Review Back for PS5.
Roguelikes and roguelites are almost exclusively locked into the indie scene and are almost always top-down or 2D. While still technically an indie studio, Housemarque changed it through Return, Sony’s published AAA roguelite shooter. While this is a departure for the Finnish developer and takes on a different genre, it’s easily the best and most well-realized team game and a brilliant experience overall.
Returnal is a unique roguelite, but it still follows the rules set by its two-dimensional counterpart. Dying or closing the game returns the player to the starting point and loses all non-permanent items earned along the way. Levels, fixtures, and upgrades are procedurally compiled together to make each process distinct. And, since it’s a roguelite and not a roguelike, there are slight continuous improvements that make consecutive battles easier or unlock other areas of the map, Metroid-style.
Risk versus reward
From the most basic point of view, Returnal doesn’t stray too far from the staple genre, but it still uses that traditional framework to great effect. Almost everything in the game is some kind of risk or choice. Cursed chests, health packs, or crystal clusters can produce powerful rewards, but they can also cause damage; a risk that can be skipped prematurely by spending rare currency used to acquire new items or revive a life-saving. Challenge rooms are difficult, but earn great rewards upon completion. Attachable parasites increase some stats while harming others.
The game is cleverly designed in a way that encourages players to take risks and makes their experience more interesting as the difficulty is stacked against those who play it safe. An easier game will be less interesting. Constantly weighing the dangers while also choosing a variety of weapons and upgrades also ensures that no two runs feel alike.
The loop to start fresh and see what mix of weapons and gear the RNG gods have sown is an addictive treat, given the possibilities the sea of variables gives players. And this ocean deepens as roguelite elements come into play and unlock more mods, weapons, consumables and more, sweetening the circle as time goes on. Unfortunately, the level layouts aren’t that diverse and comparatively start repeating right away in a way the items never do.
Combat puts the arsenal of gear to the test and that’s where the game comes into its own. It’s a fast-paced third-person shooter with an amount of precision that would make PlatinumGames jealous. Air run, generous evasion, blazing fast sprint speed and a sparse number of recovery frames give players complete control over Selene, the protagonist, as she jumps around killing all manner of aliens and robots that fill the screen with massive projectiles and explosions.
It’s demanding, but routinely compliant due to tight controls, weapon usability, ruggedly high frame rates, and intuitive use of DualSense’s adaptive triggers. Housemarque had never made a third-person shooter like this before, but his work making responsive arcade games really paid off and translates to this new genre very well.
Returnal combat would be great in a standard third-person shooter, but it’s made even better with its half roguelite and vice versa. Since the shooting itself is already so satisfying, it’s only natural that you want to do it over and over again in a playable setting. And exciting roguelite spins to unlock more goodies are enhanced due to the incredibly smooth combat required to unlock them. Profitable shots result in more unlocking which results in more rewarding shots and the symbiotic process repeats itself — ironically — without feeling repetitive. It’s the perfect storm of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives.
The world of Returnal is just as unique and amazing as its gameplay. Each of its six biomes is very different from one another, but both have a completely foreign feeling. These places are so alien and full of not only strange extraterrestrial flora and fauna, but also gigantic statues and structures belonging to a mysterious living alien race not too different from the space jockey in Ridley Scott’s Alien (without all the phallic imagery) .
Combining technology and buildings from otherworldly sources provides the constant sense of wonder that good sci-fi has — an aspect that becomes more evident as the game leans more towards its Lovecraftian inspiration. The Interstellar-style soundtrack also reinforces this atmosphere and is equally cool and enchanting with the accompanying visuals, creating an unforgettable and consistent audiovisual presentation.
The game world and roguelite nature are even justified in the story. Selene finds herself after she falls on an alien planet and is reborn after each death for some unknown reason. And if that doesn’t make sense enough, he also finds an audio log of himself that he doesn’t remember recording.
The premise is an inherently compelling central mystery that works seamlessly in tandem with the mechanics and provides the narrative incentive to progress further in the loop for some answers. Like Hades, additional story bits are even unlocked after death as more footage and alien tablets litter the newly configured environment. Listening to the journey of all the other Selenes is unsettling as the logs slowly get darker and more intrigue.
Like its gameplay, Returnal’s story is not forced onto the player. It is semi-Lynchian in its approach because much of the narrative is implied, found on audiocassettes, or told in fragments or flashbacks. Very little of it appears to be objective fact and is instead meant for players to deduce their own meaning from the beats presented. And while a more traditional presentation would be easier to digest, Returnal gives players enough to munch on to satisfy its vagueness, especially given its dark and ambiguous ending. Understanding things is not the point because the process of soaking up the tone and reflecting on the emotions it evokes can be just as valuable as a conventionally told story.
Review Returns: Final Verdict
However, Returnal is definitely an excellent game. Combining RPG progression and the ever-expanding set of roguelite hooks with a frenetic third-person shooter results in a new experience with two parts that make each other even better. As it did with the PS3, Vita, and PS4, Housemarque has once again given Sony another launch-era hit and in doing so has created a useful, replayable and revolutionary game that will hopefully form the basis for other equally good future AAA titles. smart with roguelite blueprints.
GameRevolution reviews Returnal on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.