returnal. Roguelikes are known to be notoriously difficult and challenging, so it’s no surprise that Returnal very much is to a tee.
Even from the beginning, Returnal indicates that it’s not a traditional first-party AAA PlayStation exclusive because there is no conventional main menu. When you boot up the game for the first time, it asks you to confirm several settings and a brief cinematic begins before it immediately thrusting you straight into the action from the get-go, kickstarting your very first cycle (or loop).
You’ll die many, many, many times. Countless, even. You’ll probably lose count several hours into the game. This is a game that severely punishes players for the simplest mistakes, but will reward skill and perseverance. Also, just like other roguelikes, you can’t manually save the game. Why? Because there are no checkpoints or save points. You either die or survive long enough to make considerable progress (by defeating a boss or reaching a new biome) and unlock a new piece of the story before you inevitably die again.
It takes considering longer to finish a run, because Returnal may be roguelike, but it’s anything but conventional. It has a proper narrative and that means a ‘run’ is not as simple as repeating the same Cycle over and over again. Sure, you can technically breeze through the biomes and reach the end fairly quickly, but you’ll end up severely underpowered for what awaits at the end (usually a boss or sub-boss).
I get this question a lot too; “Can we cheese through a run in less than an hour like Hades?” No, you cannot. It took me about 10 hours or so to complete Act 1 (the first three biomes), which would normally be considered a single ‘run’ in other roguelikes.
With the way the game works (starting virtually from scratch for each Cycle), you’ll end up having to spend more time building yourself up each time to avoid being too weak when you do try to make any kind of progress.
Fortunately, the sheer power of the PS5 means that even if you die a million times, you’ll almost instantaneously come back to life. There’s a brief cinematic every time you die, but you can simply skip that by holding the X button, so there’s essentially no loading screens at all in the entire game. That’s true next-gen for you.
Again, I have to reiterate that, unlike most other PlayStation exclusives, Returnal is first and foremost a roguelike game at its core. It’s hard as hell and requires a lot of work (and deaths) to progress, so don’t come into this game thinking you’ll simply “play it for the story”. That’s not possible.
Putting The Hell In Bullet Hell
All of that and I haven’t even touched on the actual gameplay yet. If you’ve seen the gameplay of Returnal, you’ll know that it’s a third-person action bullet hell game.
If I could best describe the core combat of Returnal, it feels like Mega Man meets Control with Metroidvania and roguelike elements.
The gameplay loop essentially works like this: You start off at the crash site (where Selene’s ship, Helios, crash lands at the beginning of the game, which is also always the beginning of a Cycle) with a standard pistol and nothing else. You can run by holding the L3 button, jump with the X button, and dash with the Circle button. Enemies will fire waves of projectiles at you just like they would in a bullet hell game, but in 3D.
There are six biomes in the game including three in Act 1 and three in Act 2. Each biome is a themed area where there’s usually a boss waiting at the end. All of these biomes are basically remnants of an ancient alien civilization but with different motifs. The first biome (Overgrown Ruins) is a jungle-like place while the second biome (Crimson Wastes) is a desolated desert. You can also expect an icy snow biome and even an underwater one that’s probably the creepiest in the game.
Besides moving from area to area clearing enemies, there are occasional platforming sections that break up the combat. These usually have laser obstacles that can damage you and the like, but they often have items lying in wait if you dare to complete them. Early on in Returnal, you’ll also obtain a grappling hook item (the Icarian grapnel) that makes traversal more dynamic and exciting.
In fact, that’s where the Metroidvania elements come in. There will be rooms and areas that require special items like the Icarian grapnel to reach. For instance, I made the mistake of jumping into a body of water early on in Returnal to grab an item that’s underwater. Little did I know that I can’t actually swim, and it would be later that I would unlock an item that eventually allows me to do so.
It’s great that the map details where each and every item is. I also applaud how the game specifies on the map which is the main path (marked by a rectangular symbol) and which is the side path (marked by a triangular symbol). You can ignore the side path entirely, but this can deprive you of more powerful items that will help you in your run. It’s definitely recommended that you explore the side paths to discover more items and weapons since they’re almost the only way to get significantly stronger.
What makes Returnal harder than other roguelikes like Hades is that there are no significant incremental upgrades in-between runs (which are called Cycles). Each time you start a Cycle, you return to the crash site from the beginning of the game with nothing but a standard pistol and nothing else. There’s no way to gradually increase stats or start a Cycle with a powerful weapon. The only things that you can permanently keep are items for traversal like the aforementioned Icarian grapnel. That’s it.
The only other resource or material that does survive a loop or Cycle upon death is the Ether. These are used to cleanse and purify Malignant items and chests. You can still grab these Malignant items (which can be easily identified by their dark mist) without using up Ethers to purify them, but doing so would afflict you with debuffs called Malfunctions. Malfunctions often require specific actions or items to get rid of, so it’s often better not to take the risk.
There are a few other important resources and materials. Obolites is the main in-game currency dropped by enemies after death and used to obtain items in your Cycle, while the Atropian Key is used to open rare chests and certain locked doors. Arguably the most important items of all are Artifacts. An Artifact is a one-of-a-kind item that offers a permanent stat boost or benefit. Well, permanent in this case is until you die, since you lose all Obolites, Atropian Keys, Artifacts and weapons when you start a new Cycle.
