Housemarque’s rogue-lite could have the gameplay and narrative chops to be truly great.
The PS5 has been out for about five months at this point, though its lack of supplies continues to be as problematic. After all the hype building up to its release with the launch of big exclusives like Demon’s Souls, Astro’s Playroom and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, there’s a drive to find that next big release. Granted, there are plenty of big titles coming up, including Resident Evil Village and Deathloop. But there’s something special about Returnal.
Developed by Housemarque, Returnal is a rogue-lite third person shooter that releases on April 30th. It’s already gone gold, which means it’s more or less ready for release. Even if there are bigger titles coming from more established studios, Returnal has been commanding my interest more and more as the weeks go, and it should for you as well. So what’s the deal? Why should you be excited for Returnal or at the very least interested in what it has to offer?
First, there’s the story: It follows ASTRA scout Selene who crash-lands on an alien planet called Atropos (which, ironically enough, is one of the three Fates in Greek mythology and means “unalterable”). As she ventures across the planet, Selene begins to discover its various flora and fauna, the latter being all too quick to assault her. However, she also encounters her self or rather, her corpse. Upon death, rather than the eternal nothingness that should follow, she finds her self back on Atropos. Why can’t she die? Why has Atropos changed, with desert ruins being replaced by snowy landscapes and other such oddities?
From the outset, there’s an air of mystery, one that you don’t typically see in Housemarque games. The studio has always been known for its arcade shoot ’em ups with Returnal being their first real crack at a complex narrative. What’s most exciting about the set-up is how you’re thrown right in, without any delay, learning about the planet alongside Selene. The premise is revealed bit by bit at the behest of the player – as you explore Atropos, you’ll encounter audio logs and other entries to piece together what’s going on. Narrative events will randomly pop up between runs, like that house that Selene has a connection to, but you won’t get the full picture without replaying the game multiple times.
While those seeking a traditional single-player narrative may find this a drag, this is one of those story-telling elements that made Hades such a revelation. If a rogue-lite title’s gameplay is involving enough, then it pushes me to pursue higher difficulties or unlock more items…but only up till a point. I still need an involving story in the end.
In Returnal‘s case, there are already so many questions that I’m keen to see answered – Selene’s past, her reasons for joining ASTRA, the truth behind Atropos, the alien race that settled there beforehand, what happened to transform Atropos in such a way, the constant cycle of death and rebirth, and so on. Will Selene find her way off of the planet or will she finally die there? The fact that both answers each present their own kind of resolution and mystery is enticing. No other characters have been seen thus far but there have been hints of Selene interacting with other versions of herself (which plays into the asynchronous multiplayer quite nicely since it allows for locating audio logs to expand on the narrative). How does this fit into the greater narrative structure? Is the planet just one giant experiment in time travel and parallel universes? The possibilities are exciting on the story front.
Gameplay-wise, it’s hard to really say how good Returnal will feel without actually playing it beforehand. You could use Housemarque’s other works, like RESOGUN and Nex Machina, as examples but this is a different type of game at the end of the day. So instead, let’s look at what Returnal lets you do. Along with dashing around, avoiding bullet hell-like scenarios, you can pull out a katana to slice foes up close. There’s an Active Recharge mechanic for guns, a la Gears of War’s Active Reload, with properly timed reloads giving you an Overload buff for extra damage.
Kill enough enemies without taking damage and you gain Adrenaline levels which provide buffs like increased Overload (thus providing more damage). You’re rewarded for playing better based on any experience and knowledge accumulated thus far. There’s also the benefit of having your skill to fall back on when using a new weapon or experimenting with a new build. However, there’s also the added risk of your Adrenaline resetting if you take any damage, ensuring that you don’t get complacent.
In terms of rogue-lite mechanics, Returnal also seems to have many of the genre’s nuances in order while introducing some intriguing new twists. There are 10 default weapons with over 90 weapon traits (each having three levels), producing different kinds of weapon variants in each run. So while you may start out with the Spitmaw Blaster as an average shotgun, it can be upgraded to fire explosive shells (and it’s possible to stack weapon traits for added effects, a la Risk of Rain). An alternate firing mode is also available on each weapon, providing more interesting ways to slaughter, and you can even unlock an additional ability after killing enough enemies. To offset this, however, Selene can only carry one weapon at all times so you may be encouraged to switch guns depending on your needs.
There are also different items and other benefits that can help you out on the journey. Maybe you want a build that returns health on each melee kill – the Kinetic Siphon consumable can help with that. There are Parasites which can provide benefits but also have trade-offs, like regenerating your health when it drops low but causing you to take more damage or having slain foes create acid pools. Daily challenges, loot containers which can “curse” you with a random debuff until purged by Obolites, unlockable tech that helps for reaching out-of-the-way locations in future runs, and much more further stir the pot, intertwining with each other like any good rogue-lite.
If you have a decent number of Obolites, then it’s possible to spend them to activate a checkpoint. This allows you to keep your current items on death while providing a means to continue progressing. You also don’t necessarily need to defeat a biome’s boss in order to progress to the next and it’s possible to fast travel between biomes. The developer has noted the high replay value and how several runs are required to truly unveil the story and what’s going on with Atropos.
What if the player manages to clear all of the biomes without dying? Is there a scenario that will compel Selene to die and reawaken on the planet? How will it change the world and progress the story? The scale of the game remains undefined, once again compelling you to return and understand more. It’s one of those things that makes a great game even better, in my opinion.
Perhaps it’s the hype cycle digging its claws into me, as I look for the latest and greatest game to be invested in. Maybe I’m just a big fan of rogue-lites, especially with how much more big-budget they’re becoming. But Returnal has something unique about it; something that feels different from other titles before it. Whether you’re looking to pick it up or simply waiting to see how it performs in reviews and/or sales, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.