Fast and frantic action, a dazzling display of thousands of bullets in a multitude of shapes and sizes, and glorious, glorious particle effects. These hallmarks are what Housemarque games are all about, and Returnal certainly checks all of those boxes. But it’s also their most ambitious effort yet: a PS5-exclusive third-person shooter with an incredible sense of exploration and discovery, rich atmosphere on par with Dead Space or Metroid Prime, and shootouts that remain fresh and rewarding throughout the multiple playthroughs needed to beat its roguelike campaign and unlock the secrets that remain beyond the credits. A good run takes a bit too long for something you have to complete in one sitting, but the reward for making that commitment is more than worthwhile.
Returnal tells the story of Selene Vassos after she crash-lands on an alien planet called Atropos. As she emerges from her ship and tries to locate the origin of a mysterious signal, things start to get very weird and time-loopy very quickly. Of course, this all serves to contextualize the fact that this is a roguelike and built on the idea of repeated runs through the same environments, but it’s also a clever storytelling device. Selene is able to find logs left by her former selves, which slowly starts to peel back the layers of Returnal’s central questions. Housemarque even goes a step further by incorporating a number of surreal and chilling PT-esque first-person segments where Selene must explore her memories and nightmares.
It makes Selene an interesting protagonist who’s in this weird repeating-but-different scenario along with us, and it’s all way deeper than I would ever expect a roguelike’s story to be. Housemarque deserves praise for finding a unique and compelling way to incorporate an interesting story in a genre that makes storytelling rather difficult. It’s not quite as elegant of a solution as Hades’ home base full of characters that always have something new to say to you based on your successes, failures, and overall progress, but it’s an admirable effort nonetheless.
While the story focus may be a surprise given Housemarque’s previous games, the tight and responsive gun play is right on brand. Returnal takes the bullet-hell stylings of the likes of Resogun, Nex Machina, and Super Stardust HD, and transplants them into a third-person shooter. The results are spectacular. All the usual staples are here: the directional dash that makes you momentarily invulnerable to damage, the enemies that shoot a barrage of bullets that are just slow enough for you to outrun, the ones that shoot just a straight-up wall of bullets you have to dodge through, the jerks that fire a locked-on laser beam at you if you can’t kill them in time, and then there’s the mega-assholes that do a little bit of everything. There’s an excellent variety of enemies in Returnal, and even when it resorts to using the same character model in a different environment, there’s always something different in their behavior that makes them a completely new challenge.
Learning those behaviors is important, because Returnal really, really encourages you to avoid getting hit. There’s an adrenaline meter that builds up as you score kills and grants up to five stacking buffs, but they all disappear when you take a single hit. Also, if you pick up health items while you’re at max life it actually adds to your total health capacity. Returnal is a hard game, but it rewards you handsomely for playing well and for making smart choices, which is always a great feeling.
And those major risk-reward choices often aren’t so easy, either. Many chests and health pickups are “malignant” and have a chance to saddle you with a debuff that can only be removed by completing specific requirements, such as killing a certain number of enemies. Then there are parasites, which offer both a buff and a debuff that can only be removed with a rare consumable or by finding an equally rare parasite-removal machine.
Sometimes the risk pays off, like when I open a malignant chest and receive a powerful weapon that’s two levels higher than the one I currently have and helps me decimate the next few rooms of a level. But oftentimes it doesn’t, and I just get a weak consumable and an added two seconds of cooldown to my dash. Coming out on the bad end of a risk-vs-reward gamble can be brutal, but it also is one of the things that makes each run of Returnal feel unique and exciting. You just have to make the best of a bad situation, which is one of the key aspects of the roguelike genre that Returnal absolutely nails. This improvisational style of combat that has you constantly changing up your weapons, altering your strategy on the fly based upon the types of upgrades that you come across, and deciding whether to buy or save your currency is crucial to making every run feel like a new and fresh experience.
Returnal PlayStation 5 Screenshots
The roguelike format also works because of how interesting each of the 10 weapons are. While most fill the expected roles in a shooter, several others are wildly inventive. There’s a gun that never has to reload but can only be fired once a round bounces back into the gun, and a weapon that fires pylons into the ground and triggers streams of red lightning between them. It’s clever stuff.
The best part, though, is that each of the 10 weapons can spawn with one of nine gun-specific traits which can dramatically affect how that weapon is used. A shotgun might have a slugshot trait that makes it super accurate and powerful from a long distance or one that makes it spit out acid clouds for damage over time; a carbine can be given a chaingun-like trait that makes its firing speed ramp up as you continue to hold the fire button down or one that fires slow but powerful high-caliber rounds; and the pistol might spawn with a trait that turns it into a burst fire weapon, or one that gives it a barrage of homing missiles after every shot. There are many more possibilities for each weapon, which has given each of my playthroughs thus far a distinct flavor.
