As Selene Vassos pilots her Scout ship towards the planet Atropos, a warning light flashes that approach is forbidden. She presses on, eager to discover what could be broadcasting a signal on this alien world. It seems like a bad judgement call and as her ship crashes after taking damage in a storm, it looks like this was a big mistake and Selene is going to regret it. Many times.
Exploring a cycle
Rogue-lites and rogue-likes have been traditionally indie fare until now, with Returnal now bucking that trend. The game does a solid job of explaining what a rogue-like is, as you discover to your horror that upon death you restart at your crashed ship, with nothing except your sidearm and knowledge that you have done this before. Selene tries to log how she feels and what she experiences during her expedition as she watches the world seemingly rearrange itself after every death. What is worse, she finds recordings near bodies. Other Selenes that have died with fragments of audio journals. Some of them sound professional, focusing on the science of the world. Others appear to be breaking under the strain this must be putting on her, nerve endings and emotions unravelling as this other Selene talks about seeing and hearing things that shouldn’t be there, but they are calling to her.
The game does a solid job of explaining what a rogue-like is, as you discover to your horror that upon death you restart at your crashed ship, with nothing except your sidearm and knowledge that you have done this before.
Every journey, be it brief or not, can help you learn more about the world of Atropos. Maybe you start to see a pattern in enemy attacks, or perhaps you learn where secret switches and portals are. Some rooms appear to be safe, while others nest weapons and resources out of reach until you find something that will help you get there. As gorgeous as the game is, I found myself spending a lot of time listening to the world around me. In the quiet after combat, you can hear various items in a room. Keys and ether gurgle at you, offering a hint that something worth picking up lurks here. Malignant chests moan like voices from unseen depths, and locked chests let off a content hum, knowing its contents are safely secure.
Then you die and the visions appear.
You made that arcade game, right?
It might seem out of place that Housemarque, the studio that brought us nail-biting bullet hell action and amazing voxel effects is now in the realm of sci-fi with a very realistic looking human model, but the touch of the studio is made evident almost immediately. Particles swirl and dance around teleporter pads, while alien foliage dances in the wind or reaches towards you. Bullets fan out from enemies in predictable sprays and you quickly learn how to dance around them or dash through them to avoid damage. Besides living longer by avoiding hits, killing enemies without getting smacked will increase your adrenaline levels, giving you a handful of beneficial perks as you whittle opponents down.
The bullet dance is mostly apparent in boss fights, where the air is literally filled with orbs of various colours, damaging beams and seeking projectiles. At times I was barely aware of the enemy, hoping my bullets were hitting as I dodged, weaved and backpedalled to avoid effects. It is pretty different from the fixed camera view of Resogun, but as you learn to see the dangerous points in a fight and the little traps versus nice gaps, the fights get easier. This is just as well because once you get hit during a boss fight, you have close to no hope of getting your adrenaline back unless you have a specific consumable item.
I love Returnal. I hate Returnal.
The design of Returnal’s permanent equipment is really clever: avoiding an issue that is present in many roguelike and rogue-lite titles: early area fatigue. Normally, roguelikes demand you spend a lot of time in the first biome, collecting enough gear to beat the first boss, then beating them to progress. This means you spend a *lot* of time seeing that first road bump again and again. Returnal’s design lets you skip bosses once you have beaten them once, letting you focus on getting further. The design of shortcuts that save your progress is amazing, except for possibly biome three, which has a gauntlet of traps and enemies before every single boss attempt.
Not that you only want to fight a boss once and never again. Bosses will drop a whole whack of ether, a precious permanent resource that can be used to cleanse items and containers of malignancy or to activate a once-off resurrection point. Making them optional after the first kill means bosses feel special, rather than becoming a sticky point on the road for another cycle.
In one boss fight, as I finally beat them, I felt like I had been elevated, my DualSense controller connecting directly to my mind and us operating in perfect sync as we defeated an enemy and dashed around the worst they could throw at us.
As you progress, several little shortcuts unlock that let you get to where you want to be quickly, but you might want to go back and re-explore from time to time. New traversal abilities might help you reach rooms or treasures that were dangled out of reach, which leads to new pickups in the world or a bit more of the story of the game as you find massive alien archives or recordings from another Selene.
Rogue-lite shortcuts, rogue-like power level
The number of things that are truly permanent is staggeringly minimal. Your ether, traversal upgrades and specific keys are permanent, and very little else carries over. Besides a few traits on weapons that you unlock or adding more items and artefacts to the pool of available rewards, there isn’t a way to slowly build up to eventually beat a boss or a section that feels like a gauntlet of endurance. I can clearly remember two points that felt like a complete wall to me, and it took many, many attempts to eventually get lucky with a high damage weapon, enough consumables and the like to finally break through that barrier. In one boss fight, as I finally beat them, I felt like I had been elevated, my DualSense controller connecting directly to my mind and us operating in perfect sync as we defeated an enemy and dashed around the worst they could throw at us. The resulting feeling of joy and exhilaration was amazing, but I wonder if the moments of hatred and rage I felt were that necessary.
At these times, when I was running from the start towards where I last died, where there were no new glyphs to collect, no new logs from other Selenes, things went really quiet, with the only companion being the combat. While the fighting is fun, fluid and satisfying to pull off, every big hit just heaped on a pile of growing frustration. After hours of play, you are not slightly tougher or healthier without collecting items. I couldn’t double dash or shrug off a hit either and I had no resistance against malfunction and malignancy. It is a tough pill to swallow, knowing that the only way through is up to your own quick reflexes and maybe a lucky weapon drop and I wonder how many people will be attracted to this title by the gorgeous sci-fi mystery that will become frustrated as they get stuck on a boss or a gauntlet.
Housemarque says a day one patch will have more gameplay balancing changes and extra tutorials but as it stands, the number of people that will be able to finish Returnal feels pretty limited, especially when weighed against the number of people that will love the story. Considering games like Hades have options available to allow a larger audience to enjoy the story of the game, I really hope Returnal offers something similar in future. The writing at play here, the various layers of an onion that keeps slipping out of your grip, is absolutely marvellous and I have spent a good amount of time in the databank trying to tease out more of the picture. The game is under my skin and I keep going back, hunting for meaning and information, enjoying the feeling of making a beeline through an area flawlessly, and practising the art of rebounding when knocked down, keeping my cool to survive the fight. Well, except for one or two enemies that I want to absolutely swear at all day long, but we will get to that another day.
Editor’s note – If you read the review you might have seen mention of the difficulty of this game, but for all those that just scrolled down to see the pros and cons, it is worth stating again: Returnal is pretty difficult and offers no difficulty options at all. In terms of accessibility options, there is nothing here except a colour-blind mode, which means this game, despite its great graphics and amazing story, is only going to appeal to a specific niche and offers no middle-ground for anyone who doesn’t have sharp reflexes and high fine-motor coordination. I’m unsure why there are no options to give the game broader appeal, considering other exclusive titles from Sony have had reams of them (Just look at The Last of Us 2 and its comprehensive suite of options in this regard), and hopefully this is changed so that more people can enjoy Selene’s journey.
TLDR – Don’t just look at the score to make your decision.