After treating myself to God of War: Valhalla I found myself wanting to continue the tradition of spending a good chunk of the holiday period sitting on my couch, playing my PS5. I didn’t want to just play anything though, so I started sifting through the PlayStation exclusives list to see if there was anything that caught my fancy. Given I’d just came off a solid roguelike experience I was quite happy to stumble across Returnal, a game I’d let slide by because I simply didn’t have a PS5 at the time and was completely, utterly unaware that they’d released it on PC at the start of last year. So figuring this was fertile ground for a good round of summer couch gaming I settled in for what was to be one of the most challenging and rewarding games I’ve played in a good while.
Selene receives a transmission, dubbed White Shadow, from an off-limits world called Atropos. Disobeying her corporate overlords of the ASTRA Corporation she attempts to land on the alien planet only to suffer heavy damage to her craft and crash landing on the planet’s surface. Cut off from contact with ASTRA Selene is faced with surviving in this hostile environment, one that seems strangely familiar yet utterly foreign. Further deepening the mystery is that there seem to be human corpses strewn across the landscape, her corpses. Selene soon discovers that each time she dies she loops back to the crash, seemingly stuck forever in an endless, deathless loop.
At the time of its release Returnal definitely would’ve been right up there with all current generation titles in terms of graphics. It’s still no slouch today of course, but it’s definitely par for the course given it was released almost 3 years ago today. Given it was a relatively early title on the PS5 its performance is really good, rarely missing a beat even when I intentionally caused all sorts of crazy stuff to happen on screen. The environments and set pieces are very detailed with the procedural elements adding in enough variation that, even though you’ll trudge through the same section dozens of times, it feels significantly less repetitive than it has any right to be.
Returnal is a third person shooter roguelike, pitting you against endless cycles that will be blessed or cursed by his holiness RNGesus. You start off with a wimpy side arm pistol, and will have to grind your way through wave after wave of enemies to find better weapons, unlock buffs, get items and generally “level up” through each of your runs. There are some permanent progression elements of course, but they’re for the most part either things that unlock more parts of the map, add new weapons and items to the potential loot pool or your progression with certain weapon talents. Returnal then is a particularly unforgiving experience throughout most of its playtime as you can’t simply outlevel yourself for a particular section in order to progress further. It was that tough that there was a point early on in the game that I was about to put it down and be done with it.
That was until my Dark Souls riddled brain got triggered.
Combat is a fast paced bullet hell extravaganza, something I really hadn’t much experience with since Nier: Automata. Enemies (and yourself, if you want to survive) prefer staying at range and throwing all sorts of brightly coloured particles at you that can, on their own, be easily avoided. What happens in practice though is that you’re likely be overwhelmed with all sorts of attacks from every angle and, whilst your dodge will give you a small number of invulnerability frames, you’ll get yourself cornered eventually. Layered on top of this is the adrenaline system where for each 3 kills without getting hit you go up a level which grants some useful benefits. So you’ll often be balancing wanting to do damage, dodge projectiles and handle any other obstacles or mechanics all at once, something my aging brain certainly struggled with at times.
Pure roguelikes such as Returnal aren’t usually my cup of tea as I prefer either some form of control over the randomness (I.E. here’s the build I want, no guarantee to get it in the order I want) or at least some form of tangible permanent progression. So it took me a while to get into the rhythm with Returnal as I initially avoided going for anything with a potential downside, even if it was something that I could mitigate. Once I’d unlocked some of the higher tier biomes I also started skipping the lower ones, thinking that the higher tiers offered better rewards and would eliminate some play time. Of course in a game of RNG the more chances you take and the longer you play for the more likely it is you’ll be able to come out on top, so this was a losing strategy from the start.
To be fair to Returnal as well whilst the forms of permanent progression feel meagre to begin with they actually become significantly meaningful over the course of your playthrough. Each of the permanent suit upgrades you get unlocks additional sectors of the map, so you’re going to get a lot more out of each run than you did before. Progression on gun talents, which then unlock further talents as you go up biomes, ensures that you have more viable weapon options than you’d otherwise have. The only thing that’s a slight downside is increasing the artefact and consumable item pool as it’ll be harder to randomly get those drops, although the game does seem to favour showing the more impactful ones in the item fabricators you get access to.
Still, all this considered, it’s still quite a punishing experience for a long part of the game. There were numerous times where I’d just have failed a really good run, only to then trip over my own feet a few rooms in numerous times in a row. After a while though you start to get a feel for everything, knowing when you can take risks on getting a malfunction for the chance at getting a high end item. You’ll also work out which guns and artefacts work best for you and what you need in your kit (large silphum vial and an astronaut figure, mostly) in order to ensure that you don’t completely turf a good run just because you made a stupid mistake at a single point.
For what it’s worth after my second death on the 4th biome I ended up playing all the way through to the end without another death. I had basically maxed out my integrity and protection, allowing me to take an absolute beating before I needed to heal. I’d also gotten the adrenaline leach artefact which meant that if I got on a tear with enemies I was basically at full health the whole time. I also noticed that with that build it seemed like some enemies wouldn’t do damage to me as there were far, far too many times I got hit and didn’t lose an adrenaline level. To be honest that was when Returnal changed from being a slog to a much more strategic game that I felt I actually had some control over.
The story is well..something. Certainly there’s a lot to discuss in there as a lot of the finer details are buried in descriptions and walls of text somewhere. Couple that with the main story being drip fed to you by a series of fever dreams and you can basically make of it what you will. I saw a lot of talk on the forums about people grinding for the secret ending and, after cheating and just watching it on YouTube, I am honestly quite glad I didn’t bother. To be sure if you’re really enjoying the game play, which I was but I lost my awesome build the second I finished the game, then the secret ending is just a bonus. For me though the nearly doubling of the game time I’d need to get it was simply not attractive at all.
Returnal is a game I could’ve put down after a handful of hours and hated it. But it tickled that same part of my brain that lights up like a bonfire whenever I play a soulslike, that part of me that doesn’t want to let the game win. So here I am, praising the things that once gave me such grief I wanted to uninstall the game and never look back. I’m not sure if I’d played this on release day that I would’ve stuck with it as much as I did but it’s a testament to Returnal that it still holds up well, even 3 years later.
Returnal is available on PlayStation 5 and PC right now for $94.95. Game was played on the PlayStation 5 with a total of 14 hours playtime and 25% of the achievements unlocked.