Returnal’s persistent progression comes from the fact that these traits are already present on guns that you find when you start, but they must be unlocked by scoring enough kills with that weapon. After you’ve done that once, any weapon you find in a future playthrough with that trait has it automatically unlocked (and upgraded, once you’ve unlocked those). This adds another element to the risk-reward equation: sometimes you’ll have to decide whether you want to keep a weapon with great traits that’s helpful in the moment, versus tossing it in favor of a new weapon with a promising new trait that needs to be unlocked. That can definitely be worth the sacrifice in the long run.
However, one of the key aspects of the roguelike genre that Returnal does not nail is that nagging feeling of “just one more run.” That’s because a run through Returnal lasts way too long, plain and simple. To paint a picture, I’ve put in 42 hours into Returnal so far, and in those 42 hours I’ve only died 25 times. That’s not a weird flex, or me saying that this game is easy, because again, it’s absolutely not. It’s to illustrate that if you’re going to get anywhere near the end your run is almost always going to be at least about two hours long, which is exhausting. It also means you have to clear your schedule when you sit down to play, because there’s no saving your progress at any point in the run. Until you’re done with that run you cannot play any other game, you cannot fully turn the PS5 off (only put it in rest mode, which is risky in of itself), or do anything else that closes the application. And obviously, you’d better hope that it doesn’t crash – that happened to me on two separate occasions and halted two runs where I was more than an hour deep.
Runs last so long because of the fact that there is very little in the way of permanent progression outside of traits, and because of the way temporary progression on individual runs is handled. For instance, weapons don’t drop based on how deep into a level you are; instead, you build up a Weapon Proficiency meter by killing enemies and finding items that add to the meter. So, for example, if my weapon proficiency meter is at 5, weapons will drop with a power level of 5 or, with luck, slightly higher. Attempting a later level when your weapon proficiency is at too low a level takes an already hard game and makes it absolutely ridiculously difficult. So, if you want to make a real attempt at succeeding in Returnal, you have to grind.
And that really slowed my momentum. Unlike with other roguelikes such as the Spelunky games, Dead Cells, or more recently, Curse of the Dead Gods, I was never eager to jump back into another game after a death. I needed a break.
The good news at least, is that the actual act of exploration in Returnal is done extraordinarily well. Every level is a sight to behold, whether it’s the dark, gloomy, and alien vibe of the Overgrown Ruins; the Doom-esque feel of the Crimson Wastes; or the ancient mechanical atmosphere of the Derelict Citadel. It helps, too, that there’s a great variety in the challenges of the many rooms. Despite the procedural generation that keeps Returnal from becoming too predictable, enemies and environmental elements always feel deliberately placed – especially the grapple points that allow you to put distance between you and especially dangerous foes, deadly pits that punish careless movement, and loads of secrets lying in wait.
While Returnal is not a PS5 graphical showcase on the level of say, Demon’s Souls, it still looks really good and runs at a mostly consistent 60fps, though it does dip every now and then ever so slightly in certain spots. Where Returnal does show its “new-gen” chops is in the ways it uses the DualSense controller. Barring Astro’s Playroom, this is the best usage of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers so far on the platform because it actually makes a difference in how you play. Sure, it’s cool to be able to feel rain drops on the controller, but what’s even cooler is having that added element of sensory feedback to let you know when your alt-fire is off cooldown in the form of a very specific feeling rumble in your controller.
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And while it takes a little bit of getting used to, I grew to love being able to aim down sight (ADS) by holding the left trigger halfway, and then pressing it all the way down to quickly go into an alternate fire. The triggers gave me just the right amount of resistance to the point where I never mistakenly pressed the trigger all the way down when I meant to ADS or vice-versa. And hey, if you don’t love it, there’s a classic control scheme that just keeps ADS on L2 and maps alt-fire to the R1 button, or you could just map the controls however you like.
There are also daily challenges which give you an opportunity to compete against other players for a high score under set conditions, which is a neat diversion and feels particularly fitting as a score-chasing arcade-style mode in a Housemarque game.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve played Returnal for about 42 hours, but I actually rolled credits at around hour 18. Everything since then has been working toward uncovering a secret ending, finding all of the 80 xenocyphers hidden throughout the six levels, and trying to find as many lore-dropping audio logs as I can. Needless to say, there’s a lot of meat on this bone, and completionists will find plenty to keep them busy for quite a while.