Once in a while, a game releases that features an unfathomable amount of elements and Housemarque really threw in everything and the kitchen sink with Returnal but does it all come together well? I'm happy to say that it does indeed.
Returnal is essentially a third-person shooter roguelike with a heavy emphasis on exploration and it features a mysterious story that gradually reveals itself as you traverse its incredibly eerie world. Although that basically sums it up, there's so much more to it than meets the eye and as you progress, you'll be amazed at what it has in store. For starters, let's discuss the combat.
With so many cover-and-shoot games out there, it's awesome that Returnal does something different as fighting the monsters that lurk within each environment is akin to an arcade bullet hell shooter. This approach is very similar to NieR's combat although Returnal is focused on long-range weaponry as opposed to magic and melee. When you see a wall of projectiles heading towards you, you'll have to decide whether to dash out of harm's way, hide behind a pillar, jump, or carefully weave through it unscathed. Meanwhile, blasting enemies is a thrill because the weapons are super-powerful and fire all sorts of shot types from spread to homing and there's a secondary fire, too, that's usually much more potent. Oh, and the DualSense's adaptive triggers are used for these 2 types to make it very intuitive.
As you can tell, I'm most excited to discuss Returnal's combat but there's a lot more to dive into so let's move on to the story. You play as a space pilot named Selene who finds herself in a time loop after she crash lands on the planet Atropos. Once she perishes, she's brought back to life right before the crash and must start her journey again. However, this mysterious planet changes each time and you also get to carry over certain aspects such as unlockables and a currency known as ether. As you explore the environments which take place in a handful of distinct biomes, you'll discover some jaw-dropping plot reveals as well as moments that will have you asking more questions than you're getting answers. One of my favourite parts involves exploring a house which feels a lot like P.T. although not nearly as frightening. Heck, even simply walking around a seemingly harmless area will make you tense as you anticipate what's to come.
Exploration is also rewarding because there are a lot of things to discover and unlock as you play. From temporary maximum health boosts to permanent unlockables such as additional consumable item slots, certain key items, database entries, and item types that will spawn from then on; there's a ton of stuff to keep an eye out for. Plus, you'll earn various currencies such as the temporary obolite, permanent ether, and keys that open doors and treasure chests as well as level up to discover better weapons and increase your adrenaline by defeating successive enemies without getting hurt which results in extremely useful combat abilities. You'll even learn the aliens' language in order to decipher their texts. All of this adds up to make each playthrough exciting as you become stronger and smarter.
Returnal is a very dark and eerie game and its visuals definitely do a great job of putting you on edge as you work your way through each biome. Speaking of which, discovering a new one makes for an awesome reward as they not only look very different, they also feature different enemies and layouts that change up the gameplay. For example, the first biome has many bottomless pits with intricate structures while the second one is set in a vast desert. Anyway, whereas the visuals are great; Returnal's presentation really shines in its audio which is downright outstanding. I played it while using the PULSE 3D Wireless Headset which actually allows you to hear where enemies are as it sounds like projectiles are whipping by your head. If you have a pair, I highly recommend playing with those suckers on; it simply makes combat more exciting and intuitive as well as exploration more eerie and who wouldn't want that?
I want to keep talking about how much I love Returnal but this is a game review so I should mention its less desirable qualities as well. The biggest issue by far is just how chaotic combat can be at times, especially when the door locks behind you and you're faced with a dozen or so foes that unpredictably prowl and soar around the room. Believe it or not, some even teleport and it's very easy to lose track of them unless you're staring at your mini-map which is nearly impossible to do when you're dodging attacks left and right. Now that I mention the mini-map, my other main issue is that it really isn't all that helpful. Sure, you can see that there are items and enemies around but locating them can be very annoying because the mini-map doesn't tilt up and down when you move the camera vertically. Also, the larger map when you pause the game doesn't show certain points of interest and it's fairly confusing to work out as well.
Returnal absolutely blew me away with its challenging combat, atmospheric exploration, amazing sound design, and rewarding campaign setup. Housemarque crammed a ton of elements into this experience and everything comes together brilliantly.
- + Exciting blend of intense combat, roguelike elements, eerie exploration, and narrative
- + Outstanding sound design and atmosphere
- + Rewarding unlockables / lots of replay value
- - Combat is sometimes too chaotic and certain situations can be quite annoying
- - The map could be more intuitive