Returnal Review – Marque of Excellence

Returnal exceeds expectations in every way imaginable.

Posted By | On 29th, Apr. 2021 Under Article, Reviews


With the likes of Nex Machina, Super Stardust HD, and Resogun under their belt, Housemarque have built a dedicated fanbase over the years, but even so, the Finnish studio hasn’t really managed to find large-scale mainstream success. It’s easy to understand why- as good as those games are, as arcade-style bullet hell shooters, they appeal to a very specific crowd, and don’t have the kind of mass market allure that your typical AAA game does. With Returnal, however, Housemarque have developed their biggest, most ambitious game by far, and I have a strong feeling their stock is going to shoot up dramatically very soon.

Returnal takes a lot of elements from a number of well-known properties across media. Its lore, Geiger-esque horror style, and low-fi aesthetic are very reminiscent of Alien. Its general atmosphere of isolation and desolation, Metroidvania exploration, how you uncover bits and pieces of the backstory through an abundance of scanning, and even its 3D map call back heavily to Metroid Prime. Its abstract, new weird storytelling style feel very much in line with what Control did not that long ago. Its fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled combat feels as slick and intense as something like Vanquish. And of course, its frantic bullet hell firefights seem like a 3D big budget realization of what Housemarque have already been doing for years with the likes of aforementioned games like Resogun and Nex Machina. Hell, it even has a few first-person sections in which you slowly walk through an eerie house that give off heavy P.T. vibes. Put together, what we have is an absolutely astounding package, one that easily and instantly claims the proud title of being Housemarque’s best game to date, and is an unmissable killer app very early in the PS5’s life.

"With Returnal, however, Housemarque have developed their biggest, most ambitious game by far, and I have a strong feeling their stock is going to shoot up dramatically very soon."

Returnal puts you in the shoes of an astronaut named Selene, who is tracking down a mysterious signal known as the White Shadow. Her search brings her to a desolate and hostile alien planet called Atropos, but her arrival is not a happy one. Her ship crash lands, and she instantly begins her trek through the haunting remains of this mysterious planet- but there’s a catch. It seems she and the planet at large are stuck in a time loop. Every time Selene dies, she wakes up back at the crash site, and off she goes again in search of answers.

Time loop premises and hostile alien planets are not new ideas in games (or any media) by any means, but it’s a central premise that grabs attention right from the get-go nonetheless. And Returnal ensures that it does justice to that premise, because its story is constantly compelling, and its storytelling consistently and tantalizingly captivating. Figuring out the mysteries of Atropos and how and why they seem so inextricably linked to Selene’s own past – and what her past even is – forms the backbone of Returnal’s story, and it presents that story expertly.

Constantly striking the perfect balance between being purposefully vague and revealing crucial new details, the pace at which Returnal doles out new information is just perfect, whether that’s through cutscenes or audio logs or inscriptions left behind by the alien race that used to rule Atropos eons ago. Piecing together those details is up to you, and even then, there’s a lot that the game leaves open to interpretation. Though that can be a fine line to walk, Returnal toes it with great aplomb. Crucial narrative details are uncovered in a satisfactory manner, while plenty is also left to the imagination, which means that on the whole, Returnal’s story is something you’re going to constantly be thinking about and hungry for- even when you’re not playing the game.

As good as the story is though, the real star of the show here is the combat- which isn’t all that surprising. This is a Housemarque game after all. And Returnal’s combat stands out in more ways than one- moment-to-moment, it keeps you glued to the screen, while numerous underlying systems and mechanics lend it a surprising amount of depth and variation. When you’re not engaged in frenetic fights, you’re thinking about your build, and how to power up Selene for the challenges ahead.

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"Crucial narrative details are uncovered in a satisfactory manner, while plenty is also left to the imagination, which means that on the whole, Returnal’s story is something you’re going to constantly be thinking about and hungry for- even when you’re not playing the game."

In the moment, Returnal demands your unwavering attention. Every firefight is an attack on your senses in the best way possible. Large groups of enemies tend to come at you from all directions, and they’re all incredibly aggressive in very different ways. Some like to pounce at you and attack from close range, some throw a sticky web-like substance at you to inhibit your movement, others like to shoot barrages of mesmerizing patterns of classic bullet hell orbs, others still are fast movers and keep flitting about the battlefield. There’s an impressive variety of enemies here, and it’s amazing how much they differ from each other in terms of their strengths and weaknesses and even what they look like, and most of all, how they keep forcing you to switch up your tactics on the fly.

