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Geek Review: Returnal

When it comes to the roguelike genre, there have been some true standouts, with Supergiant Games’ Hades’ shadow looming large over any new contenders, even if any game that even comes close to that neverending thirst for just one more run is bound to guarantee a good time. Housemarque has put some AAA muscle behind Returnal, and unlike the unfortunate Selene forced to spend cycle after cycle on Atropos, players here will find themselves willingly and happily rerunning the gauntlet time and time. 

On the surface, the roguelike shooter lays the foundation for a sci-fi tale that is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Our heroine, the ASTRA scout Selene, may be used to travelling in space and seeing new planets, but nothing quite prepares her or the player for the horrors of this shape-shifting world. 

The moment you stumble onto the perished body of a previous Selene, Returnal begins sinking the invisible hooks of a roguelike masterpiece into the mind, body, and soul. As you start your first run with a pistol by your side, shifting biomes full of alien life and threats await. 

Along the way, you will find precious currency like the obolites, harvested around the worlds and from enemies. You may even pick up a new weapon or two, along with permanent additions like Ether, gear upgrades, and mysterious keys. However, at the core of it all is the inescapable truth that you will die – not only once, twice, or several times, but over and over again.

That is the point of a roguelike, after all, and may be a deterrent to some who are looking for more permanent progression. Yet, if you give Returnal a chance, there is every possibility that it will charm you enough to go for endless attempts at solving the mysteries of Atropos.

The combat in Returnal is definitely the star of the show. The alien foes in Returnal are unique, each bringing their own style and destructive capabilities to the table, and they are all terrifying. Perhaps not just in looks, but the sheer challenge they provide. Flying beasts that love to come up close and personal, hulking tree monsters that grow out of nowhere, enemies with shields that require a melee attack to break, automatons with gatling cannons – all these and more await your growing skills to conquer.

The fodder, so to speak, can already be a handful, forcing you to up your game when it comes to aiming, movement, and making the right decisions. The moment you come up against the more intimidating bosses is where the game’s real meat reveals itself. 

Each boss of the specific biome fights differently, but the commonality is the bullet hell they will inflict upon you. With three life bars worth of health, each phase ups the ante even more as you avoid projectiles, melee attacks, harmful area-of-effect moves, and more while keeping the pressure up. Thankfully, you can dash and avoid damage entirely if you are good with your dodging timing. These boss fights are the toughest of the lot in terms of enemy encounters in Returnal, but they are also the best of what the game can offer. Losing is not the end of the world, but winning sure does make you feel on top of the world.

You are not powerless in Returnal, though while your starting pistol may be powerful, it has its limits. By locating new weapons during your runs, you will unlock them as loot in chests for the next round. Returnal provides a variety of firearms that suit all kinds of playstyles. The reliable carbine is good for killing with a barrage of bullets, but it is certainly not as good as a shotgun up close. Players need to learn how best to use each weapon in every situation. 

This includes mastering the Overload mechanic. Much like the Active Reload made famous by the Gears of War series, emptying your clip in Returnal can be a death sentence. However, should you time your trigger press well, you can instantly replenish your ammo and keep fighting. Err, and you will need to seek safe refuge while your weapon reloads. By allowing players to maintain control during combat, Returnal continues to provide a masterful symphony to match the hopefully flawless dance of death players can perform.

Each weapon also hides many hidden traits that are slowly revealed the more you use them and the deeper you dive into Returnal. Your bullets might become acidic or start ricocheting. The auto-firing carbine may even transform into a hard-hitting rifle instead, firing off powerful shots at a slower pace. The list of traits each weapon can unlock only adds to the unpredictability and appeal of the roguelike. Together with the different alternate fire abilities, each run of Returnal gives you time and room to experiment before finding your favourite loadout. 

That is not all, as weapon levels are tied to your Proficiency levels. The more you kill, the more you build progress towards this level. You can also find items that give you a boost, allowing you to take on more demanding challenges along the way. That is all good and all, but it matters for little if you are a glass cannon.

The valuable material that is Silphium is what you will need. These shiny green objects can heal your suit’s integrity, and if you collect enough of the Resin variant, your maximum integrity can be upgraded. If you think that is going to help you in the future, you are dead wrong. The health upgrades only last you for the run, so be sure to give yourself the best chance possible.

Players will also be amassing a fortune in obolites, which will allow you to purchase certain artefacts and upgrades that grant passive bonuses at fabricators located around Atropos. You could get yourself a handy health kit, or an augment that adds to your Integrity. The options are there and can be helpful; all you need to do is afford it.

Destroying enemies while staying unharmed plays into the excellent risk-and-reward system that is Adrenaline levels in Returnal. Kill three foes without a hitch, and you get a boost to the Overload reload mechanic. 

Three more, and you get enhanced vision, allowing you to sense enemies behind objects, and so forth. Chaining all these kills together and giving yourself such boosts is immensely satisfying, but it can also bring your world crumbling down once you are careless and get hit. It can turn Returnal into a game of cat and mouse at times, but in essence, always staying on the move is how you will enjoy the roguelike shooter most.

