Let me tell you about a run I had in Returnal.
Everything was going well. I’d cleared most of the rooms on the first floor. I’d taken very little damage, a crucial factor in Returnal: the less damage you take, the more you can increase your maximum HP from health drops.
I’d gotten the upgrades I wanted. My melee attack was stronger. I’d gotten the juicy 25 per cent upgrade to health, perhaps the most valuable attribute to any Returnal run. I’d gotten some decent weaponry with some good attributes.
Everything was going right. I figured, why not give the first boss a shot again? I’d already beaten the first boss, a tall, lithe alien with lasers thicker than bone. I did the math in my head: the stronger melee attack should make the first and second phases pass by relatively quickly. The extra HP should buffer me nicely for the third act, when the larger AOE attacks come up.
And hey, even if I took a few more hits than usual, the reward should be worth it. The extra Ether dropped by bosses will unlock more items on future runs — or the ability to revive myself using one of Returnal‘s creepy xeno-devices, if I could find it. There’d probably be a better gun. And if all came to worst, I had the ultimate ace up my sleeve: an Astronaut figure, an item that revives you once after death.
I had this on lockdown. It was the kind of run you dream about in roguelikes, where the start goes so smoothly your run just snowballs from one fight to another.
So I entered into Phrike’s pit beyond confident. Any tool I could have possibly amassed, I had. It wasn’t possible to get anything better without leaving the dank, dark swamp Selene was in.
The fight begins. The first phase ticks down easily enough: sprint forward, attack, dash past the boss to dodge the inevitable close-range swipe, fire, sprint in, attack, dash again.
It’s a good plan. But I miss the timing on one of the dashes, and a close-range laser knocks Selene right on her arse.
And that’s when the problem starts. When Selene gets up, she can’t move. Phrike swipes again, knocking her further to the wall. The same thing happens: Selene’s frozen in the spot.
“Fuck,” I yelled at the TV. I’d discovered a bug. The motionless Selene was getting kicked to the curb, and no Astronaut could fix that.
I’m mentioning this upfront, because Returnal‘s design means any bugs or crashes are felt so much more. It’s not as restrictive with progression as some might have feared, but it is still very much a loop based around risk and reward. And nothing in video games leaves as sour a taste in the mouth as spending half an hour, maybe an hour, successfully navigating around all that risk only to have it rendered null and void.
Crashes and weird anomalies weren’t common in my Returnal experience, although every time it happened, the impact was profound. Perhaps the most aggravating was a moment when I’d been able to enter the haunted house for the second time. The house is generally locked for most of the game, and you’re only able to enter after making a certain amount of progress in the story.
So given how few scraps of backstory and exposition you get in Returnal, opening the door of that house is a big deal. So you can understand my frustration when Selene found herself frozen in first-person outside of the shack after I’d tried to interact with something.
Did I miss something? Was that supposed to happen? The game didn’t respond to any inputs and didn’t move for a full minute, so I figured it must be a bug. I hadn’t lost any major progress, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d lost something. I just didn’t know what it was.
The transitions in this game are just *chef’s kiss*
But here’s the real reason why I mention these experiences upfront, issues that may be patched by the time you play, or bugs you might never see.
It’s because they’re the only real issues I have with Returnal. That’s not to say Housemarque’s roguelike shooter, a creepy Alien-inspired blend of its bullet hell past with nods to Metroid Prime and Dead Cells, is perfect.
But good lord is it fun. Housemarque games have always had adrenaline-based, bullet dodging thrills downpat, but Returnal takes those roots and injects them, xeno warts and all, into a sci-fi, third person shooter that’s undoubtedly more palatable for a wider audience than any of the studio’s previous titles.
At its core, Returnal hits the beats of a loot shooter. As you navigate through the Metroid-inspired map, you’ll run from one room to the next, navigating waves of enemies and light death traps along the way. Returnal uses procedural generation to keep things fresh, but it’s not completely procedurally generated. Like Slay the Spire, Housemarque use a series of templates for each room, and what changes is the order in which they’re connected.
