Finnish studio Housemarque has been synonymous with fun arcade games such as Nex Machina, Super Stardust, and Maatterfall. Therefore, it is not surprising that he is less known among a more extended gaming audience that typically does not enter the realm of arcade shooting.
Still, it seems Housemarque has decided to roll up his sleeves and step away from his comfort zone. With Sony’s financial help, they chose to gamble with high-budget roguelike third-person shooting with a pronounced narrative element.
Introduction - Returnal Review
The main character Selena is an astronaut who works for the company ASTRA Corporation. Following something called a white signal, Selene enters the orbit of the planet Atropos where her ship begins to fail under a lightning strike and forcibly lands on the surface.
After barely surviving, she realizes that her half-destroyed ship can no longer make contact with the Astra Corporation. So he sets out to explore the mysterious planet. After all, she wanted to come here in search of a mysterious white signal.
But in the middle of the first walk through the lush alien nature, Selena notices a dead human body - her dead body. After the initial shock, things start to seem familiar to her - as if she was already there. You see, Selene is stuck in a time loop. Each time she dies, she returns to the moment just before the fall of her spaceship and effectively starts all over again. But she is smarter every time, and therefore somewhat more capable.
We will not only find our remains on this planet. we will also come across the remnants of an ancient advanced civilization and monsters that do not hold a welcome sign. However, in addition to these traditional elements of horror science fiction, which is irresistibly reminiscent of the Alien franchise, we will often come across Selena's childhood house through the levels.
Yes, you read that right, her earthly house in the middle of an already very twisted planet inhabited by monsters. This segment kept me much more on the needles than the monster because it irresistibly reminded me of a PT demo.
Progress in the game - Returnal Review
We will progress by killing numerous enemies by moving between six biomes. Biomes are not only different in terms of challenges and enemies but also in terms of visual appearance. The initial biome called Overgrown Ruins is reminiscent of storms in tropical forests, while Crimson Wastes is a kind of homage to Mars with its red soil notes. True, not all six biomes are unique, which is disappointing when you open a fourth biome that irresistibly resembles the first.
On these surfaces, we will meet many strange, tentacle-like figures who want to destroy us. In addition to physical attacks, most enemies also fire projectiles in various dimensions, which is crucial to move around the map. Luckily, the controls are perfect, and I’ve never been in a situation to blame them for some shot I received. You can feel the arcade roots of the studio and the controls you can trust.
Weapons - Returnal Review
Of course, our goal is not only to avoid those missiles but also to fire some shots back. In the beginning, we always have only a regular pistol at our disposal, but through the transition, you can also come across shotguns, rifles, rocket launchers… Each weapon has its statistics of range, strength, but also alternative shooting that we can use from time to time. It is important to note that you can always carry only one weapon at a time.
The range of weapons you find depends on your Weapon Proficiency level, which we fill by killing enemies. Of course, a higher level also means better weapons during that transition. You can run through some of the fights and avoid them, but that means you won't increase the level to unlock better weapons. And without them, you will hardly cross the barriers in later biomes.
Once you encounter a group of enemies, you start firing frantically, dodging attacks, and constantly moving so that enemies do not surround you. In addition to having to take part in as many fights as possible for better weapons, the goal is not to get hit. The longer you go through the game without receiving a hit, the higher your adrenaline level will be, thus unlocking special features such as tracking the outlines of enemies through walls. And that can be very useful.
Fights and bosses - Returnal Review
The fights are fun, and the emphasis at the end of each biome is boss fights. Given the number of projectiles, they sometimes resemble fireworks, but they will bother you well. Once you defeat a boss, you open a new biome forever, and you don’t have to repeat that same fight over and over again.
In addition to the permanent opening of new biomes from the previous levels, we will transfer only special ways of movement and the so-called Ether. The mentioned ways of movement, such as a climbing hook or a teleporter, give the game a certain coil of Metroidvania because they open up parts of the biome that were inaccessible to us until then. On the other hand, Ethers are small pieces that we will collect during the game and use to purify malignant objects.
Malignant Items - Returnal Review
During the game, you can collect weapons and some items to consume that affect your stats and health. These are essential things for your survival, but some of these items, especially the more valuable ones, come with Malignant status. That means they are enchanted, so they could ruin your space suit in some way if you pick them up.
You can clear the malignant status of the Ethers you have collected. If you do not have them, you can pick up the infected items without purification and thus risk failure. Once you pick up the defect on the suit, the individual stats will shrink, but you can solve any such defect in some way. For example, you can solve some malfunctions by killing ten enemies. In this way, Returnal creates small challenges for you in the middle of the level, tying them cleverly to the mechanics of collecting crucial items.
Gameplay - Returnal Review
Returnal often plays with you by offering you the choice of sacrificing certain things for better equipment or better stats. So during the game, you can pick up parasites, which will increase one, but along the way reduce the other stats. For example, when you use a single parasite you can get more stuff when you kill enemies, but the likelihood of spoiling a suit by buying a Malignant item will also increase along the way. The game constantly makes you take risks, so over time, you have to be pretty careful not to overdo it in adding parasites and breakdowns to the suit.
All this together creates very challenging, fun, and exciting gameplay. The slow discovery of all these elements of gameplay is interesting even in itself. But one problem with Returnal is that any attempt to cross takes quite a long time. On average, this can take about an hour, but there is no way to save the game between specific sections. Simply, when you turn on Returnal, consider that dying or turning off the console is the only way to stop playing. This creates extra tension in the gameplay, pushes you to continue playing, but it can also be exhausting.
Important to note that even when you cross all six biomes and unscrew the checkout peak, you won’t experience the complete story. The game has so many little things to explore, which connect you to the full story and reveal the whole background action. I've reached about 20 hours of playing, and I still know how to discover new segments that I haven't seen at all until that moment.
In addition, the game also has a multiplayer component in the form of daily tasks where you compete with other players on the ladder. Another form of multiplayer is incorporated in the form of revenge for the deaths of other players. So during the game, you can find the body of another player, see how he died, and press the button to start a showdown with the enemy who killed him. Of course, rewards are usually generous in these situations if you don’t die from the same criminal yourself.
Technical Side Of The Game - Returnal Review
As for the technical side of the game itself, the game has raised some standards. I'm not just thinking about the visually beautiful game that revolves in reconstructed 4K resolution with impressive lighting, but also about the best example of 3D sound integration and haptic vibration on the new PS5 controller. The best example I can give you is when you go out to the part of the map where it is raining. On DualSens, small tiny vibrations gave me the feeling as if real raindrops were hitting the same, while the sound of the same on the headphones was spread throughout the depth, not just the direction.
The fight is constantly tense, whether with a new item, weapon, or enemy. The only significant problem I can mention is the inability to save a position during one transition. While I understand that just being unable to save a position is at the core of the game’s design, sometimes a vacation would come in so handy. And I would probably jump into the next round more often if there was a save option. Housemarque has already spoken out on this issue and said he is following player comments on the subject. I hope they will listen to such comments.