Review: Returnal is a welcome slice of strange, and a testament to Housemarque’s talent

Is it possible to be gorgeous, twisted, and darkly comical all at the same time? Returnal is a welcome slice of strange, and a testament to Housemarque’s talent. The arcade-style shoot ‘em up is the team’s best work since Super Stardust HD, and proves that the team can make just about anything. That otherworldly armadillo? Yeah, it’s pretty rad, but Returnal is much more than that. It’s a puzzle game, a rhythm game, an action game, and a platformer. It’s a game about running and jumping, but it’s also a game about shooting, dodging, and laughing. ~~

You know what a 2D shmup is, right? The high-speed space-based shoot ‘em ups that made the genre so popular in the arcades of the 1980s? But what about a 2D shmup that’s actually a platform game? Housemarque’s new release, Returnal, is exactly that. Strap on your jetpack and get ready for an extremely challenging, extremely difficult, and extremely rewarding platformer with a twist that will have you dancing through space, in a manner that feels completely natural for such a game.

The idea of second chances is always interesting. In Returns, where the main character, Selena, can’t stay dead, they take on additional meaning. What would you do differently next time if it were different? That’s the question raised by the game Returnal from developer Housemarque.

As players navigate an unstable world populated by hellish monsters and alien architecture, movement becomes communication. Selena’s fragile humanity is pitted against the overwhelming presence of xenos in a violent confrontation where words are crudely written on the screen, bosses explode and devastating waves of energy descend upon every creature in the game.

Returnal, which on the outside looks like a third-person action game with procedural generation and strong roguelike tendencies, actually isn’t that at all. It is a game that tries to communicate and inform the player. It’s a game with a secret, and the only way to discover that secret is to die.

Slipstream Selena

Screenshot via

Returnal makes pretty heavy use of New Weird and Slipstream literature, wrapping sci-fi flesh around a sci-fi structure before thrusting a disturbing human heart into the center of the monster.

You play as Selena, a space explorer who has crashed with her Helios ship on an alien planet. Now it’s time to escape, but the planet has other ideas. The game’s six game zones are inhabited by utterly alien creatures with wriggling tentacles, spider-like limbs and tree-like skin. There is little in common between Selena and her new enemy, and she gets the upper hand every time.

It’s a dangerous world, and it won’t be long before players find themselves on the wrong side of an alien attack. Not all is lost after death: Selene wakes up at Helios again, but not as dead as she thought. It turns out that the person running this strange place wants to keep Selena alive.

This is where the elements of the roguelike come into play, as each part is different from the next. The layout of the areas will change, forcing players to explore new routes, find new weapons and face new threats. Progress tends to reset itself between runs, called cycles, but some changes remain. Players who have unlocked a sword or grappling hook, for example, can save it between games.

The deeper the player goes into the game, the more they die and explore the world, the more they will unravel the mystery surrounding Selena. On this alien planet, all is not what it seems, and each death and hard-won breakthrough brings Selena closer to the truth of her reality.

I am an executive, so I am

Image via Housemarque

Where Returnal excels is in combat. Developer Housemarque has a lot of experience making bullet-hell games, and he does it very well. It’s these types of battles that they’ve brought to the third dimension to give players an incredibly challenging experience.

Players can move, jump and shoot. Other, more difficult tricks can be learned as you go along. The Dash provides some useful I-frames – brief moments of invulnerability that can be used in combat. The most notable aspect of the battles in Returnal, however, is the difficulty.

That’s not to say it’s unfair – the game just lacks most of the safety blankets that modern games usually provide us as players. The game has no option to save the path, which is certainly one of the more interesting design decisions in the game. The enemies hit hard, especially the end bosses, but there are no overly cheap mechanics in the game. While the battles themselves depend on the player’s skill and reaction time, the difficulty may be too dependent on the RNG, which may put some people off.

The items, upgrades and weapons that players find throughout the game make the difference between winning and losing, and it is this element that can discourage some players. To be fair, the most important thing for players is the simple experience. Learning the nuances of the strange world they explore, its mechanisms and how best to use them to their advantage will be far more important than any happy spin-off.

New generation

Patch backImage by Housemarque

Returnal is a PlayStation 5 exclusive title, putting it in an eerily similar position to Godfall. Both games are seen as proofs of concept for Sony’s new hardware, Godfall as a launch game and Returnal as the first game after a bit of downtime following the release of the first games last year. Both games were developed by former indie developers, and for both teams, these are their first forays into triple-A level games. However, it is Returnal that best showcases the console’s strengths.

First of all, it stands out for its graphics. Capable of running in 4K at 60 FPS, the game is also visually striking and tends to have a slightly cluttered look. There’s something strange, almost supernatural about the look of Returnal, as if the developers deliberately tried to approach the nebulousness of concept art rather than the hyper-sharp celebration of textures that many games strive for. This works incredibly well, not only visually, but also in terms of the game’s main story.

What made Returnal on PlayStation 5 so special was that I started to believe in DualSense. I wasn’t sure if many games would work with the new controller, but Returnal changed my mind. Pulling the trigger at different depths to achieve different effects feels incredibly natural after a few moments. Walking through these strange and foreign landscapes, feeling the soft crunch of the gravel under my hands or the gentle kiss of the rain, it was incredible.

Pronunciation

Returnal is an excellent game that has managed to transfer the frantic pace of the battles in Bullet Hell to the third dimension. The alien world the game creates is interesting and enticing, and doesn’t lose its luster and terror as the game progresses.

The difficulty will likely be a stumbling block for some players, and that, along with the roguelike nature of the game, may cause some people to fall in love with the game. On the other hand, that same difficulty will probably make other players love it even more.

With Returnal, Housemarque has established itself as a developer capable of combining the sharp mechanics and combat systems it has mastered with unusual story elements to create an unusual gaming experience. Returnal may not be a system seller, but it’s certainly a very interesting game that has something to offer anyone with a PlayStation 5.

+ A beautiful game that takes full advantage of the PlayStation 5’s features and capabilities.
+ An interesting story that keeps the player in suspense until the end.
+ The battles are excellent, exciting and thrilling.
+ The stark alien world is fantastically realized and offers intrigue and challenge in equal measure.
The difficulty will scare off some players

Disclosure: This review was written using the game code provided by the publisher.

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