“Returnal” is worth checking out if you absolutely adore gothic horror or biomechanical science fiction, a la “Alien” and “Annihilation,” a surprisingly rare aesthetic in the medium. From what I’ve seen of “Returnal” so far, it’s not afraid of painting its world in a sinister black, or splashing it in bold red and orange hues.
Finnish developer Housemarque cut its teeth on arcade-action shooters like “Resogun." You’ll hear the phrase “bullet hell” thrown around a lot in coverage of this game. It’s a phrase referring to a genre of shooters meant to overwhelm and intimidate with visuals. Imagine a game like “Space Invaders” — but more than half the screen is crowded with bullets you’re meant to dodge. The thrill of this impending danger can inspire awe, and “Returnal” is a showcase for Housemarque’s talents.
But “Returnal” isn’t quite like “Hades,” a comparison you’re likely to find in other reviews. For the unfamiliar, “Hades” is another rogue-lite game that won numerous game of the year awards in 2020. It wasn’t just a tight action game, it was an exemplar in the rogue-lite space thanks to its innovation in narrative and storytelling.
“Returnal” deserves some praise for its attempt at narrative. Selene, the protagonist, is drawn to an alien planet against the wishes of her employers to track down a mysterious “White Shadow” signal. When she arrives, she finds corpses of herself, and she realizes her very existence is trapped on this planet. She soldiers on to her original destination, determined to find that radio signal.
I haven’t reached that destination, so it’s not for me to judge whether this journey is worth taking. However, it’s important to note that people enjoyed “Hades” because of the character arcs in that game. “Hades” starts with a premise that’s immediately sympathetic: This young guy, the protagonist, doesn’t want to live at home with his dad anymore. The player motivation connects immediately.
Furthermore, even failure in “Hades” led to some kind of narrative reward, whether it was Dusa’s coy flirtations or big daddy Hades slowly warming to his son’s desire to leave the underworld. Every death meant getting to know the cast of “Hades” better through dialogue.
“Returnal” has no such pleasantries, and that’s by design. Rather, its success is in creating an alien, ever-changing environment of absolute isolation. Selene feels lost and alone and determined in ways that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched Ellen Ripley carve up xenomorphs. But so far, that’s the only way I’ve seen her character defined. Being under duress can definitely reveal parts of one’s personality, but that alone doesn’t always make for a compelling character.
It’s wonderful to see Selene, a female protagonist who isn’t fresh out of college, take center stage in a game. It’s important that her face and voice are prominent throughout, in the repeated introduction sequences after every failure, and through the audio logs left by different versions of her. But my first impressions of her didn’t inspire a desire to get to know her better. Early in the journey, Selene stumbles upon a “20th century house” on the planet, and she walks in to revisit old memories. It’s meant to be a moment of introspection, but I couldn’t help but think, “Oh great, here we go again,” as another survival horror protagonist longs for their farmhouse suburban dream.
This feeling thankfully doesn’t apply to what I’ve seen of the level design. Rogue-lite games are designed by what’s called “tile sets,” in which predetermined play spaces will rearrange themselves for every run, to keep things fresh. At first blush, “Returnal” seems to have a fairly limited number of tile sets, but that’s in service of an ambitious level design that includes puzzles and exploration. And each of these environments are gorgeous, peppered with liquid-smooth particle effects, like when Selene’s molecules teleport from one map to another.
“Returnal” isn’t shy about reminding you that you’re playing a video game. Every once in a while, Selene will drop into a special bonus room, filled with bouncing yellow minerals that act as this game’s currency. It’s like a vision ripped straight from the coin-heavy “New Super Mario Bros. 2” for the Nintendo 3DS. Selene will also find abandoned shops that still function and accept money. This isn’t a criticism, at least in my eyes. I love when video games embrace the medium, and finding shimmering currency is always fun.
For some, all of this may add up to more than the sum of its parts. For me, it was hard to stay motivated to overcome the game’s difficult challenge and uncompromising risk/reward systems. Selene can attach parasites to her suit, gaining buffs but also hindrances to her abilities unless she performs an arbitrary, specified action in the game. It’s an engaging mechanic. But pair that with a story that drip feeds information based on your successes, along with a character that’s hard to get to know, and I found it hard to stay motivated and keep pushing. I love challenging games, but not just for the sake of challenge. “Returnal” offers more, but at least for me, it wasn’t enough.
It’s also worth mentioning that, like the pack-in game “Astro’s Playroom,” “Returnal” is another impressive showcase for the PS5 console’s Dual Sense controller. When raindrops fall on Selene’s suit in the beginning of each run, you can feel droplets as though they’re landing on your hands, somehow falling through the controller. When her alternative weapon is charged up, you’ll feel a little jolt of energy, too.
That said, it’s a shame that the feedback for shooting and killing enemies seems a bit too soft. This is going to be hard to determine until you get hands on the game itself — but to me, the pops and alien death cries felt somewhat muted, leaving each successful shot feeling hollow. Like beat’em-up games, shoot’em-ups need to feel good every second you’re shooting (like the satisfying pops in the recent “Outriders”), and I just didn’t feel that with Selene’s weapons and her alien enemies.
“Returnal” is an easier recommendation if the PlayStation 5 is your primary source of play. But at a premium price of $70, it’s a harder sell when the excellent and far more robust rogue-lites in “Risk of Rain” and its sequel exist on PC for $25 or less, while also offering a trippy, alien experience. With “Returnal’s” more narrow narrative (so far) and punishing difficulty, it’s hard to recommend outside of passionate rogue-lite fans.
I couldn’t help but notice that while playing, I was constantly comparing “Returnal” to a diverse set of older games. I’ve already mentioned the rogue-lite classics. The “Metroid Prime” comparisons are also somewhat accurate, thanks to Housemarque’s beautiful navigational map design and scannable environment, as well as the “lonely woman on alien planet" vibe. I even thought of the Shinji Mikami GameCube exclusive, “P.N. 03,” a long-forgotten Capcom shooting game and one of the industry’s earliest attempts to translate the shoot’em-up experience in three dimensions.
“Returnal” is a worthy experiment and a gorgeous successor to that legacy. It’s a shame it didn’t do quite enough for me. I spent too much of my time wishing it was something else.