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Returnal - review

All images captured using the PS5 share feature.

Ever feel like you are reliving the same day over and over again? As if what is unfolding has happened before and you can’t quite recall whether certain aspects are different or not? Returnal captures that feeling and encourages you to run with it, both metaphorically and literally! Housemarque has released their most ambitious and impressive project to date and have taken the leap from smaller indie titles and instead put out the studio’s first triple-A experience! I have only had the pleasure of playing through two of Housemarque’s titles before this, them being Dead Nation and Resogun. Each of them was great in their own right, with Resogun being the stand-out in my humble opinion. Returnal is its own beast that keeps the superb shooting and spruces it up with the graphical fidelity, animation and storytelling we have come to expect from the usual triple-A blockbusters. Does it take the reliving-the-same-day formula and create something incredible such as Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow? Or does it waste the perfectly suited idea for a video game?

The loop begins

Returnal wastes no time with its setup and immediately throws you into the action. The first cutscene is brief and see’s our protagonist, Selene, crash-land on Atropos. Selene awakes to find herself lying next to her now critically damaged ship, Helios. With only a pistol, the player is then given the reigns and tasked with exploring this rather ominous alien world. Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the title appearing on screen. The player will not see the title until they perish for the first time. My first death (like many others I assume) was at the hands of an enemy I later knew to be called Titanops. The pistol merely chipped away at its health, and yet its attack decimated mine. Selene collapsed to the floor after a fatal blow, and that is when the title came onto the screen. Selene once again awoke near the ship, and I was equipped with a pistol and the same objective… to discover what in the hell was happening! Herein lies Returnal’s central idea, and that is when you die, you restart from the beginning, with the same pistol and only a handful of permanent upgrades if you managed to grab them on your last cycle. Be prepared to abandon Helios time and time again as you attempt to explore further than before… you know, before you were quickly dispatched by the abundance of unfriendly creatures inhabiting Atropos.

Each time you return to the beginning area, you will always need to go through the same door to progress. That never changes. However, what is beyond that door could look very different indeed. My first foray into this world saw a forest-type area, with moonlight peeking through the branches to separate the darkness below. Everything felt a little cramped, and any conflicts were close-quarters affairs. My second cycle had a far different opening. The forest was gone and now had moved to the distance. Instead, there was a vast quarry-Esque pit before me with a destroyed bridge that used to connect either side. A new enemy type began closing in on Selene, and more of a platforming approach was needed to traverse the environment. This is what is known as procedural generation in games, with that meaning the world changes and provides players with different areas to explore. The chances of you travelling over the same turf for a second time is almost certainly not going to happen. Your cycle may have come to an end when you dashed off the edge of that cliff by mistake after thirty minutes, while a friend’s attempt was cut short by a pack Kerberon after ten minutes. Back to the crash site, you both will go, and the game asks you to try again. Other than a halfway save point, you will be sent back to the beginning each time. That also extends to when you power down your PS5 and also in the soul-destroying event your system crashes… the cycle starts over again. Either you put the system in rest mode or prepare to start all over again if you turn it off. Housemarque has recently spoken about adding a save feature but how this will work and when it will be added remains to be seen. Know this before going in. My feelings are very mixed on this idea and I will explain why shortly.

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Déjà vu… in space!!

As Selene dives deeper into Atropos, more and more is unveiled to her and the player. Audiotapes are left beside the bodies of Selene’s previous fatal endeavour’s that you find around the world, being a frequent reminder that death is not a single experience for her. The voice actress for Selene does a fantastic job here and provides numerous layers to the character. She is determined yet fearful, intelligent yet often bewildered, strong and yet sometimes very weak. It is as if she is on the cusp of losing her sanity throughout, with much of that being portrayed through her voice acting alone. Some scenes demonstrate her emotions through motion capture, but most of what I picked up on was through the audiotapes (it being hard to focus on her facial features when forty projectiles are flying at you). The story often tantalizes both Selene and the player, with only small pieces of the plot being told at first. Returnal’s narrative is a mystery that pulls its punches until the latter half of the game. Several revelations occur after the halfway mark, perhaps making the first half feel a little slow in comparison. The standout moments in which the narrative is told, for most, will surely be during the segments that take place in the ‘20th Century House’. After discovering a key within the first biome, the player can then access the oddly located home within the forest. Upon entering the house, the camera shifts to a first-person perspective, and suddenly the game adopts a very different tone. No longer are you running and gunning your way through alien lifeforms; instead, you slowly walk around Selene’s house that is a long way from home. This is where you are first introduced to the astronaut, a silent figure who stalks Selene throughout Returnal. These sections took on a tone seemingly inspired by games like P.T and briefly gave Returnal a whole new vibe and style, making for a welcome, if not slightly jarring break in the action.

