Imagine yourself as an astronaut whose ship crashes on an inhospitable planet, inhabited only by alien races, symbiosis and divine entities. You wake up bewildered, not knowing exactly what happened, and find an automatic pistol to explore the previously unknown environment. With the help of a jetpack, the space traveler discovers new locations, interacts with parasites, decrypts monoliths and opens chests with signs of malignancy. After all this, you die.
Imagine yourself again as an astronaut whose spaceship falls into inhospitable territory, inhabited by extraterrestrials, symbiosis and divine entities. You wake up again from the fall, still bewildered by the impact, and find an automatic pistol to explore a curiously familiar ecosystem. With the help of a jetpack, you track a cyclopean door, indestructible, and head for the key, based on an orange dot on the minimap. Again: it relates to parasites, opens chests and dies.
Imagine yourself assuming the role of an astronaut whose spaceship makes a forced landing in an inhospitable celestial body and uninhabitable for human beings. You wake up from the fall, now knowing exactly where you are, and take hold, without hesitation, of an automatic pistol. With the help of the jetpack, the space explorer identifies the location of the key and uses it to open such a gigantic door, apparently planned by Herculean creatures. In a room shrouded in fog, you face a xenomorph and die.
You must have noticed the purposeful repetition in the previous paragraphs, even with a different word or two between the passages, right? Well, that’s Returnal: a game that values repetition, only with different details for each new cycle. Check out the full review:
Stuck in a fickle cycle
In Returnal, recently released title from the Finnish studio Housemarque, you step into the shoes of Selene, an astronaut mysteriously trapped in a loop in which there are only two certainties: death and rebirth. Isolated and trapped in her memories, the character explores an ancient civilization on the planet Atropos in order to discover a way to break this endless cycle to which she belongs. After all, why does Selene come across empty bodies of herself? Why does this process never end?
The story is told through audio records, fragments of memory, brief cutscenes and linear interactions at the protagonist’s home, from a first-person perspective – everything is in Portuguese, both texts and voices. Unlike other Sony investments with high production value, Returnal it does not give priority to the narrative, but it builds an instigating background, molded in the implicit psychological terror of the Lovecraftian model. From Alien to Prometheus’s biopunk, with the DNA of the works of British director Ridley Scott allied to the soul of cosmic horror, the game promotes a dark atmosphere to match its influences.
As mentioned, Returnal does not put the storyline ahead of the gameplay, which is great and contributes to the rhythm being constant. Honestly, I don’t think of any other recent title published by Sony that had this boldness, this greater focus on gameplay. Don’t get me wrong: the story is good enough, it just doesn’t appeal to the overblown drama and excess of cutscenes, aspects that are often present in the high-caliber exclusives at PlayStation Studios. Here, the main premise is to survive – and that you can only do by playing.
Luck, persistence and skill
Some say that Returnal falls under the roguelite genre, but there is nothing “light” in the experience. As with any roguelike, you must start over from the starting point, only with your face and courage, in case you are knocked over. The difference, however, is that there are no permanent improvements to be taken to subsequent matches, that is, the player is helpless of his benefits, obolites, parasites and weapons.
What you can do is to accumulate ether, the resource that is stored in the inventory even after you die, and unlock features of weapons (would be the perks) and permanent accessories, such as the grappling hook and the sword, so that Selene can discover points until then inaccessible, in areas already visited, along the lines of a metroidvania. In practice, none of this will make you feel stronger at the start of a run, something that can frustrate unsuspecting players who are looking for a standard Sony AAA experience, that is, more friendly. On the contrary: Returnal it is almost always naughty and requires persistence and determination.
As an attempt to balance the challenge equation, not least because there is no difficulty selector, the game unlocks shortcuts to new areas and bosses as the player progresses. You can, for example, make your way to the third map from the first, as well as unlock a portal capable of leading you directly to the boss arena. It may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that the title eliminates the need to go through everything, absolutely everything again, proves to be a great facilitator, especially in more advanced sections.
Incredibly, the scenarios are not 100% generated in a procedural way. In fact, there are dozens of variations of arenas for the same area, so what the game does is shuffle them as in a card game. In a way, this particularity contributes so that the system does not produce such unfair combinations based on an algorithm liable to fail. The map, in turn, which expands according to progress, highlights important items and is simple and organized.
Although it deviates a little from the standard of roguelikes, Returnal it is still extremely challenging. I would say that progression depends not only on the player’s ability to master the mechanics, but on another determining factor: luck. I lost count of how many times an item’s malfunction ruined potentially perfect cycles – the game seems to know when you’re doing well and does everything it can to hurt you in the worst way.
Speaking of disadvantages, consumables and parasites have unpredictable variants of malignancy. There is a way to increase the integrity (the character’s health bar) and the weapon’s proficiency (feature that affects the level of equipment purchased). On the other hand, Selene absorbs malfunctions, that is, harms that can be broken based on different requirements, such as killing five enemies melee or opening a locked chest.
For example, you can give up a part of the life meter in order to increase the level of weapons and cause more damage, or reduce the recovery of healing items to amplify the absorption of obolites, the raw material used to make artifacts and consumables. In other words, there is always a counterpoint in almost every item, a disadvantage for each advantage.
The reconstructor, in turn, allows Selene to have a second chance when being slaughtered, but consumes ether, permanent material that I talked about above. There are also artifacts that can resuscitate her instantly at the same point in which she died, being very useful to ease the exhausting struggles against bosses and deputy chiefs. Although the systems are very simple, there are several details in each one, although absorbing them is a matter of time.
