With a slew of major first party games and exclusives lined up for release through 2021, the PS5’s upcoming catalogue is looking particularly strong. However, there’s one thing that’s been missing from the console’s launch so far: a dose of arcade bullet hell excellence from developer Housemarque. Returnal aims to set that right next week.
Admittedly this game doesn’t have the pure arcade delights of Resogun or Super Stardust HD, but something new and different. Housemarque have set their sights on creating a game that can, in some ways, go toe to toe with bigger budget AAA titles, and it’s undeniable that the game immediately looks and feels every bit the blockbuster. The fidelity through the opening cutscene is phenomenal, the detail on hero Selene’s face and her space craft is exceptional as they come crashing down to the foreboding environments of the planet Atropos below.
Your tentative first steps – and they will be tentative as Selene comes back to consciousness without her sidearm – are filled with an understandable tinge of fear of the ruined alien environments Selene finds herself in. The sublime new-gen graphics are complimented by the fidelity of the feedback that you feel in your hands through the DualSense controller. Even through the opening cutscene, it’s as though the boom of an IMAX theatre is being channelled into the palms of your hands. There’s subtlety and nuance here that amplifies the atmosphere of the game a huge amount and immediately sets Returnal up as a showcase for what the DualSense can do.
The mystery of Atropos is immediately apparent as well, once you encounter the first glimmers of the game’s roguelike narrative loop. Selene is trapped here in an ever-changing world that’s trying to kill her, and then bring her back in a twisted sci-fi Groundhog Day.
It’s safe to say that the roguelike genre and form of game design is indelibly linked with indie games, having shot to popularity with the original Spelunky and now forming the backbone for almost countless games each year. To dismiss the roguelike and assume certain limitations on the form would be foolish, and as it releases in the wake of Hades, Supergiant Games’ phenomenal action RPG roguelike from last year, Returnal similarly seeks to tell an engaging story that you will peel back through multiple battles through this hostile world.
So, it’s a roguelike, and that means that death doesn’t send you back to a checkpoint or recent autosave, but all the way back to the very start of the game and Selene’s crash landing on Atropos. It’s something that’s woven into the story, as you ponder and discover the alien artefacts left behind, encounter the corpses of Selene’s previous lives (and maybe future lives?), and do so while venturing through a world that has been reformed anew each time.
Many of the items and weapons that you acquire on a particular run are also lost to you, but some fundamentals remain. The first couple of runs introduce you to various game elements one at a time – discovering a new gun in a chest, a weird eye pillar awarding you a powerup to start a run with, encountering an alien shop, picking up the various resources and items that are dotted throughout the Atropos.
As much as things have changed from Housemarque’s arcade bread and butter, a lot has stayed the same as well. This looping story and third person shooting is still built on the foundations of a bullet hell shooter. The enemies that you encounter – weird, bioluminescent creatures that attack you from the shadows – signpost their attacks and unleash various projectiles your way. They can be slow moving orbs, homing darts, red rings that emanate from the enemy, and more. You can take a few hits before your health is depleted (and you’re sent back to the very start), and there’s actually a surprising number of health pickups that you can stumble across (even if they only restore a small portion of health), but the game does not suffer those who refuse to learn.
And learning is still on my to-do list. A few runs under my belt, a couple hours of this dark adventure behind me, and I’m still getting to grips with how best to play this game. I’ve encountered the first smattering of pick ups, a handful of basic enemy types and more powerful foes, the first snippets of the story through the audio logs found next to dead Selene’s, but I still need to learn in order to break through and reach later sections and biomes.
You only ever have a single weapon at a time, but thankfully you never have to worry about running out of ammunition. Instead it’s all focussed on learning the rhythm of a gun as you empty the magazine and then learn to time a Gears of War-style active reload system with a renewed pull of the trigger. On the left trigger, you have aiming down sights with the adaptive trigger stiffening when depressed half way, a full press turning it to a secondary fire that could be a bust of homing energy or an arcing lightning attack – there’s some neat randomisation to gun attributes.
Right from the start of the game you’ll take down the more basic enemies with ease, with their slow moving projectiles easily avoided, and the pacing is steady like a Metroidvania, but since failure sends you back to the start, it’s taking me a little while to learn how to deal with the tougher, more dangerous enemies that blend together different attacks at once. Is it best to simply try to avoid them by hiding behind cover and popping out? How aggressive can I be with a shotgun and dashing in to close the distance? What does the build up to the homing attack look like? These are things that I’ll be figuring out for myself over the hours to come.
There’s plenty more to discover here; more biomes to visit, more abilities to unlock and some Metroidvania style broadening of the environment through them. I can’t wait to dive deeper.