Housemarque might not be a recognizable name but chances are you’ve played their games before, you just didn’t realize it. Most of the Playstation’s best indie games are from this studio. Games like Dead Nation, Alienation, Super Stardust HD, Nex Machina, Resogun…among others. Now, you can add Returnal to the list.
Unlike Housemarque’s previous games though, Returnal is more of a blockbuster AAA title like The Last of Us Part II rather than an indie game. It’s flashy, looks good and is one of the flagship gems in the Playstation 5 early library.
Despite all this hype, does Returnal live up to expectations?
Read on to find out.
What is Returnal?
Returnal is a third person shooter, with elements of a roguelike. It’s developed by Housemarque and published by SIE. It is currently a Playstation 5 exclusive.
As befitting a roguelike, the gameplay in Returnal is heavily dependent on repetition and a hell of a lot of luck. That’s because the stages in the game are all generated randomly each time you die and restart. Wait, that’s not really true…it’s more like they’re arranged randomly.
Think of each room as separate a separate block. Each time you die, the game rearranges the blocks to make your journey different. So while technically you’ve been in that particular room before, you’ve never been in the room with the particular area makeup before.
It’s pretty fun in practice and keeps things…but it also means you’re always thinking on your feet. Yup, you’re right that means you’ll be dying a lot. Like really a lot!
That’s because you’ll be fighting a ton of enemies solo and sometimes, the fates just don’t spawn the right weapons (or perks for you). That means that no matter how skilled you are, dying is all but inevitable. Returnal is nothing if not brutally unforgiving.
It’s All Up To Luck.
Somebody could luck out and finish a biome on the first try, while you’re still stuck there after a hundred tries. That’s the case for me. I spent more than 30 tries trying to clear the first biome (the ruins) and then cleared the second (the desert) on my FIRST attempt. Same thing with the 3rd boss. I died in the areas preceding it a TON, but cleared the boss on my first try, going in completely blind.
Like I said, it’s all luck so don’t give up if you get stuck.
Most of the roadblocks will come from the bosses, which halts your progress until you get rick of them. They all have predictable attacks, so fighting them is simply a matter of memorization. Unfortunately, things rarely go your way most times.
Since everything’s random, the stars have to align to give you a fighting chance. There are ways to mitigate this (such as making sure to clear the biome first before tackling the boss so that you can get artifacts, parasites, consumables and better guns) but it’ll still come down to luck at the end of the day.
While luck does play a really major part in the game, there’s still a ton of skill involved.
You’re going to need fast reflexes to dodge the myriad of attacks the enemies throw at you. While normally I’d praise a game for being unrelenting, in Returnal’s case sometimes it’s really unfair.
Some enemy attacks go THROUGH walls, which makes them incredible cheap. How the hell do you avoid an attack you can’t see coming? For a game built on skillful dodging, it’s a glaring flaw and an incredibly stupid design choice. There’s nothing worse than being hit by a cheap shot!
Luckily, you can cheap out the game too.
One of the weapons (the Electropylon Driver) basically ensures your survival as long as you keep moving. I beat all the bosses with it. It basically fires a harpoon (there’s also a variant that fires a spread of harpoons) that sticks to anything and then electrifies itself. With bosses and enemies, you can fire it at them and then dodge away as their health is drained away. If the pylons expire, just shoot them again!
It’s even more galling since the game forces you to be at full health as much as possible.
If you’re fully healed, the health pickups in the game actually increase your health bar, slowly lengthening it to twice its initially size. Needless to say, you REALLY want to be at full health since it basically gives you more survivability.
Feels Like Next Generation Gaming To Me.
Its taken a while but Returnal is the game that finally feels like another PS5 title (alongside Demons’ Souls and Astro’s Playroom).
Its visuals are stunning (the particle effects alone are incredible) and the near instant loads really show off the SSD in the console. The game also moves at a steady clip, which makes the shooting feel very smooth. It also helps that there’s generous aim assist with the guns, so you don’t really need to be Hawkeye to hit your targets. Then again, some of the enemies are so huge it’s a miracle if you can miss them.
Speaking of visuals, the game is highly reminiscent of the art design from Prometheus, Alien Covenant and the Alien Quadrilogy movies. At least from an architectural standpoint, if not creature designs. Remember the Engineer base from Prometheus? Yeah, the locations in the game look like that with huge statues and particle based holograms!
Sadly, the aliens in Returnal look nothing like Xenomorphs or any of H.R. Giger’s biomechanical lifeforms. In fact, they’re one of the weaker aspects of the game. Billed as a horror title, I expected the aliens to be more scary or terrifying to fight against. Maybe like Dead Space’s Necromorphs or something. Nope.
They’re kind of weird looking to be honest. Some look like panthers, some like giant jellyfishes…all are pretty weird looking. Most of them shoot out weird glowy blobs (or homing shots) that make the game feel like a 3D shoot’em up. It’s a weird feeling to be playing a 3rd person shooter with shoot’em up elements, but it blends strangely well together once you’re proficient with dodging.
I’m not that enamored with the enemies though…but I will admit they blow up real good when they die, which makes it really satisfying when you kill them.
The Bottom Line.
Returnal is one of the best games you can get on the Playstation 5. It’s a great showcase of what the console can do, though the luck-dependent gameplay will definitely irk a ton of people off. There’s too much that doesn’t hinge on your skills, which gives the game an air of unfairness. Failing a ton of times because of outside factors, that’s really no fun.
There’s a great shooter here despite its issues but you’re going to need to keep chipping away at it to eke out the good bit. The visuals look damn good too, so that definitely goes a long way to make up for some of the other issues. Whether that’s enough…that’s up to you.
Fun game but being too reliant on luck detracts from the experience and makes it infuriating at times.
- Fun gameplay.
- Fast loading.
- Awesome particle effects.
- Great environmental design.
- Random stages.
- Too much up to luck.
- Not enough character progression.
- Boring enemy designs.