Complex at first glance, the title becomes uncomplicated with each round, as the systems are presented, and you never tire of offering new things, gradually and on convenient occasions. In the six distinct biomes, from swampy forests to the ruins of the ancient city, you will always have something new to see. The surprise factor stimulates the sense of discovery and our insatiable desire to “play just one more game”.
The curious fact is that there are no save points in the same lap, the Returnal recommends that you put the PS5 to sleep so you can continue where you left off. Even the progress of the same cycle will be lost if the light goes out or a system update pops up; what remains are shortcuts and permanent items. However, I do not see a plausible explanation that justifies this weird decision by Housemarque.
The consolidation of the bullet rain
In terms of gameplay, Returnal is a third person shooter that brings together the best in Matterfall, Alienation and Nex Machina, recent works by the producer. The studio’s typical bullet hell is deeper and more demanding here, since in third person you don’t have a broad and privileged view as in a game with an isometric perspective. In addition, the inhabitants of Atropos do a lot of damage and can easily exterminate it in a few strokes, making progress even more difficult.
The combat is dynamic, intense and forces the player to perform actions on impulse, many even in fright. While you need to read your rivals’ movements carefully, you can’t afford to be static paying attention to what’s going on around you. Dynamism and speed are the main characteristics of these rhythmic battles, so you need to join the dance if you want to survive.
Weapons have specific shots and some are more efficient for certain types of creatures, so it is important to change them when there is a chance. Shooting, by the way, is delicious, no matter which weapon is selected. By lightly pressing the L2 trigger, Selene enables the weapon’s zoom; if you put more pressure, sinking your finger into the button, it executes a special shot whose cooling time varies.
Another viable way to fight is to use Selene’s sword, obtained on the second map, to eliminate terrestrial monsters more quickly. The grapple, unlockable from the third region, allows you to move strategically through the arenas to obtain items and reach automatic turrets, an effective way to get rid of them. It is interesting how the adventure starts to demand more precision and skill while offering new instruments so that the heroine can perform more complex acrobatic actions.
I tried to find it, but there are no defects in the sharp shooting mechanics, nor in the fast pace. After all, gameplay by itself, with this unbridled character, is able to sustain the experience as few can do. And I say more: if Returnal didn’t have a good story, it would still be memorable in terms of fun. After long years of putting his good ideas into smaller projects, Housemarque finally confirms what we already foresaw: Returnal it is the consolidation of the bullet hell format, showing that the formula also works perfectly in third person.
Returnal is not satisfied with being just a technically flawless game and goes further to provide an experience worthy of a new generation, perhaps even more immersive than Demon’s Souls, the first and only exclusive designed for PS5 hardware – remembering that Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Great Adventure they are cross-gen.
In the graphic aspect, the new Housemarque production has all the requirements to make anyone salivate in front of the TV or monitor: dynamic 4K, 60fps and ray tracing, delivering more realistic natural lighting, with higher quality, and also enhancing the effects of particles and projectiles that make use of neon lights, Housemarque’s registered trademark.
Yet, Returnal not only stands out for the graphics, but for changing our perception of what a next-gen title is. Thanks to the features of DualSense, you will be able to feel every drop of Atropos acid rain in the palm of your hand, as well as the particles of the teleportation portals at your fingertips. The PS5 SSD is also put to the test: there are no loading screens bureaucratizing the restart of the cycle.
The 3D sound system makes the exploration of the world more atmospheric by amplifying sound minutiae, from grunts of wild monsters to the awakening of automated beings. Not to mention the unforgettable soundtrack conducted by synthesizer melodies. In the Pulse 3D headset, the bass notes echo like nudges in the brain.
If you still don’t know what a truly next-gen experience is, dig deep into Returnal. It makes good use of all the features available on the PlayStation 5 and serves as a showcase to illustrate the leap in quality that only Sony’s recently launched console makes possible. I can’t even imagine this game running on PS4 Pro, how about you?
Returnal goes against PlayStation Studios productions for betting on a masochistic cycle instead of accessibility, a trait of other Sony blockbusters. Combat is where the game shines the most, although there is a very bewitching narrative to compose the adventure.
It is a memorable journey that can last a few hours, perhaps a single seat, or hundreds, depending on how skillful, persistent and lucky you are. Because it’s a bit of a bitch and gives few permanent improvements, Returnal it’s definitely not for everyone. Its qualities, however, are indisputable; it remains to be seen whether you can handle the pressure to stay alive in a crude, punitive and constantly evolving universe. For casual gamers, it will be an eternal cycle of death and rebirth – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is right there to indulge your desire for an exclusive “Sony standard”.
Returnal prioritizes intense combat and gives up the “Sony narrative pattern” to compose a sadistic and punitive cycle
Voxel note: 90
- Intense combat creates new paradigm for games of the genre
- Immersive atmosphere with Alien DNA, as well as inspirations in Lovecraftian works
- Reinvents certain elements of roguelike / roguelite
- Dynamic and intriguing narrative, although not the main pillar
- Promotes a constantly evolving world
- Make good use of PlayStation 5 features
- Absence of a progression system, something that can divide players
- It is not possible to save progress in the same loop; requires PS5 in sleep mode
Returnal was kindly donated by Sony to carry out this analysis.