It’s a great solution for a number of reasons. For one, it helps you feel like you’re learning the game, as you start to recognise room types at a glance. If I’m going into an area with relatively low health, but the door opens and I recognise the placement of pillars and high ground, identifying potential cover and a safe path to the next room is a lot simpler. That learned knowledge makes you feel like you always have a chance in a fight. Coupled with the relatively brisk move speed and generous cooldowns on Selene’s dash, as well as the dash’s brief invulnerability window, Returnal never feels unfair.
Fights can be hard, and if your positioning is bad or targeting is bad, they can be overwhelming. But I never had a death in Returnal that I didn’t feel like I couldn’t have avoided, or couldn’t have better planned for. Sometimes you’ll enter an area and you just won’t have enough health, or your mix of weaponry and buffs isn’t sufficient to clear out targets before you start getting swarmed. But the second you get a decent upgrade from your starting pistol — especially if it’s the automatic rifle or shotgun in the first act of the game, or the rocket launcher in the second — Returnal really starts to click.
But even when it all comes together, Housemarque constantly hints hinting at passageways, loot and secrets you can’t reach. My second run in Returnal was a great example: I walked into the first room, seeing ramps on my left and right, and a small pool of water with health and Obolites, Returnal‘s xeno currency that you collect over the course of a run.
Oh neat, I thought. I’d just gotten into a battle and lost a chunk of health, so this was perfect. Into the pond I go.
I should have known better; Selene couldn’t swim, and she wouldn’t be able to for another 25 hours.
I find runs of Returnal tend to go one of two ways. They either fall apart pretty quickly: somewhere within the 10 to 30 minute mark, dying as I flail against the final boss or getting caught out amidst a wave of AOE attacks, lacking the firepower to clear out single targets easily.
Otherwise, my runs have tended to go for at least an hour or longer. And what triggers this is planning around the upgrades, which remain pretty consistent from run to run.
Each level will always give you access to a fabricator, a shop of sorts offering four items for sale. There’s also usually a fifth option where you can buy a flat 25 per cent boost to your integrity (Returnal’s moniker for health), and another statue where you can trade your Ether (the permanent currency that stays with you between runs) for xenocash.
While there’s a fair few interesting options — increased melee damage can make boss fights and dealing with larger enemies much easier — there was never any reason to not just buy the health upgrade first. And if you’re already at full health, picking up health shards will be converted to resin, which increases your maximum health. Do that enough times, and when you eventually hit the xenoshop for your 25 per cent stat upgrade, Selene’s capacity to take hits becomes truly formidable.
This is all buffed out by your adrenaline meter, which is effectively a reward for not taking damage. Kill three enemies unscathed and you’ll get better overload, which is just an extra damage buff if you pull off the Gears-style reloading mini game. Do that again and you’ll earn ability to sense enemies from further away, and through walls. Kill another three? Your melee attack gets buffed. Three more kills means you’ll earn proficiency faster, helping you find better, more powerful weapons, and the final adrenaline level makes it easier to collect Obolites.
Conversely, however, it means many of your decisions from run to run are largely superfluous. You could opt to buy slight improvements in protection, or added buffs to your melee attack first, but none of them will have the same long-term impact. The choices you make with weapons are fairly limited too, since some weapon types are just ill equipped to deal with the larger waves, ranges and spaces that enemies start to occupy.
The basic weapons are simple enough: a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle. There’s a bright red katana, something akin to the main weapon from Ghostrunner, which you’ll unlock before meeting the first boss. Later biomes introduce you to more offerings like the rocket launcher, the machinegun-esque Hollowseeker, the purple-glowing Dreadbound that would fit right into Halo 3, and the Electropylon Driver, which fires pylons that attach to enemies and nearby objects. Once multiple pylons are online, an electrical barrier forms between them, doing constant damage to anything caught in their radius. It’s a fun weapon to mess around with, although a little bit unwieldy in practice. I never found I had quite enough time to set up the geometric death traps that would fully bring the weapon to life, but it’s a weapon that’s ripe for mastery and one I bet speedrunners are liable to make good use of.
Where the weapons come to life is the traits system. Once your weapon proficiency rises, weapons will get bonus traits. A great example for the shotgun is the slug shot, which effectively adds a railgun-type effect to your regular shotgun blast. In Returnal‘s many rooms where movement is limited, or enemies are too far away for close-quarters combat, the trait transforms the shotgun into one of the most versatile early-game options.
