Review: Returnal is a welcome slice of strange, and a testament to Housemarque’s talent

Conversations in unfamiliar languages.

Image via PlayStation

The idea of second chances is always interesting. In Returnal, where the protagonist Selene just doesn’t seem to stay dead, they take on extra meaning.What would you do differently if things changed the next time around? That is the question that Returnal from developer Housemarque asks.

As players move through a shifting world populated by hellish monsters and alien architecture, movement becomes communication. The fragile humanity of Selene goes up against the crushing presence of the xenos in a spirited debate where words are writ large across the screen, barreling outward from bosses and tumbling forth from every creature in the game in the form of damaging waves of energy.

Returnal, which from the outside looking in is a third-person action game with procedural generation and severe roguelike tendencies, is actually not that at all. It’s a game that is trying to communicate and inform the player. It’s a game with a secret, and the only way to discover that secret is to die. 

Slipstream Selene

Screenshot via Gamepur

Returnal lifts rather liberally from New Weird and Slipstream literature, wrapping science-fiction flesh around a fantasy structure before shoving a disturbingly human heart into the center of the beast.

You play as Selene, a space-faring explorer who has crashed her ship, the Helios, on an alien planet. The job now is to escape, but the planet has other ideas. The game’s six playable areas are filled with creatures that are completely alien, all with wriggling tentacles, spidery limbs, and tree-like skin. There is little evolution in common between Selene and her new foe, and she is overpowered at every step. 

This is a dangerous world, and it won’t be long until players find themselves on the wrong end of an alien attack. All is not lost upon death, as Selene awakes once again near the Helios, not quite as dead as she expected to be. It turns out that whatever is in control of this strange place wants Selene to live.

This is where the roguelike elements come in, as each run through the game is different. The layout of the areas will change, forcing players to explore new routes, find new weapons, and take on new threats. Progress will generally reset between runs, called cycles, but some changes remain. Players that unlock a sword or a grappling hook can keep them between runs, for example. 

As players get further into the game, die more, and explore the world, they will slowly unravel a mystery around Selene. All is not what it seems on this strange alien planet, and each death and hard-earned piece of progress will bring Selene one small step closer to the truth about her reality. 

I-Frame, therefore I am

Image via Housemarque

Where Returnal shines is the combat. Developer Housemarque has extensive experience making bullet hell games — and being very good at it. It is this type of combat that they transport into the third dimension to provide players with a hugely challenging experience. 

Players can move, dash, jump, and shoot. Other more advanced tricks can also be learned as the game unfolds. The dash provides some useful I-frames, brief moments of invulnerability that can be capitalized on during combat. The standout aspect of combat in Returnal, however, is just how difficult it is. 

This is not to say it is unfair — the game simply lacks many of the safety blankets that modern gaming tends to afford us as players. There is no way to save a run, which is certainly one of the more interesting design choices in the game. Enemies hit hard, especially bosses, but there are no overly cheap mechanics involved. While the combat itself relies on player skill and reaction times, the difficulty can be influenced a little too much by RNG, which is what might freeze out some people.

The items, buffs, and weapons that players find on a run will make all the difference between victory and defeat, and it is this element that might turn some players away. Truthfully, the most important thing for players is simple experience. Learning the nuances of the alien world they are exploring, its mechanics, and how best to take advantage of them will be far more important than any lucky drop.

The next generation

Returnal patch
Image by Housemarque

Returnal is a PlayStation 5 exclusive title, and as such it finds itself in an eerily similar position to Godfall. Both titles will be looked at as proof of concept for Sony’s new hardware, Godfall as a launch title and Returnal as the first title after something of a drought since those initial games dropped last year. Both are developed by former indie-developers, and are both those teams’ first forays into games at a triple-A scale. Returnal arguably does the better job of highlighting the strengths of the console, however. 

First and foremost, it is graphically stunning. While the game can hit up to 4K at 60 FPS, it is also visually striking, leaning slightly into a look that is just a little bit messy. There is something otherworldly, almost eerie about how Returnal looks, as if the developer made a conscious effort to stick close to the haziness of concept art over the hyper-sharpened texture fest that many games go for. This works incredibly well, not just visually, but with regard to the game’s main story as well. 

Where Returnal truly succeeds as a PlayStation 5 title is that it made me believe in the DualSense. I simply wasn’t that sold on how many titles have used the new controller so far, but Returnal converted me. Pulling the triggers to different depths for different effects feels incredibly natural after just a few moments. Running around these weird alien landscapes, feeling the gentle crunch of gravel through my hands, or the soft kiss of rain, felt amazing. 

The verdict

Returnal is an excellent game that does a fantastic job of converting the frantic combat of a 2D bullet hell into the third dimension. The alien world that the game has created is interesting and alluring, and doesn’t lose any of its lustre or horror as the game progresses. 

The difficulty is likely to be a sticking point for some players, and that with the game’s roguelike nature may make it difficult for some people to fall in love with the game. On the other hand, that same difficulty is likely to make other players love it even more. 

What Housemarque has done with Returnal is establish itself as a developer that can combine the razor mechanics and combat systems they excel at with unusual story elements to provide singular gaming experiences. Returnal may not be a system seller, but it certainly is a high-interest game with a lot to offer to anyone who owns a PlayStation 5.

Final score:

8.5 / 10

+ A beautiful looking game that takes full advantage of the PlayStation 5’s power and features
+ An interesting tale that will keep players invested until the end
+ Combat is superb, tense, and exciting
+ The harsh alien world is fantastically realized, offering intrigue and challenge in equal measure
The difficulty level will drive some players away 
Disclosure: This review was written using a game code provided by the publisher.