There’s certainly been a proliferation of roguelikes over the past several years, with game developers looking to blend the allure of its looping, risk and reward tenets with other genres. In Returnal’s case, Housemarque has opted to blend it with a third person shooter, a deep sci-fi mystery, and then amp it up with the power of the PlayStation 5 for one of the console’s first standout exclusives.
At a glance, Returnal looks like a punchy arcade shooter. Marooned pilot Selene rockets through alien-filled gauntlets, gunning down a menagerie of shadowy, tendrilled monsters and dodging the glowing projectiles they send her way, but there’s a lot more to it than that. So much more.
Without doing your homework and without knowing what a roguelike is, you could easily wander into Returnal expecting a sci-fi odyssey that hurtles from one set piece moment to the next. It’s really not like that at all, however, and when that revelation dawns on you, you’ll know for sure whether Returnal is a game for you.
Every time Selene dies you start from scratch, watching her emerge from the wreckage of her space vessel with only a pistol in-hand. Even after sinking dozens of hours into Returnal, this is where you’ll always return, though each subsequent run is uniquely different – this is the crux of the modern roguelike form.
You see, each time Selene falls into death’s familiar embrace, Atropos will warp around her. The carefully crafted pieces that make up Returnal’s ever-changing gauntlet are tweaked and realigned to make each playthrough feel as though you’ve touched down on an uncharted hostile planet for the first time.
The beauty of Returnal is that it doesn’t completely wipe away every bit of progress when Selene’s health bar runs dry. Aside from the knowledge you’ve gained (such as learning enemy attack patterns, or discovering new loadout options) there are a handful of permanent upgrades that carry over. A wider array of items will gradually find their way into random chests, weapons will come tagged with more bonus traits, and, in true Metroidvania style, Selene can employ new gadgets to access previously gated off areas.
There comes a rub with acolytes of the roguelike formula. In order to make meaningful progress in Returnal often means delving into runs that can span a couple of hours or more, yet there’s no option to save or suspend your session – this forced me to use the PS5’s rest mode feature for the first time ever. While this underlines Returnal’s commitment to the genre blueprint, not everyone has that kind of uninterrupted time to spend on each playthrough, and a way to suspend a run wouldn’t hurt its progression.
Returnal has a prominent focus on narrative, too. In fact, for a roguelike, it has a surprisingly indulgent number of cutscenes and story moments as Housemarque flesh Selene out as a character and drip feed the player nuggets of Atropos lore. The cynic in me would argue that these flashy interludes were inserted to bolt on some more blockbuster appeal, bringing Returnal in line with Sony’s other story-driven PlayStation exclusives. That may be true to an extent though, much like gameplay, these threads of this sci-fi narrative have been smartly woven together.
The story and the way it’s structured are a commentary on the cyclical nature of the roguelike, and Housemarque break some of the genre’s conventions as you make progress through the narrative. Jane Perry (Hitman’s Diana Burnwood) does a great job of bringing Selene to life, especially when she doesn’t have any other voice actors to bounce off, leaving scout logs for players to find as she records what’s happening on Atropos.
Of course, none of this would matter if Returnal wasn’t fun to play. If there’s one thing Housemarque are known for, it’s energetic, pulse-pounding bouts of gameplay that achieve a masterful balance between being genuinely challenging and rewardingly addictive at the same time. The developer’s love for bullet hell arcade classics blends perfectly with Returnal’s third person action. Each battle is a ballet, Selene dancing through a barrage of lasers, missiles, and orbs while returning fire with her own ever-expanding alien arsenal. In particular, the boss battles have a definite smack of Super Stardust HD and Resogun about them in terms of the sheer volume and different types of projectiles you’ll be trying to avoid.
You will have choices to make at every turn. You only carry a single weapon at a time, weighing up a close range shotgun over a rapid fire carbine and the effect on your style of play. Pickups can have a change of a Malfunction, negative status effects that can only be lifted by completing a gameplay objective, and Parasites that you can attach to yourself with both a buff and a debuff. It’s the epitome of risk versus reward. You’re always rewarded for skilful play through the Adrenaline system, with successive enemy kills without taking damage loosening timings on the Gears of War-style reload system, highlighting enemies and more.
Did we mention how incredible the game looks? While the world is procedurally generated each time you play, Returnal’s constituent parts are stunning to behold. They’re dark, grimy and foreboding, yet the intense light show emanating from every gunfight injects them with life and character. Then there’s the way it intuitively binds the visuals with gameplay, telegraphing battles beat by beat as you learn to read the various attacks of each otherworldly enemy, as well as when to unload your own deadly barrage of bullets.
Returnal’s immersion goes beyond its sights and sounds, Housemarque making excellent use of the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback. The haptic feedback is incredibly dynamic here, from being able to feel the gentle patter of Obolites against fingers to the wrenching rumbles that emerge when steeped in set piece action. Meanwhile the adaptive triggers mean that a half press of the left trigger aims down sights, while pushing past the mid-point stop enters each weapon’s randomised alternate fire.