The right combination of options, too, can make a weapon vastly more valuable than its level rating. Each weapon has three main characteristics, with its overall level determined by the number of upgrades in each of those areas. (It means you’re not always guaranteed to have secondary or tertiary traits just because you’re level 24.)
And where those upgrades are invested matters. If you have a rocket launcher with the full automatic upgrade and replicating hits — which means any rocket that hits will then create a secondary explosion — then you don’t need to worry too much about its reload speed. Returnal uses a system similar to Gears of War‘s reloading mini-game, where you can overcharge your weapon by hitting the fire button at the right time. In practice, this cuts your reload time down by at least half, leaving you free to continually get double rocket explosions on anything that moves.
As I got towards the end of the game, the sheer combination of traits and power became ridiculous. Staying alive was no longer the concern, because the second I fired at any of the lower-level bosses, they would die, triggering a cascade of explosions that would neutralise anything in their immediate radius. It was so overpowered I wondered whether Housemarque had made a mistake. Returnal, as the opening splash screen advises, is meant to be a challenging experience. But by the end, that experience more like DOOM.
When you get comfortable with Returnal‘s weaponry, spacing and dodging, dealing with the tougher foes is more art than survival.
But it’s not the mechanical loop, the enemy design, or MMO-like boss fights that Returnal draws you in with. It’s the creepy, eerie atmosphere. It starts with Selene’s sharp intake of breath as she awakes once more. It’s the soft sound of the falling rain with spooky ambient noise, with the rain softly rumbling in either side of the DualSense controller.
A lot of Returnal is really felt through the DualSense: the heartbeat of nearby enemies screaming; pressing the left trigger gently to aim before hurriedly jamming the trigger for your explosive, alternate fire; the alien-sounding transitions through the menu, which reverberate through the DualSense’s speaker; the sound of your alt-fire slowly recharging coming through the controller and your TV/soundbar/speakers.
Returnal makes good use of the PS5’s 3D audio, however, perhaps the most of any game on the platform to date. I don’t have access to the Sony-branded Pulse 3D Wireless headset, but I spent about 15 hours of my playthrough using Sony’s XM3 noise cancelling headphones. And while I’d never argue that Sony’s 3D audio or Housemarque’s deployment of it in Returnal has that pinpoint precision or depth that you might get from higher end audio gear, it definitely adds to that low-key Alien vibe. It never really ventures into true horror beyond the occasional light scare or jump in the first-person cut scenes, but for what Returnal is, Housemarque has found a good balance.
If anything, the only real kicker for Returnal is the price. I feel bad for Housemarque in this regard, in the same way I felt bad reading and writing stories about what had happened to Cyan, the developers of the Myst series who seemed eternally cursed. Housemarque is a studio that’s always had the talent and the skill, but their games have always been a little too niche or a little too underappreciated to find that mass audience.
Returnal certainly has all the right ingredients, but the ongoing PS5 supply issues probably won’t help with potential sales. And what will hurt more, especially in Australia, is the price. I understand the economic logic; the cost of making games has gone up, and prices haven’t changed for generations. But that’s harder to swallow when regional pricing is so uneven. United States gamers are being asked to pay an extra $US10 on their exclusives. Australians are paying double, sometimes triple that when you look at the real world pricing at retail.
Take The Last of Us 2, which sold for $68 at launch. Or Ghost of Tsushima which also sold for $68. Both Sony exclusives, both less than 12 months old, both Game of the Year contenders and both marketed and budgeted accordingly. Returnal? It’s $106, almost $40 more. The official DualSense controller doesn’t even cost that much.
Housemarque aren’t responsible for this, of course, and none of it takes the shine off what has been an incredibly entertaining 30-plus hours. It’s not over either: there’s more story and secrets to uncover once the credits roll. Returnal is an absolute blast, not just on its own merits but also as an exclusive that shows off the PS5’s unique features.
Any fans of Dead Cells, Spelunky, bullet hell shooters and fans of shooters in general will get something out of Returnal. I just hope my fears are overblown and that the game I’ve enjoyed the most since the start of this console generation — or at least the most alongside Yakuza: Like a Dragon — isn’t priced out of reach from a new generation of fans that Housemarque so badly deserves.