Difficult games always have a breaking point. It’s the moment when players have to decide if it’s their execution that’s holding them back, or their tactics. It’s the idea of doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a better result or changing the approach altogether. The key to success is figuring out what the situation requires.
In “Returnal,” players face that decision constantly in Housemarque’s genre-bending project. The developers behind “Alienation” and “Resogun” take their expertise in bullet hell shmups and apply it to a third-person rogue-lite for a unique but challenging experience.
It all begins rather suddenly as Astra space scout Selene Vassos crash lands on the planet Atropos after being drawn in by a mysterious signal. Upon awakening, she finds herself amid an ancient alien civilization that has crumbled and her only way off the planet is to investigate the broadcast that drew her in.
That’s where “Returnal” starts but where it ends up is messy. You see, Selene eventually dies while exploring the ruins and she finds herself in a “Groundhog Day” situation. Upon death, she wakes up around her ship and does the same exploration again. That’s how Housemarque writes the rogue-lite element naturally into the gameplay.
Each run-through, players start at the ship, Helios, and they have to venture through a procedurally generated world. It starts in a rainy forest and moves through five other biomes. The developers essentially made several room pieces and the game puts them together with different creatures and power-ups each time. That makes each playthrough one of a kind, and it also means that players can’t rely on rote memorization to go through the campaign.
Instead, players will have to rely on strategy and skill to advance. That means learning how to adapt to the environment and knowing how to use trees and pillars for cover while dodging fire from the fauna, flora and sentients that inhabit Atropos. Players will have to learn their attack patterns and figure out the best ways to defeat them. Housemarque takes advantage of the PS5’s sound and haptics to increase the immersion and improve combat awareness. Players must maximize every advantage they have because once a player dies, they have to start from square one.
Players will need to collect obolites to use on artifacts and consumables that will help them survive the campaign in “Returnal.” (Sony Interactive Entertainment)
It’s brutal at first, but as players master the basics, they’ll discover a game with incredible depth. Every decision they make is important. Early on, they should bypass treasure chests and secret rooms until they level up their weapon proficiency, which increases the strength of weapons they find. When collecting spoiled resin or malignant power-ups, they have to determine whether they have the health or skill to survive bad side effects, such as a malfunction. When coming across a parasite, they have to decide if its stat boost is worth the drawback.
Like learning how to read the rooms, players will find that experience is the best teacher when it comes to choosing what power-ups to pick up. One parasite may be a poor choice during one run-though, another may factor in a follow-up run could make it beneficial. If players are low on health, it’s best to lay off a spoiled resin, which could kill them.
Thankfully, as players progress through “Returnal,” they’ll reach a point where they don’t always have to start at zero. They’ll find permanent items such as ether that stay with players even after death. They’ll also discover a sword, a grappling hook and other tools that open up the world of Atropos for more exploration and improve the odds of survival. Players will also reach certain unlock points that offer a shortcut through a playthrough.
That doesn’t mean players should run to a boss directly. Each playthrough is time-consuming as players gather artifacts that offer boosts and use obolites, the in-game currency, to purchase upgrades and life-preserving consumables. In a lot of ways it feels like a bullet hell “Spelunky” that focuses on the purity of exploration and combat.
As players advance further without dying, there’s a tension in boss fights and rooms where Selene is locked in with hordes of adversaries because each playthrough is a time investment. Dying means starting over and it’s deflating. Do this repeatedly and “Returnal” is exasperatingly frustrating, especially when some of the level design leads to unexpected deaths and things such as weapon choice could mean death in certain situations.
Selene’s narrative helps keep fans interested in “Returnal.” During the campaign, she discovers bodies and data pads of herself from previous runs. The feeling behind each missive runs the gamut from grim determination to scientific curiosity to madness. After each major breakthrough, Selene also has access to her 20th-century home, which is impossibly remade on planet Atropos and further deepens the mystery behind the planet and its alien civilization.
The weirdness further deepens the unsettling atmosphere pervading “Returnal.” It’s a psychological horror trip through a world that looks like it’s straight out of the mind of H.R. Giger. It thrums with the same fear of “Alien.”
That’s almost enough to get players through the frustrating moments of the campaign, but what will really drive players through “Returnal” is a feeling of progress. The game doles it out in different doses. Sometimes it’s a drip-like figuring out how to deal with one enemy. Other times, it’s a decision to play differently and aggressively kill enemies while collecting obolites that makes a huge difference. Whatever the case, “Returnal” is about reaching that maddening breaking point, finding a way through it and ultimately getting that sense of triumph at beating seemingly impossible odds.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Platform: PlayStation 5
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