What's Good About Returnal

What's Good About Returnal
Live. Die. Repeat.

So by the time you’re reading this, it’s most likely Easter, a time of Easter egg hunting and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This dovetails nicely into today's piece on Returnal, a roguelike that’s centred around a time loop where you die and comes back to life constantly. That’s probably in bad taste. But it’s thematically appropriate, so I’m leaving it in.

Screenshot fo Selene approaching an alien sarcophagus
You do find some wild stuff.

Returnal is a roguelike third-person shooter by Finnish developer Housemarque, the studio behind the Super Stardust games, Outland, Matterfall, and Resogun (more like Reso Fun, am I right?). You play as Selene Vassos, an astronaut with the Astra Corporation who crash lands on the planet Atropos in search of a mysterious signal dubbed the White Shadow. Things immediately take a turn when Selene discovers that she’s stuck in a time loop and must do everything she can to survive Atropos’s hostile environment and break the loop. Returnal’s time loop serves as an excellent mechanical justification for why you start over when you die, but also a great narrative device for exploring a character’s motivations, and inner thoughts, and using it as a vehicle for change. This is used to great effect in the form of a series of trips to Selene’s old home in first-person that flesh out her backstory. It’s weird and it unfolds in some really interesting ways and I love that. There are times when it feels downright Cosmic Horror and that’s the best way I can describe it.

Returnal stands in unique contrast to Housemarque's other output because it’s their first game to be made in more of a traditional Triple-A game style than the smaller shoot ‘em ups and platformers that are their usual wheelhouse. Selene controls as well as you would expect from a character in a Housemarque game, which is to say turning on a dime, hefty amounts of invincibility frames on your dodge, and copious amounts of enemy bullets. Seriously, this is literally one or two steps removed from being a bullet hell shooter and it’s so stressful. The average run in Returnal consists of going through each of the game's massive biomes where you fight off enemies, die, and repeat ad nauseum until the credits roll. But if there’s one thing I can say about this game is that the Roguelike elements are done in some very weird ways. For starters, you can only save the game by suspending it out of combat and that’s weird. So if you do literally anything, and I mean closing it, turning off the PS5, any of that, you lose your progress. This ties into how I kind of despise a lot of the system-specific gimmicks the Playstation 5 has that are used in Returnal. The haptic feedback on the rumble feels weird and makes me think the controller is broken half the time, a good chunk of the sound design UX is tied to the Dual Sense’s speaker for some silly reason and the adaptive triggers feel awful in their attempt to emulate pulling a gun’s trigger. While I understand that all of these features are for creating an immersive experience, all of that stuff just felt gimmicky to me and made my experience playing the game worse. Thankfully, you can turn all of that stuff off in the custom control settings and most of that stuff was removed from the PC version, so yeah, do that.

Gameplay of Selene fighitng off hostile life that is shooting a large amoint of purple projectiles.
So. Many. Bullets.

But to get back to the actual post (look, I don’t get to complain about things often here, mostly by choice), Returnal’s take on the roguelike structure is weird because the average run can take a really long time to get through because of the expansiveness of each area. Too long to get through in a single sitting. But this is lessened when needing to find paths to each area’s boss and the next area, and the game provides you with increases to weapon proficiencies to make sure your damage doesn’t fall off too hard. You can also choose to skip each boss if need be, so that’s neat. I will say this though, the time loop really adds to the risk assessment found in roguelikes. Because you’re always living and dying and repeating, you get to try out more new stuff between artifacts that are found throughout the ruins, items infected with malignancy, which cause hard-to-remove debuff called suit malfunctions, and parasites that give you one incredible powerful buff and one incredibly powerful debuff. Returnal’s balancing of this aspect of the roguelike experience is so good that it has me constantly weighing my options and whether or not it’s safer to either ramp up slowly or just throw caution to the wind and take that dang parasite.

And these dovetail beautifully into the abilities you find throughout the runs that are persistent. These include the translocator for warping between different parts of a biome, a grappling look for reaching far away places, a gosh dang beam sabre for melee attacks and shield breaking, walking on water, walking through hazardous areas, and more. And this is on top of the game’s ten weapons, all of which have different alternate firing methods and properties that define runs, from the Assault rifle-like tachyomatic carbine to the alien shotgun-styled Acidmaw Rifle and the one that’s basically a light machine gun for that sweet sweet dakka. And you’ll need those against the hostile wildlife of Atropos, all of which look like the web creatures from Reboot. At least that’s what my weird brain read them as.

A large alien creature raoring with all of it's appendages splayed out.

Is Returnal a bit weird? Yes. Are it’s Runs Too long? Also Yes. Is it a lot of fun and tells a dang near Lovecraftian story of death and rebirth? Absolutely. I’ve managed to put 20 hours into it this week alone, and a game has to be doing something right for me to do that. Be it PS5 or Steam, I’d say give it a look. PS5 is easier to do with if you’ve got access to the Playstation Plus Catalogue since it was added there. So yeah, this gets the Moseph Moestar seal of quality.