Various theories and perspectives regarding the story are available to read through online, with me honestly not being able to contribute anything new to them. It seems that Housemarque has created a relatively ambiguous story that certainly intrigued me but is not what will leave a lasting impression. While it did keep me interested from start to finish, I can’t say I share the same love other players have for the story. What I do love however, is the gameplay!

Whereas I felt the story was a decent hit, enough to get to second base at least. The gameplay hit the ball out of the park (so well, it probably reached Atropos and is beside a Selene near you). After no more than ten minutes, I was in love with how flawlessly the game played. Controlling Selene is practically a perfect example of how to nail movement and combat in a third-person game. Selene moves with just enough speed to keep up with her relentless enemies, but not so fast that it borders on becoming an indirect hindrance either. Her jumps are bountiful (chalking this up to the gravity on the planet), making for some decent platforming on occasion. Dashing on the ground or in the air allows for additional ways to frantically avoid incoming attacks while also giving Selene more options to manoeuvre through the environment. Does the extent of the blissful controls end there? No, not at all. Using the vast arsenal of human and alien weaponry is just as faultless. I have been reserved and, dare I say, unenthusiastic about the adaptive triggers for the dualsense controller, seeing them as maybe just another gimmick. Returnal has made me rethink this slightly, as now the left trigger has two uses depending on the pressure you apply. Pressing it halfway down (until you first feel some resistance) will aim your weapon and reveal enemy weak points. Squeezing the trigger even more will activate an alternate fire mode ranging from a deadly laser to rockets or even a form of electricity that can prove to be particularly useful against a flock of airborne attackers. It doesn’t exactly blow my mind with how L2 is used here, but it makes for a very sensible and interesting use of the new functionality. As for the shooting in general, it combines with the movement/control to create some of the most addictive and intense gameplay in recent memory. I never got close to becoming bored and always felt as if I needed to play at my A-game to make it through. You will always need to be on the move, with running-and-gunning being the only way you will survive!

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A deadly game of chess

The ensemble of alien life is ruthless and can very quickly put an end to your cycle through the world. Expect to have a daunting number of projectiles on screen during combat as almost all of the enemies will launch their attacks from a distance, making me feel like I was in the laser room scene from the first Resident Evil film. It was always an edge-of-my-seat affair when fighting in Returnal. The game will not go easy on you and only allows for a few mistakes before putting an end to your current cycle. Selene’s foes hit incredibly hard and seem to work together to bring her down. For example, the Mycomorph will release spores that slow Selene’s movement if caught in them. Meaning the advanced Kerberonyx has an easier time hitting Selene with its increased amount of projectiles. Or perhaps the spores will keep Selene in place just long enough for the Titanops to perform one of its lethal melee attacks. It acts like a game of chess in which each enemy piece has its own rules and patterns that you must learn. Of course, you have your pieces as well, and here is where Returnal asks you to make the difficult decisions.

Returnal adopts the ‘Metroidvania style here, in which some areas will be off-limits to the player until they have acquired the necessary tech to advance further. These come in the form of Xenotech upgrades. The equipment Selene discovers ranges from the Atropian blade that will destroy various barriers, to a Hermetic Transmitter that acts as a way for Selene to fast travel (showing off the always impressive particle effects). However, these are only awarded to the player after defeating the bosses. There are a total of six biomes that you must explore and, other than the fifth biome, each one has a challenging boss encounter at the end. Each boss is like the ultimate test of what you have learned so far. Defeating each boss not only rewards you with these pieces of tech, but also a sense of euphoria similar to beating a Soulsborne boss. I know the comparisons to Dark Souls are eye-roll inducing now, but it genuinely gave me that feeling of relief and immense satisfaction I know all too well from the Souls series. I digress. Getting back to my chess analogy, whereas these Xenotech enhancements come with no downsides, additional helpful tools come with a catch. Do you take the risk and sacrifice one piece for another?

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Returnal has several mechanics that will both help and hinder them. Firstly, there are parasites lying amongst the inhabitants of Atropos. By attaching them to Selene, they will provide an advantage as well as a disadvantage to the player. The advantage may be fabrication costs are reduced by 15%. Throughout your journey, you will collect hundreds upon thousands of obolites. These act as the world's currency, and so, for example, 325 of them can be spent to extend your health (called integrity in the game). Obolites are found in chests and also dropped by fallen enemies but disappear relatively fast. So perhaps the reduction is a plus for some players. It certainly helped me. But the parasite will also apply a downside, such as Selene now suffering fall damage. This coincides with another mechanic, adrenaline. For every three enemies that you defeat without taking a hit, it increases by one level to a maximum of five. Each level offers additional buffs to Selene. But, now you suffer damage from falls, and so that would reset your adrenaline level and cause you to lose any benefits you were receiving. And guess what, adrenaline ties in with yet another mechanic, proficiency rate for your weapon. Proficiency builds to boost the performance of your chosen weapons, the scale being between 1-15/15-30 proficiency. Getting to high levels is vital if you intend on progressing through the story. Admittedly, it appears to be much more complex than it actually is, but it all makes sense after spending some time with the game. But the rules of Atropos do not end there.

