Returnal is a game that’s full of ambition and importance. It’s the first major exclusive of the year for the PlayStation 5, but it’s also the first game from Housemarque since declaring their plans to branch out from pure arcade action, and the company has grown to take on the challenge of making a game that can feel like a big-budget AAA experience, not to mention that this is the highest profile roguelike to date.
One of the first things you’ll note about Returnal is that it looks absolutely phenomenal. Played from a third-person perspective, you venture into a dark and foreboding environment, stepping into the unknown, battling shadowy alien monsters, and trying to unravel a story that taps into some of the most mind-teasing science fiction tropes of recent times.
The clue is really in the game’s name, a portmanteau of ‘return’ and ‘eternal’, neatly encapsulating the narrative time loop that our protagonist Selene finds herself in. Crashing on an alien planet, she stumbles out of the cockpit, recording an audio log of her catastrophic landing, but wait… has… hasn’t she been here before? Yes. Somehow. By virtue of a strange alien device that she (in true “stupid human on an alien planet” form) decided to prod and attach to her forearm, she’s now stuck in a time loop as she attempts to escape this planet, doomed to die on each attempt, crash land, and start all over again.
It’s less Groundhog Day and more Live, Die, Repeat, but the fundamental difference is that where those films have a set world order and series of events that the protagonist can subvert with their foreknowledge – something that the upcoming Deathloop from Arkane Studios will tap into – Returnal’s roguelike structure means that the world will be reshaped and remixed each time Selene dies. And die she will.
Despite the shift in genre, there’s a lot of common ground here to Housemarque’s arcade masterpieces. Though shifted to a third-person perspective and 3D world, there’s still a leaning on bullet hell gameplay, manoeuvring around slow-moving projectiles, timing dodges to escape the faster ones, jumping over damaging pulses – we wish this was an opportunity to go hands-on. There’s also a fundamentally similar cadence to learning how to master an arcade shooter and a roguelike, sending you back to the start to try again if you die, it’s just that each run will have a different permutation in Returnal.
However, there’s much more to this game than arcade thrills and roguelike spills. Returnal’s ambitions are much grander than that. You’ll never know what you will encounter as you step into a new segment of the world, and it could throw a platforming challenge at you instead of combat, there are moments of respite as you explore and search for secret rooms that might give you the opportunity to grab better gear. New weapons you find come with an immediate battle to test your skill with them, while weird parasitic aliens will creepily skitter up Selene’s arm and attach to her armour, giving both a buff and a debuff to your skills. There’s a hint of Metroidvania’s structure as you look at the world map that you’ve uncovered on your run, perhaps seeing elements that have been kept out of reach until you’ve earned a particular power-up or ability.
Most interesting is how Returnal folds its science fiction story into all of this. Where Hades was able to tell its excellent story through building characters and relationships over the course of dozens of attempts, there’s no companions or characters to talk to here. Instead, Selene is trapped with her many past selves, finding audio logs from versions of herself that existed outside your time with the game – does this mean she was trapped on this planet before you started playing? Are they somehow sent back from the future? More unsettling are the moments where the alien environments suddenly feature a slice of Selene’s past, a familiar house in the middle of the unfamiliar.
Stepping inside shifts the game to a more intimate first-person view, Housemarque getting to flex their muscles with psychological horror as you tentatively step into a hallway, echoes of P.T. bouncing around your memory as much as those of Gone Home as you pick up items and learn bit by bit about Selene’s past.
Fans of Housemarque’s work will certainly find much to like in this game, but every element is being pushed far beyond what they’ve attempted to do in the past, whether it’s the cutting edge visuals, the added complexities of the 3D gameplay and procedural world generation, or telling a deep and engaging story through. Returnal is gearing up to be a massive leap forward for Housemarque.