Six months from its launch, my PlayStation 5 has been searching for a purpose.
I grew tired of Demon’s Souls, I finished Miles Morales in an afternoon, and Destruction Allstars was… well, it was Destruction Allstars. Yet as I have familiarized myself with the dangerous depths of Atropos, it became clear that the next-gen experience had finally arrived.
Returnal is the latest from Housemarque, the seasoned shoot-em-ups devs behind brilliant PS4 launch title Resogun, among others. Yet Returnal is a strange concoction of their arcade roots, AAA budgets, and the natural evolution of the roguelike.
The premise is simple. Selene, a planet scout, crashes on the “forbidden” planet of Atropos. She finds herself stuck in a loop that she must fight her way through. The immediate star is the H.R. Giger inspired, nightmarish environment of Atropos, which felt like the realised potential of the disappointing Alien Covenant. The dense maze is a feast for the eyes, as intimidating statues of alien beings stand tall, and monolithic structures hint at an impressive civilization long since gone. With sinister fog coating the floors, the darkly colourful enemies become all the more terrifying, especially as they send you packing right back to the start upon blasting you to death.
Unlike a lot of roguelikes, however, Returnal sinks its narrative hooks in, leaving you as intrigued narratively as you are for gameplay or setting. Why are you here? Why does Atropos morph on each run? Why is your 20th-century house slap bang in the middle of an alien planet? And who is the ominous Astronaut that stalks you from afar? Not everyone will be happy with the way in which these questions are answered, but they left me eager to delve once more into the dreaded loop.
Perhaps more surprising is that, at the fore of this story, is a tale of mental health. With audio logs found across Atropos – lying next to the scattered forbidding corpses of Selene’s past cycles – we get glimpses into the various mental states the endless cycle pushes her into. When she wakes, a reassuring “I’ve got to keep going” highlights Selene’s determination – not just to succeed, but to avoid the unrecognisable versions of herself that we hear over the audio logs.
And this determination, mixed with the cranking tension embedded into the roguelike genre, makes Returnal an absolute treat. The risk-reward consistently keeps you on your toes, and only bolsters the threat of the game’s impressive enemy types, which manage to stay fresh through the game’s entire run. You’ll constantly weigh up the pros and cons of your buffs and nerfs, which perks to purchase, and, most importantly, which guns to stick with.
And the latter isn’t necessarily an easy answer, as every weapon feels unique, results in a varied playstyle, and may work better for different scenarios ahead. One thing is for sure: their uniqueness is amped immeasurably by the excellent DualSense controller which, for the first time since Astro’s Playroom, feels properly realised in Returnal.
However, by this point you will no doubt have come across the dreaded discourse, surrounding the game’s save states – and it is a matter worth addressing. At the point of writing this review, Returnal does not allow players to save mid-run, and progression can only be kept after sessions via the PS5’s rest mode.
For someone like myself, who flits from game to game in a single sitting, this really impacted when I decided to play Returnal. Runs can greatly vary in lengths, but my last easily pushed past three hours – and it wasn’t unique.
For those with shorter gaming time available, it may seem like they are stuck in a loop themselves, never being able to progress beyond what their limited window will allow them. Couple this with the awful guidance of turning off auto-updates on the PS5 – a warning issued by Housemarque themselves – and the corruption of saves upon a recent update, Returnal seems to have designed a game so tightly around its premise, that it forgot how players actually play.
Almost to the point where it feels like its meta-roguelike nature extends beyond the gameplay and into playing the game itself. There’s roguelike, and then there’s roguelike, it seems. Returnal is extra in that regard.
Regardless of its convoluted saving structure, though, Returnal still feels like a promise fulfilled. A mind-numbingly beautiful, darkly enchanting and blisteringly fast game, that you would boot up just to show off your PS5 to your mates.
Platform: PlayStation 5
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: April 30, 2021