Returnal is an extremely interesting first major release for the PlayStation 5 since its launch, because it’s definitely not going to be for everyone. It’s a strange beast, the first of its kind as a rougelike with a AAA budget attached to it. I’m almost certain some have purchased the game simply because they want something new and exclusive to the PS5 and are already unhappy with it, given its difficulty and unconventionality compared to the average AAA title.
I encourage those people to try and stick to Returnal though, because there’s a ton to love.
Edge of Tomorrow
Hades, the best rougelike ever created, treats death as a joke, because everyone in the underworld is either already dead or immortal. Zagreus, a God, comes back to his father’s palace after a death unfazed, ready to try and escape it yet again. You never really “kill” Megara, so much as you slow her down, and can have a chat with her in Hades’ cafeteria on your return down the River Styx.
In this sense, Returnal is Hades’ antithesis. Selene, the protagonist who crash-lands on a mysterious alien world, is slowly unwound with each of her deaths. She finds herself fraying as she stays trapped in the cycles of rebirth after getting killed any myriad of ways by the monsters on the planet.
The plot of Returnal is interesting to think about on a cerebral level, even though I wouldn’t say this game is worth playing exclusively for it. I’m intrigued by the mystery of the planet Selene has found herself on, especially after reaching the game’s midway point, but I don’t expect to be blown away by its reveals. Returnal seems comfortable enough with relaying its plot through atmosphere, and leaving you as the player to put the pieces together, Dark Souls-style. Luckily, the game has an incredible atmosphere, really putting its Alien inspiration on its sleeves. With a good pair of headphones you’ll find yourself fully immersed in the game, possibly to the point of exhaustion — the visual and sound design do a lot of heavy lifting in keeping you on edge as you explore and fight your way to solving the mystery of your cyclic death.
Pew Pew Brain Goo
Exploring and fighting, by the way, are the main highlights of Returnal. Housemarque has made a name for itself with games like Super Stardust and Resogun, which are mechanically engaging and get your pulse up. Returnal is no exception. It feels like an absolute dream to run and gun as Selene. Every weapon you can pick up is unique, and has great impact as you fire at hostile aliens. Dashing and platforming both feel tight. This was especially true after I adjusted the controls so that my dash and jump were on my L1 / R1 buttons, meaning I never had to take my thumbs off the control sticks unless I wanted to use a consumable or perform a melee attack. You’ll never feel like you don’t have any control over Selene, even when the game’s at its most hectic.
And phew does it get hectic. Returnal is essentially a 3D bullet-hell. You’ll find yourself dodging through and jumping over wave after wave of attacks as you fight enemies. The patterns for these attacks are all predefined and well-telegraphed, so nothing about combat is left to chance in this regard. As such, you're encouraged to never take damage in multiple ways. Killing multiple enemies without taking damage builds up your Adrenaline, which gives you a variety of buffs, like the ability to see enemies through walls, upping your melee damage, and widening the timing zone for your weapon's quick reload. On top of this, if your health is at max, items that would normally heal you instead turn into Resin, which increases your base HP pool during a run. In summation? Don’t get hit.
Given it’s a PS5 exclusive, Returnal makes tremendous use of the Dualsense controller, which continues to be the most revolutionary piece of tech in this new generation of videogames. You’ll feel the pitter patter of rain in your hands when it hits Selene’s suit, which is a neat trick for sure, but Returnal also turns the Dualsense’s capabilities into honest-to-god mechanics. For starters, every weapon in your arsenal has an Alt-Fire that can be used off cooldown. Pressing lightly on the L2 trigger will let you highlight enemy weaknesses and zoom in to fire, but pressing the L2 button all the way through switches your weapon to its Alt-Fire mode. It feels like a magic trick every time I use it, but it also feels like second nature at the same-time.
Even the rumble serves as a mechanic! The pulsing that comes off of the controller when you stand next to an item can immediately let you know if it’s safe to pick up, or afflicted with Malignancy (more on that in a bit). Not since the Nintendo DS’ second screen have I been so excited for the potential of videogame hardware, and I can’t wait to see what game devs do next with the controller.
