With games like Resogun and Nex Machina under their belt, Housemarque has developed some of the best bullet hell-style shooters you’ll ever play, but it seems the studio is now ready to take things with the next level. With Returnal, they’re about to deliver their most ambitious game to date, representing their first foray into AAA development. The combination of the developer’s undeniable talent, the game’s own fascinating premise, and the financial and publishing backing of Sony means that there’s obviously no shortage of reasons to be excited. And with Returnal’s launch just around the corner, here, we’re going to talk about the most crucial details you should know about the game.
Returnal will put players in the shoes of an astronaut named Selene, who, at the beginning of the game, crash-lands on a mysterious planet called Atropos- and immediately, it becomes clear that there’s more going on in this place than meets the eye. Long ago, Atropos was the home of an ancient and advanced civilization, and now, it’s a hostile, shifting place. Selene and Atropos are both caught in an infinite time loop, and every time Selene dies, she is brought back to the moment she crash-landed on the planet, and every time she does, the planet itself shifts and changes. She must now uncover the secrets and mysteries of Atropos and fight to break its cycle of chaos.
MORE STORY DETAILS
It seems Returnal’s story is going to be one with many layers, and many mysteries for players to uncover. The central mystery, of course, is going to be about Atropos itself, about the planet’s past and how it got to the point where it is as Returnal begins, with players slowly uncovering new pieces of information and piecing it all together. On top of that, Selene’s own personal past also seems to be playing a major role in the story, and though the details surrounding that are still murky, it’s clear that that is going to tie into the larger narrative in a big way.
As you might have guessed from Returnal’s central narrative premise, the game’s going to adopt a roguelike structure, with each cycle representing a single run. Every time you die, you’ll reset the time loop and return to the beginning, and each time, you’ll have new weapons and items to use, handed to you on random. Other elements, such as the environments (which we’ll get to in a bit), narrative elements, and more will also be randomized for each cycle, though it also looks like there will be meta-progression with things like weapon and item unlocks across the game.
A BLEND OF GENRES
Returnal adopts a roguelike structure, but there’s a lot more going on here. One look at its gameplay will tell you that even though it’s a much larger, much more ambitious game than anything Housemarque has done in the past, it still has elements from their previous games, with similar frantic bullet hell-style shooting. Meanwhile, the developer has also confirmed that the game is going to have a lot of horror elements, from its environments to its storytelling. All said, its blend of genres is definitely one of Returnal’s most exciting aspects.
Story is something that often takes a backseat in roguelike games, owing to their very nature, with some notable exceptions (like the phenomenal Hades)- and Returnal seems to want to join that short list of exceptions. But exactly what kind of storytelling style is the game going to adopt? With so many mysteries forming the core of the game’s narrative, it follows that the storytelling style itself is not going the be lacking in subtlety. The developers have spoken often about how, through direct storytelling, environmental cues, missable audio logs, and more, they’re going to reveal a lot of narrative elements, but while there will be plenty of answers to find, it seems all of that will also be raising a lot of questions.
According to game director Harry Kreuger, Returnal’s going to strike a balance between how much of the story it explains on its own, and how much it leaves unanswered for players to piece together themselves. He said in an interview with GamesRadar, “Our goal has been to haunt the player. It was important for us to embrace the mystery, and leave many of the secrets of the planet to players to discover themselves. I feel that some of the best stories we experience are the ones we piece together in our minds through implication. In Returnal, we’re conscious to share enough in our world to spark intrigue, but never too much – the more you know, the less you imagine. It’s important to leave enough room for the players’ minds to wander.”
Returnal’s world is inherently going to be one with plenty of variety and unpredictability, given the fact that the roguelike structure is going to lead to randomized elements, but even on a macro level, there’s going to be no shortage of environmental variety. The game has multiple biomes, of which a few have been revealed. There’s the dilapidated Overgrown Ruins and the foreboding Crimson Wastes. There are at least three more environments in the game that are yet to be revealed. Meanwhile, Returnal will also allow players to immediately head to any of the biomes you’ve visited, so progression should be less frustrating than it often can be in roguelikes.