Thanks to that enemy variety and how aggressive all foes are, Returnal’s combat forces you to constantly stay on the move. Since you’re always running around the environments, dashing and dodging through attacks, and spraying bullets of your own at foes, the combat feels kinetic and intense. Unlike most shooters, Returnal prioritizes movement over accuracy. Your aiming reticle is quite large, and as long as you’re aiming in the general direction of an enemy, you’re pretty much guaranteed to hit them. What the game instead asks you to focus on is not getting hit yourself, which means you’re always on the move, always actively engaged, always in the moment.

Other mechanics keep you constantly involved in the present on-screen action as well. For instance, there’s the reloading mechanic called Overload, which is essentially Gears of War’s active reload in a different skin, and implemented just as effectively. There’s also the adrenaline mechanic, which offers excellent short-term progression and rewards skillful play. Every time you kill a certain amount of enemies, your adrenaline levels up, with each tier granting you different combat buffs, from more liberal reloading windows for Overload to having better vision that highlights distant enemies for you, and more. But as soon as you’re hit even once, your adrenaline resets. It’s a system that always keeps things interesting, and makes sure that the better you’re playing, the more powerful you get. It’s a very smart way of rewarding you as you gradually improve your skills through sheer practice.

With all of this put together, every firefight feels like a frantic, hectic affair that challenges you and pushes your skills to the limit, and mastering these encounters always leaves you with a dangerously elevated heart rate and a swelling sense of satisfaction. That’s truer in boss fights than anywhere else- I don’t want to say too much here, because the boss fights in Returnal are best left unspoiled, but simply put, this game has some of the best designed and most memorable boss encounters I’ve experienced in some time.

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"Returnal’s combat stands out in more ways than one- moment-to-moment, it keeps you glued to the screen, while numerous underlying systems and mechanics lend it a surprising amount of depth and variation. When you’re not engaged in frenetic fights, you’re thinking about your build, and how to power up Selene for the challenges ahead."

On a macro level, Returnal is just as engaging. Balancing progression is often the most challenging task for any roguelike game, but Returnal manages it well. Though you respawn back at the crash site every time you die and lose most of your progress, some progression is permanent, including weapon upgrades, key items that help you get past different kinds of progression blocks, boss clears, any portals you open up to other biomes (or even farther points within a biome), and more. Unlike something like, say, Hades, your character doesn’t get inherently stronger over time, since any progress made to that end is temporary, which means dying can be a bit of a devastating blow at times. But though the punishment can often feel harsh, Returnal softens the blow somewhat with the little permanent progression it does offer, and the fact that it never feels cheap with its difficulty- every time you die, you die because you’re not good enough.

Small-scale progression systems that pertain to individual runs are implemented excellently as well, and are perfectly designed for a roguelike. Finding artifacts, items, and consumables is crucial, while you can also spend a currency known as Obolites to purchase items and upgrades from devices known as fabricators. Fabricators aren’t commonly found, and the items they sell can be pretty steeply priced, which means you have to think long and hard about how you’re going to spend your money. Should you purchase one of those rare healing vials, or boost your max health to give you a comfortable buffer for that upcoming boss fight, or should you perhaps buy that astronaut figurine that will let you come back from the dead once?

There are also risk-reward systems at play that make things even more interesting. Several items or chests you come across, for instance, can have Malignancy, which means that picking up that item or opening that chest has a chance of sticking you with a suit malfunction. Suit malfunctions can have a wide range of effects, from activating fall damage to blocking Overloads to lowering the amount of damage you deal at max health, and can be removed by completing randomly assigned sets of tasks (like killing a certain number of enemies with melee attacks or picking up a certain amount of artifacts and the like). And so, every time you come across a Malignant item, you find yourself thinking things through- is it worth the risk? What’s great is that the rewards are worth the risk just as frequently as they aren’t, so you can never be too sure.

Malignancy can feel still feel a little random at times though- but then there’s parasites, which is an even better risk-reward system. Parasites are creatures that attach themselves to Selene’s suit, and each of these grants both a buff and a debuff, randomly selected from a large pool of both. You can automatically begin auto-healing up to a threshold if you’re low on health, but enemies will leave behind pools of acid when they die. You can reduce the severity of Malignancy in upcoming items, but Obolites dropped by fallen enemies will disappear faster than normal. There will be a 10% chance that you’ll restore a little bit of your health every time you hit an enemy, but your melee damage will be cut in half. The risks and rewards, buffs and debuffs are laid out clearly and explicitly each time you chance upon a parasite, and it’s up to you to weigh their pros and their cons and decide if they fit within the kind of build you’re working for in that specific run. It’s an incredible system.

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"Returnal also boasts remarkably engaging exploration."