If all of this is already overwhelming, Housemarque is not done just yet. Returnal also introduces the Malfunction mechanic alongside Parasites; both are gambles that will test your resolve at every turn. The former can occur as you encounter Malignant items on Atropos, each carrying a risk of inflicting a Malfunction should you choose to take the chance. 

Malfunctions can carry many different effects and players could lose their ability to pick up new weapons or start hurting from long falls. At any time, you can have two of such Malfunctions; should a third one happen, you could lose your valuable artefacts or even collected Resin. The only way out is to find items that can remove Malfunctions or fulfil the conditions required to be rid of them. 

As for Parasites, these indigenous creatures latch onto your suit and provide both a boost and a nerf. Perhaps losing the ability to activate Overload is worth it just to have a more powerful melee attack, or you prefer obolites to stay in play just a little longer, while you take harm from picking up items. Both Malfunctions and Parasites represent risks that can either take you all the way to the end, or be your end. The choice is yours. 

Throughout your time in Returnal, players will get the opportunity to reveal more layers of the underlying story. It may all seem crazy at first, but there is undoubtedly a payoff at the end. Without sharing any spoilers, nothing is what it seems here on Atropos, and you are going to need to finish the game at least twice before you can truly understand the madness at work.

It does require a little bit of luck to see everything. The procedurally generated biomes will start to look familiar to veteran players. Still, the most annoying thing would be the setup not leading you to yet-to-be-seen areas or lore items. There is replay value in this roguelike, but it is not always a good thing. 

As a PlayStation 5 exclusive, Returnal is a perfect showcase of what the console hardware and technology can do when harnessed right. As you boot up the game for the first time until you put down the controller after another sleepless night, there is no significant loading whatsoever. Transitions to new areas take just a second, gameplay transitions into cinematics seamlessly, and there has been no slowdown or frame skips. It is truly an indulgence that only the new hardware can provide, and Returnal takes advantage of that custom SSD flawlessly.

This is undoubtedly one of the best looking games on the console right now from a visual standpoint. Despite the relatively less risky use of colours when it comes to the different biomes, the visual effects, the way enemies look and move, as well as the various worlds all exist as distinct shards of amazing art brought to life. 

While the bullet hell nature of Returnal may be daunting, there certainly is a level of mastery you will need to survive, and Housemarque has provided plenty of visual aids in order to give players a fighting chance. From the brightly coloured projectiles to enemies telegraphing certain moves, the muted aesthetic allows these elements to shine through. If it did not hurt to lose whatever progress you have made, there is every chance you would just stand there and marvel at the masterpiece of motion and art in front of you.

The Overgrown Ruins, the Crimson Wastes, and the other mysterious biomes Selene will visit are all uniquely put together, with perhaps a slight exception of one being more familiar than others. The more gear you get, the more areas will open up for you to explore; that is something any roguelike fan will be comfortable with. That said, it is not just the roguelike nature of procedural generation, but also the overall feeling of each environment that feeds into the inviting nature of Returnal that asks you to explore at your own peril. 

Housemarque has incorporated haptics smartly, adding another layer of immersion into the alien adventure. The moment you crash your ship and step out of the wreckage, the DualSense lets you feel the pitter-patter of the rain straight through your hands. It is not limited to just such implementation as well. 

Intense cinematics and the moment-to-moment action in Returnal feels much more elevated with the help of the DualSense’s haptics. Once you get into the game flow, the haptics can even help you grasp the mechanics of the game that may usually require visual confirmation. 

Knowing you have a fully recharged alternate fire, a reloaded weapon, or dangerously low health thanks to the haptics is a quality-of-life improvement that will make it hard to go back to the old days of gaming. 

Returnal’s clever use of 3D audio also hammers home the point of why you should be playing this game with supported headphones whenever possible. With the amount of action that goes on in the game, it is highly likely that you will be too caught up to catch specific details. 

Enemies can spawn off-screen, behind, under, or even above you, ready to take a chunk out of your Adrenaline and health levels. With 3D audio, you can instantly tell by their snarl or the unmistakable alien movement which direction they are in and plan your next movement. The fact that it all becomes so natural when Returnal has its hooks in you perfectly encapsulates how in sync the game is with the hardware. 

For a roguelike, Returnal definitely brings together systems that can be seen in other games. That would usually be a knock against the product, but Housemarque has iterated and added in more magic of their own, topped off with a dusting of that AAA polish. That has allowed Returnal to evolve into a beast of its own that is worthy of being called a top dog in the genre. 

By fusing together a frenetic third-person bullet hell shooter with the ever-popular roguelike genre and all its bells and whistles, Housemarque has successfully brought into our world a masterful PS5 exclusive. The gameplay is exquisite, the presentation exceptional, and all the elements of why the console is worth the hassle is all neatly packed into this sci-fi epic. Returnal could very well be an early contender for Game of the Year in 2021, and that is true no matter if you are on your first run, or your 9,999th run.

GEEK REVIEW SCORE

Summary

A truly AAA sci-fi roguelike masterpiece full of intense moments and inviting mysteries, Returnal continually reminds us of why we love Housemarque so much in the first place.

Overall
9.5/10
9.5/10
  • Gameplay - 10/10
    10/10
  • Story - 9/10
    9/10
  • Presentation - 10/10
    10/10
  • Value - 9/10
    9/10


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