Each of Atropos’ biomes is a level that’s been handcrafted by Housemarque, but elements within these levels will, of course, change and randomize with each cycle. That includes not only things such as enemy placement, but also more large-scale things, such as the environments themselves, and what they look like. For instance, the Crimson Desert can go from being a desert dotted with ruined structures to becoming covered in snow with different structures. Meanwhile, the Overgrown Ruins are generally a forest, but can also turn into a swamp. How often this happens remains to be seen.
The bulk of the action in Returnal is going to be about shooting (it is a third person shooter, after all), and it seems variety is the name of the game here as well. The game has a total of ten base weapon types, spread out across various archetypes, from shotguns to rifles, and each weapon type also has its own unique alternate firing modes- which means that on a very fundamental level, each weapon can be used in at least two very different ways. Selene can only hold one weapon at a time, but with new weapon drops being a frequent occurrence, Returnal will encourage players to keep switching things up and deciding which weapon to use based on what situation you find yourself in.
Weapons in Returnal can also be upgraded with things called Weapon Traits. What exactly are these? Well, they’re modifiers, in simple terms, with each Trait adding on certain elements to your weapons, from generating acid pools upon impact and being able to fire exploding shells to generating shields to use as cover or being able to get extra loot from downed enemies. Interestingly enough, Weapon Traits can also be stacked together, potentially leading to a plethora of combinations. With over 90 Traits in the game, there’s certainly a lot of potential here.
DEVICES AND TOOLS
Selene will have plenty more at disposal besides the weapons she chooses to fight with. For instance, there’s Cthonos, an alien device that gives you a random item to use at the beginning of each cycle. Meanwhile, your progress across multiple cycles is also tracked, and at various points, Cthonos will reward you with items that will be added to your arsenal permanently. On top of that, players will be able to find several tools and artifacts on their own as well, including the likes of the Kinetic Siphon, which will restore some of your health every time you land a melee attack, or the Dismantler, a bomb that will do AoE damage and annihilate any and all enemies around you.
PARASITES, OBOLITES, AND SUIT MALFUNCTIONS
Several mechanics and pickups in Returnal will also be all about risk vs reward, and how you choose to use them (or if you even choose to use them) will also be a crucial part of gameplay. For instance, you might chance across a cursed chest, and though it might contain valuable loot, opening it could lead to a Suit Malfunction that could damage Selene over time. Suit Malfunctions, it seems, can be repaired with Obolites, which in turn can be gained by trading in valuable items. Obolites can also be used to activate checkpoints though, which means you won’t be starting at the very beginning in your next cycle, so how you choose to use them will also require thought and planning. Finally, something else you’ll have to think about is Parasites, which are things that will give you both positive and negative effects. A Parasite that slowly and constantly regenerates your health might be useful, but is it worth it if it also means that every enemy will leave behind a pool of acid on the ground when it dies?
Returnal is largely a single player experience, but it will also have asynchronous multiplayer elements. Players will often come across “projections” left behind by other players, which will show how they died. After watching a projection, you’ll be able to decide what to do next, from scavenging their remains for items to avenging their deaths- though how exactly the latter will play out, and whether any rewards will be tied to that, remains to be seen. Projections will differ from any audio logs you find within the game, with the latter being handcrafted narrative bits and pieces, as opposed to the dynamic and player-made nature of the projections.
Housemarque might be going from indie-budget bullet hell shooters to a AAA 3D shooter, but Returnal is still going to be a pretty customizable experience in more ways than one. Take the controls, for instance, which are as crucial as anything in any game, but especially in a frantic shooter like this one. If the default controls of Returnal aren’t gelling with you, you’ll have the option of customizing them and tailoring them to your needs. Details on this are yet to be shared, but hopefully, the game will offer proper options for customization of controls.
As you’d expect from a PS5 exclusive, Returnal will also feature support for the DualSense’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. How it implements the latter is particularly interesting- essentially, the adaptive triggers will be tied to the alternate firing modes of each weapon. Press L2 halfway down to aim down sights and use your weapon’s regular firing mode. Push the trigger all the way down, and you’ll get to use the alternate firing mode.
SSD AND 3D AUDIO
The SSD and the 3D audio engine Tempest are some of PS5’s most frequently touted features, and those, of course, will be leveraged in Returnal as well. The latter’s usage should be interesting, given Returnal’s setting and its horror vibes. Meanwhile, where the SSD is concerned, the developers have promised that its instant loading will lead to instantaneous respawns every time you die, which should make a huge difference in a roguelike game.