What started out as a challenging and brutal experience in Returnal, soon turned into quite a breeze. While I want to say gamers will find Returnal’s gameplay loop impossible to master, that is far from the case. 40 hours later and I can honestly breeze through a full run of the game without breaking a sweat. However, the journey to get to this point required a load of item experiments, weapon testing, hours of exploration and of course, mastering the various enemies and how to avoid their deadly attacks.
As a result, Returnal is far from challenging now but it works in the game’s favour. Instead of a relentless roguelike game, Returnal feels more like a bullet-hell arcade shooter where I speed through different areas, spamming the collect button, picking up new weapons and discovering the layers of secrets the game has on offer. It is extremely addictive and hours go by but I loved every moment.
Check out some gameplay from the first preview we did on Returnal. It is the first biome and boss.
If you don’t know by now, Returnal is a roguelike game. You play as Selene who crash lands on this strange planet called Atropos. Here, she needs to find a way to escape. What starts out as a journey to find this “White Shadow” signal turns out to actually be a journey into her own madness. Well, that is what I think was going on anyway. It made very little sense most of the time but guess Returnal’s story is meant to be taken in a different way depending on how you read between the lines.
While Selene is a likeable protagonist who you just want to save and see escape this crazy planet, Atropos itself is really the star of the game. The planet was once thriving with beings called sentinels and now is a deadly wasteland of crazy monsters who want you dead. The game is divided into six biomes with the halfway mark acting as a forced reset on your progression when you reach it. This means after killing a boss at a certain point of the game, you get reset whether you like it or not. It was annoying at first but it makes sense to keep the game’s flow intact.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Returnal is also layered in dozens of items that play into this gameplay loop[/perfectpullquote]Of course, if you die in Returnal you lose every item you obtained along the way and reset back to Selene’s crashed ship. There are ways to avoid a death including paying Ether, rare materials used to cleanse cursed items and unlock artefacts, to a Restructor. This then respawns Selene at this point. It is a pricey risk though. Returnal is also layered in dozens of items that play into this gameplay loop. Picking up certain real-world items will save Selene from a death blow. Let’s just say dying is not as frequent as I initially experienced in the game. Again, this is mostly thanks to me getting used to the loop of things.
Returnal does not force you to start from scratch. There are gear upgrades that stay with you which are mainly traversing equipment like a grapple and boots to walk on lava. However, when you die you do need to backtrack to that biome through portals and shortcuts that you unlock as you progress through the game. It greatly helps with the flow of the game.
Returnal renders each biome as you enter it. It is all procedurally generated but instead of completely changing each room, the game pieces together interconnected areas across each map. This way I was able to get the hang of these rooms the more I played each biome. To the point where I entered an area and knew exactly where the weapon was, where the enemies spawn, which concrete panel on the ground falls in and takes me to a hidden room and how to access the secret areas.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The game literally went from being a brutal horror experience to a crazy arcade shooter in a week[/perfectpullquote]This will most likely come to all players with time and practice and while it takes the sense of mystery and the risks that come with exploring new locations away from the experience, it also creates a whole new type of gameplay. One which ramps up the speed in which I explored areas and the sheer excitement that comes with collecting all the things and using different weapons to mix up the gameplay. It is rather fantastic how this works. The game literally went from being a brutal horror experience to a crazy arcade shooter in a week and still maintained the same level of excitement.
This also affects how I played the game and how well I did. My run last night saw me upgrade my health so much that my “Integrity” bar was halfway across the screen. I also had loads of healing kits, two items to prevent death and a full-auto rocket launcher. Probably the only gun you will ever need to use in the game. No, really, it destroys everything. Even bosses in seconds. Did I need all of this health and items? Probably not and when I finished the game (again) they went away but who cares. I managed to collect new Scout Logs, find new glyphs to scan and improve my research level for enemies while I did this run. It never feels like a waste jumping into a cycle of Returnal. Even after dozens of hours of gameplay.
Being a roguelike, Returnal is all about the grind to find the best items while suffering the risks of being adventurous. This theme is present across the entire game and can still bite me in the butt in the later post-game cycles. Selene can equip a range of gear and use items throughout each run. Artefacts are the best gear I could find in the game and provided buffs to certain skills and perks to other parts of gameplay. They have some incredible range including buffing melee attacks, preventing knockdowns from heavy hits and some even give you max health boosts when you remove Parasites.