The main reason you’ll need Obolites is to purchase these Artifacts and other items. The term used in the game whenever you use up Obolites is to ‘fabricate’ them. There’s not really a central hub in Returnal where you can recuperate, but certain biomes do have a small hub of sorts that acts as a safe room for you to spend your Obolites to either fabricate Artifacts and items or increase your maximum health.
Returnal also tends to use specific terms for certain generic game terms. I guess it’s the game’s way of fitting it all into the story’s unique tone and atmosphere. Health is referred to as Integrity, while the defence stat is Protection. Combined with resources like Obolites, Ether, and Atropian Keys, it may seem like a lot to keep track of, but trust me, they’ll be second nature a few hours into the game.
And then there are the weapons. As you explore the biomes in your Cycle, you’ll find a variety of weapons with unique names, including machine guns, shotguns, rocket launchers, and more. The catch? You can carry only one single weapon at a time, so you’ll be switching weapons a lot in any Cycle.
There is also a vital gameplay mechanic called Weapon Proficiency, where you’ll gain experience by killing enemies and grabbing certain items. Gaining enough experience will increase your Weapon Proficiency. Higher Weapon Proficiency levels translate to more powerful weapons being available during your Cycle.
Weapon Proficiency isn’t the only thing you’ll be grinding experience for during your Cycles. Each weapon also has various Traits, which special mods or modifiers attached to your weapons. It’s fun finding new weapons with new Traits and mods. These Traits range from something as simple as increased damage, extra bullets or lasers in every shot (not ammo, since ammo is unlimited), additional effects like acid or exploding shells, and more. You can even stack multiple Weapon Traits for a potent combination (but they’re still random).
Oh, and as much as Returnal is unforgiving and punishes even the littlest mistakes, the game does reward skill in a direct way during combat. Every enemy you kill will accumulate Adrenaline. As long as you don’t get hit by an enemy attack and remain unharmed, you’ll gain higher levels of Adrenaline, each of which comes with a benefit. For example, one of the Adrenaline levels unlocks an arrow reticule that helps pinpoint where enemies are out of your camera’s view.
If that’s impressive, wait until you experience every weapon’s Alt-Fire mode, which makes use of the DualSense’s adaptive triggers. You can unleash each weapon’s Alt-Fire by pressing the L2 button all the way down and just shooting with the R2. Pressing the L2 button halfway will aim down the sights. It’s remarkably responsive way, showcasing what the DualSense is capable of.
In your Cycle, you’ll also pick up health upgrades (to increase maximum health) and something called parasites, which are exactly what it sounds like. You can equip parasites, each of which will offer both a positive effect or buff and negative effect or debuff at the same time.
As much as I can explain all the different mechanics in Returnal, it’s incredible how amazing the game feels to actually play. Returnal’s aforementioned Alt-Fire mode is probably the best use of the DualSense’s adaptive trigger yet, and that’s not all. You can feel and hear the world in Returnal; reloading weapons, the sound of rain, and more via haptic feedback. After many hours into the game, I just get into a moving groove and it feels good to dash around all over the place.
That is; until it all crashes down. I know I already mentioned how hard the game can be but nothing beats that feeling when a good run is cut short by one or two mistakes. Returnal demands your full attention at all times. It’s part of the roguelike experience, but damn it if it’s not painful to see all your progress gone when you have to restart a new Cycle.
Even though I played before receiving the Day One patch, my experience was smooth for the most part. Unfortunately, there was one crippling game-breaking bug that persisted and frustrated me. Sometimes, when I enter a room and perform an action (like interacting with an object), the door would lock and refuse to open, making me stuck there. Imagine playing more than 30 minutes before getting stuck and being forced to start all over again with a new Cycle (by the way, you can start a new Cycle simply by pausing and selecting the option).
This is annoying as heck because it would happen every few Cycles, and at least once or twice every single time that I play the game (I usually play for a few hours in one session). The reason why this bug is so frustrating is that it always happens when I’ve just bought an important item using my hard-earned Obolites or interacted with an important item. All that effort becomes wasted, and in a game as hard as this, that’s enough to make anybody rage quit.
Returnal will require a gargantuan amount of effort and a lot of time to actually finish. It took me about 24 hours to reach the end of Act 2 and the credits started rolling. Plus, a game like this depends on the skill of the player.
Some might progress faster than others, while some might not be able to even advance. That’s the harsh reality that is Returnal.
Kill, Die, Repeat
I won’t mince words. If you’re expecting to play through Returnal just for the story or expecting it to be like any other AAA PlayStation exclusive before it, then you should probably skip it altogether. Returnal is for those who are ready to grit their teeth for some truly unforgiving and punishing combat. Consider that a genuine warning.
But if you’re one of those who picked up Demon’s Souls for the PS5 as your first game on the next-gen console, Returnal is perfect for you. If you can’t break the Cycle, the Cycle will probably break you. If that’s what you relish, then get ready for a true next-gen experience and game that’s worthy to be called a PS5 exclusive.
- Roguelike Cycles gameplay loop is addictive.
- Satisfying fast-paced bullet-hell combat.
- Best use of the DualSense adaptive triggers yet.
- Great tone and atmosphere for fans of darker and grim sci-fi.
- Gorgeous graphics.
- Truly feels like a next-gen game.
- Lots of potential game time.
- Unforgiving, punishing, and hard as hell.
- Some game-breaking bug & “Early Access” brokenness.
Final Score: 80/100