Taking the Plunge - Or Not.
As I mentioned, Returnal is a roguelike, so a variety of aspects about the game change with each cycle of play. This of course includes the layout of the maps, but it also affects the items you can pick up throughout a play through. Much of Returnal is based on risk and reward, and it often works…until it doesn't.
Parasites, for example, are great! When you find one, you’ll see that attaching it to your suit will give you a buff, and cause a debuff in turn, all of which is randomized. You might get restore health to a certain threshold after reaching critical levels at the cost of enemies turning into pools of acid after being defeated, for example. I loved encountering Parasites because I always had a clear idea of what I was getting, and whether it was worth the sacrifice I would make to get it.
The other side of this coin, however, is Malignancy. You’ll often find chests, keys, and other objects inflicted with Malignancy. Interacting with them creates a change of getting a Malignant debuff, which sticks to you until you fulfill a random objective, which can range from picking up ooblites — the game’s per-run currency — to using a consumable or defeating enemies in specific ways. On paper this sort of risk / reward system is a lot of fun, and adds danger to any run. But in practice, I quickly realized that it was almost never worth it to interact with Malignant items. Opening a chest and getting a debuff only for a reward to be a garbage consumable like Ground Spikes felt terrible. I quickly found myself avoiding all malignant items, which felt like I was missing out on a piece of the game. I would love for a theoretical patch to buff up the rewards that come from malignant interactions, in the same way that opening a locked chest with a key almost always gives you a worthwhile reward.
Most roguelikes have meta-progression to them, letting you get stronger with each run so that subsequent runs get easier. Returnal isn’t an exception, although its definition of meta-progression is…very narrow, at least in the time I’ve spent with it. The only currency you keep that carries over after death is Ether, which you can spend to unlock items so that they show up permanently in the game’s item pool. That’s basically it. There are other permanent unlocks that help you maneuver around the world, but they don’t actually make you “stronger.” You’re not going to get an increased pool of health or strength upgrades. Returnal demands that you simply get better by practicing and having a little bit of luck. If that sort of level of challenge doesn’t sound appealing, this might not be the game for you.
And now, for Returnal’s biggest flaw: the saving system. In a baffling decision, it’s not possible to keep your progress in the middle of a run in Returnal. If you quick the game, if you switch apps on your PS5, hell if the game crashes, you’ll haves to start all the way over back at your ship, the Helios.
I just gotta ask: why? What made you think this was a good idea? It’s not. It’s not a good idea. It makes no sense that the game doesn’t save your progress after you clear a room, or hell, even after you beat a boss. I don’t want a game to hold my time and my console hostage. It’s ridiculous, especially because runs can be an hour plus, if you fight every boss in each biome. Luckily this is the type of thing that can be patched in, and I assume it will be because it's the one aspect of Returnal that seems universally disliked — for good reason.
Also annoying: don’t use any of the alternate costumes if you’ve got them. They’re currently bugged, sometimes causing doors and items to not be obtainable, meaning you’ll have to restart your game to fix it, which — you guessed — will wipe your run. It’s almost like a saving system would make this issue negligible! Who’d have thought.
Dying to Go Back
Returnal is a fantastic game. Just writing about it has made me want to stop so I can go back and keep playing it. It’s a difficult game, but not an unfair one. Most importantly, it’s a game that feels fantastic to play, and that drives you forward with its haunting atmosphere. I've loved the time I’ve spent with it, and I’m excited to see where the second half of the game takes me.
This game is a recipient of the Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain award. The GGGB Badge is the highest honor you can receive from Mint’s Café. A game with the GGGB Badge is one that I recommend for its incredibly engaging, moment-to-moment gameplay and mechanics. It means that even if its story isn’t incredible, or it isn’t a technical marvel, it’s still worth playing based solely on the fact that it feels fantastic to play it.