Speaking of Parasites, these little buggers act as another piece of gear. They literally latch on to Selene (and make cool squishy sounds during the game) but they come with debuffs and buffs. Basically, these living creatures can either ruin your day or really help your cycle. I often stayed away from them completely in each cycle. Mainly because I never found their buffs useful whatsoever. Some gave me 100% extra Obolite drops from the next 15 enemies but then after that it detached and gave me two Malfunctions. Others provided long-last effects such as granting extra protection against damage but also caused damage if I fell from a height. This Parasite never detached unless I found a machine to take it off.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]when it clicks, it is impressive.[/perfectpullquote]The gear and item system works well, especially when you get a cycle where it all ties together. Sometimes buffs work hand in hand with other gear I found while other times, I knew I could live with a debuff because I never planned on opening locked chests (another parasite deals damage every time I used an Antropian Key). Sometimes cycles don’t go as well as others but it is expected given the procedural nature of the game but there is always shops around to help and the items are often useful. However, when it clicks, it is impressive.
You will spend a lot of time in Returnal shooting things and the gunplay is a massive part of what makes the game so much fun. Each gun has two fire modes. The standard can be shot until ammo is depleted. The second is on a cooldown and is activated by pressing down the DualSense trigger past its halfway point. It is great in practice especially when you have a gun that feels amazing to shoot. One secondary fire mode saw me power up a massive ball of energy that shot forward and chained lighting to all the enemies in front of me before exploding in their faces. BFG vibes, maybe but cool to use.
Weapons also have traits that unlock the more you use them. There are a range of these available and seeing them all, and unlocking them, will take some grinding. The rocket launcher, for example, has a full-auto mode but can also be found with increased blast radius, mega rockets and even critical rockets. In the first half of the game, weapons are limited to a handful of traits due to the Proficiency rate which you level up. This rate determines the weapon power and number of traits you have on each weapon.
In the later areas, I reached max proficiency and found weapons with some crazy trait combinations. The horrendous gun called the Coilspine Shredder was limited to one shot per reload but I unlocked the second shot by simply killing enemies. I still hate the gun but hey, progress. It is a rail gun that has ONE AMMO and requires you to HOLD DOWN the trigger to charge up a weak ass shot that hit one enemy. Maybe two if you are careful. You can’t dash while holding down the trigger either. It was basically a gun designed against Returnal’s gameplay style and made very little sense to me. Or I just hate it… That it is.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The DualSense controller came to life in my hand[/perfectpullquote]The world of Atropos is remarkable. The history around the fallen civilization is a heartbreaking one and the environments tell this to the player in every area. However, the real joy comes from exploring it all. In typical roguelike fashion, the game has locked areas, mystery doors and loads of things waiting to kill you no matter how early or late I was into my cycle. Each biome feels fantastic to explore from the jungle to the desert to the underwater abyss that completely changes up gameplay thanks to its floating jumps.
I loved running around, opening up doors, seeing pointless items and moving on. However, I always kept track of what I left behind in case I found something that would complement it. It is only natural to return to pick up an item I could not fit in my slots but now I could, thanks to being destroyed by a squid. Locations hold secrets and even walls to destroy to find more stuff. It is pure joy.
A big aspect of Returnal’s “fun factor” is that this is a PS5 game and looks and feels so amazing. The DualSense controller came to life in my hand. Raindrops tapped my hands while lasers jolted my trigger fingers. The haptic motors even replicate sounds. Jumping made a “boing” sound and even melee attacks had a distinctive charm to them. The gunplay is also enhanced through the controller by using the trigger which I mentioned before. It is a PS5 game and we only expected the best use of the DualSense. Housemarque brought it.
Visually, Returnal is a marvel to see on screen. HDR especially brings it to life as enemy shots glow super bright while flying across my TV. It is a fantastic contrast to witness especially when the game world is so dark. I honestly live for these things and the HDR implementation is remarkable. The game takes 15 seconds to load when launched from an Activity Card too. You start it and you’re ready to explore Atropos.
I did not notice some frame rate issues while playing though. There is a weapon called the Electropylon Driver that shoots out lasers. These then can be upgraded to shoot our web-like pylons that stick to surfaces. Long story short, the game had some problems keeping up with this gun, especially when taking on challenge rooms with dozens of enemies all shooting at me at the same time. It was not game-breaking performance issues but don’t expect a flawless 4K 60FPS here at all times.
Returnal is a good game. It feels so great to play and the more I played it, the better it got. I want to say that it has an epic end-game but it doesn’t. There is a daily challenge but that is about it. However, the pure fun that comes from the gameplay makes it something you’ll want to jump into just to collect those weapon traits or complete the research on your enemies long after you complete the game. Returnal went from a tough horror game to a brilliant arcade roguelike bullet-hell shooter. Very few games can evolve this way. Returnal is roguelike at its finest and one of the best reasons to own a PS5.
This Returnal review is based on a code sent to us by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Available On: PS5 | Release Date: 30 April 2021 | Price: R1,225