With so much of Sony’s focus being on Ratchet & Clank when it comes to 2021’s PS5 exclusives, we didn’t know what to expect from Housemarque’s Returnal. Luckily, it doesn’t disappoint – here’s our take.
For years, Housemarque was one of our favorite developers thanks to their modern takes on arcade-inspired gameplay formulas. When they announced it was no longer feasible to keep focusing on titles like that, we were curious to see where they’d move towards next, and without trade shows and hands on opportunities that curiosity stayed with us until last week, when we were able to start our journey with Returnal.
Rather than focus on arcade mechanics, Returnal puts Housemarque’s spin on a more modern genre: the rogue-lite. In it, you’re playing as Selene when you crash on an alien planet and find yourself looking for the source of a mysterious signal after you have to leave your spaceship (the Helios) behind – realizing it can’t be repaired.
You’ll regularly return to the Helios during the game to use its still intact systems, mostly to find out more about the game’s narrative and engage with challenging missions, but the bulk of the game is about you trying to progress further and further into the unknown. Your newly discovered alien planet is far from barren and despite mostly dark visuals everything’s very detailed and lush with life and atmosphere. Some of that’s enhanced by the DualSense’s ability to deliver subtle cues towards your hands as well, even extending to the feeling of rain falling down onto you.
And when we mention pushing ever forward and this being a rogue-lite, it won’t surprise you that death and rebirth are constantly recurring elements of the experience. Not just a gameplay mechanic either (where you progressively get stronger), it also ties into the narrative, where you find fragments of answers left behind by your former selves through recordings that you find. They’re clearly you, but you don’t even remember making them – what’s happening here?
To call this a narrative-driven sci-fi adventure wouldn’t do justice to the once again solid gameplay and control mechanics that Housemarque has crafted though. Selene’s extremely agile, which translates both to your way of traversing the world and the combat encounters you’ll frequently run into. As with their many arcade-inspired games, responsive controls are key to the experience and Returnal takes many of those cues to heart. Enemy attacks are often color-coded, letting you ‘read’ them and stay on the offensive, stringing attacks and dodges together comfortably.
How you progress and upgrade during and in between runs isn’t just a matter of growing your core abilities – you can also pick up a range of weapons and upgrade those, with your upgrade levels persisting between deaths. Other upgrades aren’t permanent, and although their benefits can be great there’s often also a risk vs reward mechanic attached to them. A new pickup might look beneficial, but can actually make your suit malfunction instead – creating additional problems until you manage to fix the problem.
And while Returnal brought back memories of another PS5 exclusive in Demon’s Souls with its impressive boss fights, the ones here are far less daunting and frustrating. They’re visually impressive and daunting to behold, but don’t represent a hike in difficulty like the ones in Demon’s Souls do. That’s not to say that Returnal’s a walk in the park, it’s just that difficulty progresses more gradually here, with the game mixing things up for you to keep things fresh in between runs.
Returnal’s definitely not as “mainstream” as upcoming PS5 exclusives like Ratchet & Clank, Horizon and God of War, and we can see some people not getting into its vague storytelling. Housemarque’s penchant for rock solid and addictive gameplay shines through like it did in Nex Machina and Matterfall though, and the studio’s transition to AAA productions that can carry the weight of a new console is a successful one so far.