Thumbnail - Returnal
Reviews | Patrick DiPersio | April 4, 2023

Throughout our lives there are experiences that we choose to forget. Whether those events were big or small, traumatic or embarrassing, it’s a way for us to cope and move on. But what if we couldn’t move on? What if those experiences manifested themselves, not only in our memory, but also within our own reality? What if we were forced to relive them over again? 

A close up of Selene as she contemplates the situations she finds herself in.

In the third-person, rogue-like Returnal from Housemarque, we’re hurled to the surface of the alien planet Atropos, where after investigating a mysterious signal, Selene crash-lands her ship. Now isolated on the terrifying and dangerous surface, Selene has no choice but to continue her investigation in the hopes that it’ll lead to a way for her to escape. However, the mysteries of this planet are only outweighed by its perils, and despite Selene’s efforts its inhabitants continue to set her back and even death isn’t an escape. Upon her defeat, the planet shifts its form and hardens its defenses, and Selene once again awakes at the crash site only to have to relive her traumas again. Are her efforts for naught, or will finding the White Shadow Signal finally set her free?

Header - First UP
Selene prepares herself to navigate through a labyrinth of lasers.

Being a big fan of third-person action games, Returnal has been on my must play list for a while. The game’s cosmic horror aesthetics mixed with the mysterious alien architecture, creature designs, and neon everything had me excited to dive in to explore its fascinating world. Plus, the fact that its action was inspired by the frenetic bullet-hell shenanigans you’d find in some of the most hectic shoot ‘em ups had me ready to test my mettle. I mean, I’m always up for a good challenge.

Selene, covered in glowing parasites, finds an ancient alien artifact.

The only thing that had me worried was that Returnal also featured rogue-like mechanics. Where if you die, your progress is reset, and you have to start your run again from the beginning. A concept I don’t technically have a problem with, since there have been plenty of rogue-like games that I’ve adored, but they do have a tendency to become frustrating and easy to eventually drop.

Header - Does It Hold UP
One of the alien bosses appears just before a boss fight.

Right out the gate Returnal did not disappoint with its visuals. Honestly, seeing the game in action far exceeded what I was expecting before I got my hands on it. The contrast between the dark, foreboding environments and the neon highlighted flora and fauna really made each of the game’s biomes pop. The overall environmental design also did a fantastic job of making you want to explore every nook and cranny just so you could take it all in. What was especially impressive was that although the maps that you would explore were procedurally generated (or rearranged), everything flowed naturally and not once did I ever feel lost. There were always enough telegraphs in the world to point you in the right direction. It also helped that the mini-map clearly stated what was important and where you could find it, whether it was a new weapon, the side path, or the main objective. Which I definitely appreciated.

Selene stares off into a room filled with haunting holograms of the history of the alien race that occupied the planet before her arrival.

When it comes to the action, it’s just plain fun. I really enjoyed the frantic pace of shooting and dodging around enemies, learning their attack patterns, and figuring out the best ways to defeat them before they could overwhelm you. This is especially true when it came to the boss fights, which were intense in the best of ways. 

Selene prepares for a battle with a hulking alien form rising from the horizon.

This is made even more fun with the variety of weapons you’ll find and the random traits they can have. Each has unique ways to dispatch enemies, like the Rotgland Lobber, which shoots poison blobs that damage enemies over time. This makes experimenting with all of the weapons super satisfying. However, cool factor didn’t always equate to usefulness and I found I would gravitate toward just two or three of the weapons during my runs. In fact, the types of weapons and their abilities that you encounter on any given run could mean the difference between success and failure. So, I would typically stick to the trusty dusty Carbine which could blow enemies away in record time, especially with the Rising Pitch trait. But playing around with Returnals weapons isn’t the only path to success. Throughout each run you’ll find and collect a wide variety of non-permanent items that will help you along the way. Things like resins that will heal you and increase your max health (integrity), calibrators which increase your weapon proficiency which in-turn will increase the level of weapons you can attain, artifacts that will give you perks like increased weapon damage or protection, and ether a semi-permanent item that can be carried forward across runs and can be used to cleanse malignant items or activate respawn points.

Selene tries to escape a barrage of offensive attacks from on of the alien boss encounters.

Speaking of malignant items, like any good rogue-like, Housemarque spices up each run by adding some risk to your rewards. In the form of malfunctions and parasites. When it comes to malfunctions you have a chance to be afflicted if you happen to try to interact with an item or object (like a treasure chest) that is infected with malignancy, resulting in some sort of disadvantage. Such as reduced max health or receiving damage every time you pick up an item. Luckily, these can be cured relatively easily by completing some sort of objective, like defeating a set number of enemies. Parasites on the other hand are a bit more permanent and can’t be removed easily, but the disadvantages they afflict you with are also always paired with some sort of perk. The best part is, they’re completely optional and it’s up to you if you want to affix them. Really it’s a balancing act of weighing the perk against the disadvantage, because the extra leg up can sometimes make all the difference.

Selene stares off into a frosty pathway leading to a foreboding mountain.

Truly it’s things like the malfunctions, parasites, and artifacts that really make the core gameplay loop so enjoyable. Each run in Returnal adds an element of randomness, not only in how the levels were constructed, but also in the upgrades, perks, and even story elements you’ll encounter. So you never quite know what you’re stepping into on your next venture outside the safety of your ship and all you can really rely on are the things you learned in previous runs. This randomness can get disheartening at times, especially after failing a good run, but for the most part it pushes you to keep moving forward to see what you’ll encounter next.

Header - To Sum It UP
A large alien entity reveals itself at the core of the planet, submerged in murky water.

Honestly, when you try to sum up everything that makes Returnal tick, it seems like a whole lot to take in. I mean, I didn’t even mention some of the other mechanics like Adrenaline and its perks, Overload Reloading, your energy sword, and the Tower of Sisyphus. But therein lies the beauty. Although there are a lot of moving parts, it’s all of these things that make the game feel deep and satisfying. Also, Housemarque expertly drip feeds you each new mechanic and nuance to the action. It’ll have you chipping away at each new area, getting further and further as you learn new things. The game makes sure you’re comfortable with what it expects of you before it introduces something new, but also challenges you to master it so you can be successful later down the line. This ultimately makes the game feel balanced in its difficulty. The same could be said about Returnal’s mind boggling story, that’ll have you guessing and theorizing what the heck is actually going on. From start to finish it was truly a wild and memorable ride that I’m still trying to figure out.

Header - Recommendation
Selene battles an intimidating boss as it flings countless balls of energy.

Returnal doesn’t pull any punches in its spectacle, storytelling, and action, and leaves us pining for more as we try to resist abandoning Helios for one last adventure into the shifting environments of Atropos. Truly a satisfying experience that we’d recommend to any rogue-like fan looking for a hint of cosmic horror, a dash of bullet-hell action, and a cryptic mind bending story. Two procedurally generated thumbs UP from us!