Returnal is a fairly typical roguelite action game, firmly inflated to a relatively luxurious big game status.
Housemarque usually makes quite small, tight action games of classic arcade style, but with Returnal have they put on a fancy but somewhat bland AAA suit. The concept is simple. You crash land on an alien planet and every time you die you wake up again at the wreck and have to try again. And as so often when it comes to roguelites, it is important to adjust to the fact that you will die often.
Basically is Returnal a straightforward action game with some bullet hell tendencies of the kind the developers have made themselves known for producing. But this time, they have set out to create a slightly larger, more expensive gaming experience with more focus on narrative and roguelite mechanics rather than high score lists (although such are also available, in a special arcade mode).
The premise itself is still full of potential, both for storytelling and for meta-comments on the gaming medium as such. The most typical comparison is probably with movies like Monday All Week, Palm Springs (which is almost considered a spiritual remake of the Bill Murray classic) or the TV series Russian Doll.
Also read: Is Oddworld: Soulstorm an emotional storm?
What is it?
A fairly typical roguelite game, but with unusually high production values.
Also check out
Tomorrow is not another day
The most relevant comparison in this context, however, is the ingenious Tom Cruise roll Edge of Tomorrow, where little Tompa dies hundreds of times until he has memorized everything by heart and can speed run the day he goes through again and again. A day where, as if by chance, a decisive battle between humanity and an invading race of aliens takes place. It’s a clever little action movie, which funny enough has more to say about the game media’s trial and error mechanics than what Returnal has.
Instead, we are offered a gravely serious narrative that focuses on the protagonist Selena’s background and repressed memories. The whole thing is told very casually, full of overly clear symbolism and sequences where one explores her memories in the form of exploring an image of her old home on earth. However, it takes a sharp pencil to make such a grip fall into place and actually become interesting, rather than just pompous and done.
It still has to be seen as a bit of wasted potential, this. It’s a story about a person who is alone on an alien planet, but still gets more frightened by reading her own post (or rather memories of her own post), than by the huge monsters she encounters – which at best result in a shrug. If these psychological musings had been more engaging, it would not have been a problem, but they are not. And they are not needed for us to understand how lonely Selene is. The Dig has no such elements where the main character navel-gazes his own psyche through overly clear, symbolic visions. But we still understand the consistent thread of loneliness and inability to accept one’s own powerlessness in the face of death in that game. Returnal simply puts in a lot of effort to say very little.
A little trial and a lot of error
Now, of course, the point of most roguelites is the game mechanics rather than the story. It is mostly that with both a high budget and a certain focus on narrative, it should have been more engaging at that point. Hades do so infinitely much more with so amazingly much less. Unfortunately, this also applies to the game, even though this is definitely where Returnal has the most to offer.
Not to be as good as Hades of course does not mean much. It is an unfairly high bar to be compared with. And Returnal is still quite entertaining, especially in the beginning. Partly because the atmosphere is dense when exploring the rain-soaked ruins, while the PS5 controller simulates the raindrops with dual sense technology. It’s really effective.
The controls in general are also good, with a few frustrating exceptions. You are very fast and agile, and the shooting is solid. However, it can be difficult to get Selene to direct the melee attacks in the right direction sometimes, for some reason. But overall, it’s easy to control her as she rushes around and explores the alien planet.
However, this does not mean that the game is easy. On the contrary. Especially after you defeat the first boss, the game starts to get more and more strenuous for every progress you make. But not in as well-designed or well-balanced way as the best games in the genre. It sometimes feels more like banging your head against a rather repetitive and unencouraging wall. Not because the game is more difficult than, for example Hades or Curse of the Dead Gods, but because it is not as good at urging the player, or giving us enough reasons to continue harrowing. Thus, it gets a little sad after a few rounds of play, and then you quickly start to make mistakes when the attention runs out.
By all means, I want to fight on, but at the same time I get a little too often frustrated rather than motivated. And I do not get that rewarding feeling of progression and actually getting better, as the best roguelite games give me.
Also read: Curse of the Dead Gods – a cursed roguelite
Part of the problem is that enemies tend to oscillate between slightly harmless and extremely annoying. Some just follow through and make insanely aggressive outbursts that are half impossible to avoid if there are many enemies around one. It is not possible to keep track of everyone, quite simply.
Nor is it easy to get rid of larger groups of enemies if you are not lucky enough to come across a better weapon. Some of them feel more like pea guns that tickle the enemies a little easily, while others are extremely effective and plow through most things. Sometimes I do not really understand why one is so much more effective than the other.
The weapon variation is not super either. There are variants of pistols, automatic weapons and some kind of shotgun for a start. A few more weapons are introduced over and over again, but nothing that is particularly exciting. The new items you unlock during the game are not particularly interesting either, and they rarely affect how you play the game. The different weapons do not directly invite different strategies, other than being a little closer or further away from the enemies. It becomes quite static, quite simply.
It’s a shame, because here are ideas that could have raised the game a few more, with a little more development. In addition to artifacts and weapons, you can also attract parasites that give both positive and negative effects. It’s a good feature, but the effects are often a bit uninspired – or at worst just stupidity. Losing health by picking up objects and weapons, for example, is just idiotic. It should have been possible to get parasites with abilities that actually change the game in a more fun way than that.
Everything in moderation
Now it might sound like I hate Returnal, but that’s not the case at all. On the contrary, it is quite good. But that is exactly what the problem is. In the fierce competition in the river of roguelite action games, a pretty good game with high production values may not be enough to stand out, when neither game mechanics nor narrative reach the same high heights as the more successful competitors.
Returnal is a (usually) fun action game in its own right, but mainly in reasonably long game sessions. After a few deaths, at least for me, it’s better to do something else for a while. Otherwise, the fast, good-looking, intense battles tend to be soon undynamic and done, rather than exciting. The game’s polished surface only distracts for so long at a time, after all.
A game year like this, when we have not directly drowned in major game releases for the new consoles, so maybe Housemarque’s new games can still be worth a look. Maybe it’s easier to forgive the moments of frustration if you just get your fix of nice console candy with dual sense functions. But ironically is Returnal hardly something we will return to time and time again in the future.
Read also: We look for lost games and find a forgotten Aliens game.
A perfectly okay roguelite game that, however, stands out more for its high production values than its game mechanics.