Though games like Dark Souls and Cuphead have been criticized for being difficult for the sake of being difficult, there’s true merit in a game that feels impossible to beat when you first pick it up. One that you simply must give 100% effort at all moments lest you be struck down swiftly. Housemarque delivers the latest uber-challenging game with Returnal, a roguelike that excels at just about everything it tries to do, while also packing in fascinating mystery.
Ripley’s Groundhog Day
I can best describe Returnal as Alien meets Groundhog day. After crash-landing and finding herself stranded on Atropos, a strange planet, ASTRA Scout Selene faces grave threats in addition to an unraveling mystery. Doomed to relive the experience every time she dies, players will have to beat the odds in order to figure out what’s going on and get Selene back home.
I really love how the developers weave the game’s narrative into the roguelike gameplay. With the nature of the genre, players will die and start from the beginning a lot. The story finds Selene stuck in a twisted time loop, where she constantly relives her ship crashing, and is forced once again to battle powerful creatures. It creates a really interesting mystery, while actually adding some value to dying. Although it still sucks to have to start from scratch, it’s more than just getting your progress wiped and hitting “play again.” Things are constantly changing, and there are even ways to help yourself on future runs.
Though the game is certainly action first, Returnal has the atmospheric tension of a horror game. Not only are the environments twisted and off-putting, but some of the discoveries made along the way were enough to creep me out a few times. There’s sequences where players walk through the halls of an old home, and it feels like a scene pulled directly from P.T.
On death’s door
To put it quite frankly – Returnal is one of the most challenging video games I’ve played in years. It’s beyond cliche to compare a game to the likes of Dark Souls simply based on difficulty, but I really do believe that Returnal will sit beside it as some of the most difficult titles in the modern era. It’s a full-on bullet hell, with players constantly having to juggle multiple enemies at once, all while making sure not to fall victim to the hazardous environments.
It’s a game that really forces you to learn and adapt to everything it throws at you. There’s a wide variety of hostile enemies and creatures you’ll come across, each of which has their own unique behavioral pattern. There are foes that fire a spread of attacks, some that leap forward and pounce at you, ones that shoot homing attacks, and several others. As I grew to recognize and anticipate upcoming attacks, the combat really began to shine.
Returnal really clicks when you get a good feel for movement and traversal. Using my jump and dash maneuvers to dodge attacks, sprinting around the area leaping from platform to platform was nothing short of thrilling.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, again…
There’s a variety of weapons that players can find and take into battle in Returnal. You have handguns, rifles, shotguns, rocket launchers, and more. In addition, each weapon features an alt-fire mode, which can be used to deal big damage. Some of the alt-fire modes include an explosive blast shell, an electrifying shock stream, and a tracking swarm. It’s all completely randomized, so any weapon could potentially have any alt-fire mode.
The combat in Returnal is just about perfect. The weapons feel great, while also being distinctly unique from one another. The ability to time your reload and overload a weapon adds another mechanic for players to master, and you can even use a sword in close range to deal heavy damage and knock down shields. The combat mechanics combined with the frenetic movement make for a superb roguelike experience.
There are a series of bosses in Returnal that players will need to take down in order to make meaningful progress. Like any other enemy, bosses have a specific arsenal of attacks and a behavioral pattern that players can study and adapt to. I must’ve gotten killed by Phrike – the game’s first major boss – half a dozen times before I was able to take him out. Successfully killing bosses in Returnal is another level of rewarding and very satisfying.
Loot for your life
Like any good Roguelike, there are a ton of different power ups and stat-affecting items to find during your adventure on Atropos. Artifacts are items that are stored in the player’s inventory and provide boosts such as increased damage or Obolites (currency). Consumables grant a temporary gain and are limited to a small handful of slots.
One of the really interesting and cool items in Returnal are Parasites. These small creatures physically bind themselves to the player and offer really powerful bonuses. However, they also come with a strong negative side effect. Parasites can be stacked, but the player can not remove them through conventional means. It creates a strategic dynamic where the player has to decide what they’re willing to sacrifice in order to get the edge on enemies.
When you die, all of your Artifacts, Consumables, Obolites, and Parasites are lost. It can be incredibly frustrating, but it’s those high stakes that keep the player on edge at literally every moment.
An endlessly mysterious planet
With as brutal and unforgiving as Returnal is, I really appreciate how clear and concise the level design and map layout is. The map shows all of the explored areas and indicates what doors players have and haven’t entered. What’s more, it also illustrates which of these doors lead to side paths, which ones continue the main path, and which doors will take you to a boss battle. If I want to spend some time gathering loot and resources before taking on the next boss, I can easily plan out my course of action.
This is also really helpful when you consider that the world of Atropos is procedurally generated. Every time you die and start over, everything is moved around and rearranged. Though specific rooms may remain the same, they’re in different locations and are incorporated into brand new layouts. Though I liked how it kept the experience fresh, I wasn’t a fan of how the randomness impacted weapons and loot.
Weapons, Artifacts, Consumables, and Parasites are also completely randomized in Returnal. Though this is indeed a staple of the roguelike genre, it’s frustrating that some runs feel doomed to fail when all the game serves up to you are sidearms, or if there are no bonuses worth your while. For a game as unforgiving as Returnal is, it sucks when you feel like it wasn’t entirely your fault that you failed.
A truly next-gen endeavor
Returnal is strictly exclusive to the PS5 as it’s one of the handful of “next-gen” games that aren’t playable on its predecessor. Aside from being an excellent roguelike, Returnal is a technical marvel. The locations are all so gorgeous and incredibly detailed. Even in moments where my screen was flooded with action and chaos, the PS5 held strong and I experienced practically no major stutters or hiccups.
Returnal is also the true showcase of just how spectacular the DualSense controller is. Players pull down the L1 trigger halfway to aim down sights, and you can feel a bit of draw and kickback when you do so. Pulling the trigger all the way is how you activate alt-fire. I originally thought this would be confusing and lead to screw-ups, but the DualSense tech makes it so easy that I don’t think it happened a single time.
The controller also emits a sound cue from its built-in speaker to let players know when their alt-fire is fully charged and ready to be used again. If you stand still, you can even feel the raindrops falling and hitting Selene’s spacesuit, thanks to haptic feedback.
Returnal to sender
Housemarque reminds audiences that it’s got the chops to be one of the premier-tier game developers with Returnal. The game is wholly difficult with a roster of powerful enemies and bosses to overcome, but also gives the player everything they need in order to succeed. The game just gets better and better as you go on, as recognizing patterns and learning to adapt is endlessly rewarding. Despite some issues with RNG, it’s hard to knock this creepy sci-fi adventure. Returnal is a must-play PS5 exclusive for any roguelike fan itching for their latest challenge.
This review is based on a digital download code provided by the publisher. Returnal is available now on PS5 for $69.99.
Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom’s desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Star Wars nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_