With all of these run-specific progression mechanics, each cycle in Returnal feels fresh and unique, which is crucial for any roguelike game. It’s because of this (and the excellent combat, of course) that Returnal is as dangerously addictive and outrageously enjoyable as it is. That genre staple of you saying to yourself that you’re going to do “just one more run” and jumping straight back in for more is present in full force here. With that addictiveness and strong replayability, a surprisingly meaty campaign, and the fact that there’s still quite a lot left to discover and experience once the credits roll, Returnal ensures that it can provide dozens of hours of gameplay, should you want them. On top of all of that, there’s also challenges for all the leaderboard fanatics out there, so there’s more than enough reasons to keep coming back.

Surprisingly enough, Returnal also boasts remarkably engaging exploration. Its roguelike structure means that the layout of the levels and the enemies and their placement are randomized in each run, but it’s not procedurally generated the way you would expect from a game of its like. Though the order in which the rooms and environments of every biome are presented is randomized, those rooms and environments themselves are handcrafted. They’re all expertly designed, and sport unexpected variety across biomes- some might be more vertical, while others might be larger and more expansive flat areas. Returnal also makes use of a Metroidvania lock-and-key design, and you gradually keep unlocking new items that let you get to previously inaccessible areas, incentivizing exploration even of earlier biomes even further. It certainly helps that the rewards are almost always worth it- from new weapon and item unlocks being added to the pool from which they drop at random during runs, to crucial bits and pieces of lore and backstory, and much more.

Something else that’s worth mentioning is just how drop-dead gorgeous Returnal looks. A lot of that is down to the art style. Enemy designs are excellent and have just as much variety as their attacks and movement patterns to do. Environments are varied as well, and are stunning to behold, whether you’re looking at exotic flora and fauna in a lush and overgrown forest, or massive, ancient statues in ruins, or the vast stretches of nothingness in a dead, crimson desert, or imposing structures and monolithic skyscrapers in an ancient and abandoned citadel. It helps that Returnal’s technical achievements can stand toe-to-toe with its artistic ambitions. Everything looks extremely detailed and ridiculously sharp. And best of all, it constantly runs at a flawless 60 frames per second, no matter how hectic or busy things get, which is vital in a game like this. There are some very minor visual bugs that may pop up once in a while, such as some textures looking a little flat up close, or a little bit of pop-in here and there, or floating objects in cutscenes. But again, these issues are minor, and don’t show up all that often.

Returnal leverages the PS5’s hardware in other ways as well. Whether you’re fast-travelling within a biome, or traveling from one biome to another, everything loads in the blink of an eye, which means there’s never any downtime whatsoever. The audio design is excellent, and 3D audio is used to great effect, heightening the game’s already remarkable atmosphere even further. This is also probably the best usage of the DualSense’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers I’ve experienced in any game so far. All said, with Returnal, for the first time in this console generation, I felt like I was playing a game that would only have been possible on older consoles with some quite notable compromises. It’s the sort of showcase of the PS5’s capabilities we’ve been waiting for since the console launched.

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"With Returnal, for the first time in this console generation, I felt like I was playing a game that would only have been possible on older consoles with some quite notable compromises. It’s the sort of showcase of the PS5’s capabilities we’ve been waiting for since the console launched."

I can go on and on about how much Returnal has impressed me. Honestly, I’m a little surprised at how good it is. I always expected it to be good – it was always very likely that it would be, given Housemarque’s knack for creating great games – but this exceeds expectations. Returnal is a swelling success on nearly every front- it’s got a captivating story that it tells very well, it’s got excellent combat that keeps you constantly engaged and on your toes, it’s got thoughtfully designed and smartly implemented mechanics that lend it oodles of depth and variety, it’s got engaging exploration that’s always rewarding, and it’s a visual and technical showcase that shows what the PS5 is capable of on multiple fronts. Frankly, it does more than anyone could have asked for.

Returnal is an excellent game. Play it.

This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.

THE GOOD

Compelling narrative, bolstered by captivating storytelling; Fast, tense, and kinetic combat; Challenging but fair; Multiple progression mechanics lend a surprising amount of depth and variety to the game; Each run is unique in its own way, making the game dangerously addictive; Spectacular boss fights; Engaging and rewarding exploration; Great level design; Varied biomes, both in terms of how they're designed and how they look; Extremely atmospheric; Excellent art style; Technically impressive; Great audio and audio design; Smart implementation of the DualSense's features; Meaty content, and very replayable.

THE BAD

Balance is skewed more in favour of temporary upgrades over permanent progress, so death can feel a little too punishing at times; Some very minor and very infrequent visual bugs.

Final Verdict

Returnal is an astounding game, one that easily and instantly claims the proud title of being Housemarque’s best game to date, and is an unmissable killer app very early in the PS5’s life.

A copy of this game was provided by developer/publisher for review purposes. Click here to know more about our Reviews Policy.
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