You also have, what is known as malignancy to take into account. Several chests can be found throughout the world, with some of them potentially posing a chance of making your suit malignant if opened. Each chest offers something of value to the player like a new weapon or a beneficial artifact. But, if it compromises your suit then you will have to deal with the effects from that. The effects range from lowering your damage output to not allowing you to pick up any new weapons and so on. These effects can be removed if you complete set tasks, such as open two more chests or collect a certain amount of obolites. Returnal constantly asks the player to make choices that could make or break their current run. Over time I came to really appreciate how much the game put on my shoulders. I had to figure out what worked best for my style of play, and also take the risks I thought to be worth it. It pushed me to always be alert and ready, teaching me to almost never lower my guard. A relaxing game, Returnal is not. But I categorically adored the gameplay loop that is offered.

Here I will list my ‘top tips’ for anyone who would like the advice:

1.    Best weapon – Hollowseeker. High damage, accurate and fast fire rate, unlocking the portal turret allows for twice the damage output and can give you a moment to take cover while it fires for you.

2.    Use the antropian keys on the locked chests as it will always grant you very beneficial artifacts.

3.    Always purchase the astronaut figure as it grants you another life on that cycle.

4.    Save six ether (the other form of currency) for the reconstructor as that also gives you another life on that cycle.

5.    Removing malignancy is not very difficult and so don’t threat if your suit becomes malignant.

6.    Enemies leaving pools of acid on the floor is really easy to work around, so it isn’t that bad if the parasites list that as the downside.

7.    Don’t look at dying as a failure. Perseverance will teach you how to be better and you will beat that biome with time.

8.    DON’T STOP MOVING!

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A beautiful recurrence

Whether it’s the eery forest from the first biome or the almost desolate and baron sand dunes from the second, the visuals are always a treat for the eyes. It created a sense of impending death no matter where I was. There have been videos and articles online stating that the native resolution is only 1080p, with the game using several ticks to technically allow for dynamic 4K. Honestly, I always found the game to look fantastic on the eyes, with the argument possibly being we focus too heavily on resolution. The fourth and fifth biomes definitely felt similar to the second and third. However, they still looked visually impressive. The use of lighting, in particular, I felt to be superb. What I thought to be even better was the audio design. Returnal’s soundtrack is simply brilliant! It was mysterious during the quieter moments. It was intense, epic and punchy during the countless action-heavy segments. It even grew and would swell as it built up to a boss (4th biome boss being a highlight), making me almost fear what was ahead. Weapons packed a variety of sounds, with the carbine and Hollowseeker sounding especially alien and destructive. Enemies would occasionally let out screams and roars that got my blood pumping, letting me know I was whittling them down. If you have access to a good quality headset, then this will certainly elevate the experience, especially with the 3D audio. Absolutely wonderful sound design, and here is where I must address one of my two main criticisms.

During my time with Returnal, I experienced two audio bugs in which the audio was gone entirely. Restarting the system would not rectify anything, and so I was left with a choice that the game did not intend to give me. Completely turn off the system in an attempt to fix the bug and restarted my cycle (two hours’ worth of progress), or finish the last biome with no sound. I was not prepared to reset my progress and so beat the final boss. I then proceeded to awkwardly watch as the ending cutscene played with no sound whatsoever. I later viewed the cutscene online, realising I had to go through it all over again to achieve the true ending. And, you guessed it, the audio cut out again. My other criticism is that it also hard crashed twice, and so due to the core idea of it resetting you after your demise or indeed, the PS5 is turned off, it meant I lost my progress twice over. I genuinely applaud Housemarque for implementing the idea of your cycle being reset. It greatly impacted how I played and amplified just how intense the game was. But the audio bugs and crashes, unfortunately, ruined the ending for me to a point. A one-time issue I would have seen as possibly a rare annoyance. But four times, my game had these issues and that I cannot look past. To be fair, the game has been patched a few times since, and so my final run wasn’t hampered by either of these issues. That and apparently, it could have had more of a problem to do with my system, rather than Returnal itself. Hopefully, future players will not have to endure the same mishaps.

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Verdict

In light of that, I still very much enjoyed my time with Returnal. The picture above shows my end completion data, including my runs when the game crashed. Is Returnal a system seller? No, I wouldn’t say so. It has some flaws that some players may take issue with, and how the game is designed may outright deter some. But, with the majority of audio bugs and crashes now fixed, I would honestly say it is worth a try for anyone looking for a more in-depth title that will test your skills. Housemarque have proven themselves to be more than just an indie developer, releasing something that isn’t perfect but is certainly worth your time at some point. Now, back to Helios I go.

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