Worth Dying For
There’s something about roguelike games that just hit differently. A genre known for its live, die, repeat philosophy can be startling for newcomers, but those first few hours of learning systems and getting a feel for the dangers that lie ahead are as intriguing as they are exhilarating. Over the last few years we’ve seen this genre be explored in creative and incredible ways. From indie hits like Dead Cells and Slay the Spire to 2020 Game of the Year winner Hades, roguelike games not only consistently innovate gameplay loops but tell some of the best stories in the industry. With that in mind it should come to no surprise that Housemarque’s Returnal is yet another groundbreaking roguelike. It spins a mysterious and captivating sci-fi tale through the lens of a third-person shooter, all the while incorporating all the unique features that come with being a Playstation 5 exclusive. Returnal isn’t just fantastic, it sets the bar for the next generation of Sony exclusives.
Set in the not so distant future, ASTRA explorer Selene crashes her spaceship into the alien planet Atropos. In search of the ‘White Shadow’ distress signal, Selene journeys into the ever changing alien world only to realise that she is locked in a never ending death loop, returning to the moments of the crash landing everytime she dies. Using whatever she can at her disposal, Selene must uncover the secrets of an ancient civilisation, defend herself against dangerous wildlife and above all else, break the cycle.
The less you know about the story the better. Uncovering the secrets of Returnal over the course of many runs is one of the countless ways that this game gets it’s hooks into you. As Selene discovers new weapons, locations, creatures or pieces of alien technology, Atropos becomes an incredibly fleshed-out world to explore. A lot of thought went into crafting this planet. Layers of lore slowly reveal itself, the monsters you fight are in-sync with their environments and the procedurally generated routes that change with each cycle add new areas to coexist with new discoveries. Selene’s presence also influences the world around her. Finding her defeated bodies scattered across each biome builds looming dread that death is right around the corner. Picking up voice logs left by her past self not only adds a depth to what Selene has already discovered, but foreshadows what is yet to come. There are moments of levity from the kill or be killed action. Cutscenes and dialogue of Selene reacting to the world and short, first-person walking sequences that contextualise Selene’s story, all contribute to fleshing out her character and building upon the incredibly engaging mystery. All this is to say that not only is Returnal’s plot well written and performed, Housemarque has crafted narrative threads and environmental storytelling that engages that ‘just one more try’ mentality.
Beginning a new run of Returnal equips Selene with her pistol, a dash and any permanent upgrades you have. Getting through each area is difficult at first but the game quickly teaches you it’s systems before throwing you into the deep end. Enemy creatures vary from small beasts to looming goliaths, each beautifully designed and increasingly more deadly. Death is frequent in Returnal and when Selene is defeated, she awakens back at her crash site, stripped of most of her equipment. The cycle resets, she grabs her pistol and it’s up to you to learn from your mistakes and use the tools you’ve unlocked to progress deeper through Atropos. Each run is randomly structured. Areas remain familiar in layout but the order they show up in as well as the creatures and collectables they contain are jumbled up with each death. You'll also find alien languages to decipher and machines to interact with, both building the mystery and strengthening you for each run. Each biome has a lot of secrets to uncover, making even the earliest areas feel new when revisiting them with better gear and permanently unlocked upgrades.
Whether it be advancing to a new biome or defeating one of the game’s epic boss encounters, Returnal’s missions guide you to uncovering more of its story and unlocking better things for your next run. Though you lose all consumable equipment upon death, certain things remain permanently unlocked in order to improve your odds of getting further. New weapon types will continue to appear after you discover them once, gates to other biomes remain accessible after being opened and suit upgrades, like a sword and a grappling hook, change up your playstyle and allow entry to otherwise unreachable areas.
The main resource you collect on each run is ether, rare stones that remain with you even in death. Ether can be spent to unlock new resources for future runs. Consumable items like health packs and shields as well as stat augmenting artifacts, which improve your suits strength and survivability, are lost in death but are easy to regather. Ether is also used to remove malignancy from items and chests, which would otherwise cause suit malfunctions that compromise your run until they are fixed. Rare weapons and upgrades have varying levels of malignancy but the risk is often worth the reward. As you shoot and slash your way through each area you also collect obolites, a kind of currency that can only be spent during your run to buy suit upgrades and resources. Keys for locked doors and chests as well as resin that improves your total health are also scattered around. Finally, there are small parasites that offer a buff and debuff when equipped. There are a lot of resources in this game but thankfully your spacesuit’s hud and your equipment menu make it easy to keep track of everything you’ve picked up. Resource drops, malfunction effects, weapon locations and chest unlocks are randomised with each run, encouraging exploration and enemy engagement to find rarer gear and hidden rewards. Mixing the ever growing possibilities of resources with the procedural nature of each run gives Returnal a gameplay loop that feels fresh every time.
The moment to moment action of each fight is heightened by the arsenal of innovative alien technology at Selene’s disposal. From your shotguns and rifles to acid spitters and grenade launchers, each weapon feels distinct and rewarding to use. They also come equipped with random traits that augment the weapon. These traits need to be unlocked, simply by using the weapon, and remain unlocked as possible traits when finding that weapon in the future. This design choice rewards players for swapping their weapon frequently. You may already have your favourite gun but open a chest to find a different gun that has a new locked trait. Do you keep going with the awesome gun you have or try to unlock the other gun’s trait for future runs? There is also no ammunition in Returnal, instead offering a quick reload system akin to the Gears of War franchise. Timing these reloads can be tricky but getting it right can synergise with equipped buffs or weapon traits. Finding stronger weapons on your run isn’t determined by how far you’ve traveled but rather your proficiency score. Killing enemies and picking up the calibrator resource improves your proficiency, which in turn makes the weapons you find on that run stronger and equipped with multiple traits. Swapping out your gun as you find stronger and more diverse weaponry ensures that every battle feels distinct and engaging.
Each weapon also comes with a unique alt-fire, a special shot that goes on cooldown after doing a crazy amount of damage. The Dualsense controller’s adaptive triggers are in full use here, as the left trigger locks half way when aiming and requires a stronger press to target the alt-fire shot. It feels incredible to use. The Dualsense’s rumble is also highly responsive. From feeling the patter of rain course through the controller to the specific vibration and sound that announces that your alt-fire is ready for use, the Dualsense really shines. Gunplay is the core mechanic used in Returnal, and with a plethora of weapon choice, incentive to try new things and sharp, exciting controls, third-person shooting has never felt so good.
Returnal is filled with fast paced action, rewarding players for dodging enemy projectiles and racking up kills. Selene has an adrenaline meter that stacks up to five times, growing with enemy kills and offering buffs to reload speed, damage output and more. You lose all adrenaline every time you get hit however, which is where shield consumables or adrenaline affecting artifacts can assist you. It is in this sense that the gameplay systems presented here are so impressive. Everything you gather on each run works cohesively and the deeper you get into this world, the more dangerous you become. The game does a great job in giving you new things to play with. Every unlockable resource, weapon and suit upgrade are frequently distributed. Although they are taken away in death, refinding a rare weapon or consumable from the body of a tough enemy or the depths of a malignant chest is extremely gratifying.
When connected online, you may also find the body of a Selene from another player's game. A short hologram relives their final moments and from their body a high level beast emerges, giving you an opportunity to avenge your fallen self. Activating these fights is optional and while they offer incredible rewards, they are extremely challenging. This online feature feels so seamlessly incorporated into the world and the drops that come from these mini-boss fights can be game changing; they are well worth the effort. You can also access daily online challenges to test your skills with random buffs, debuffs and equipment.
The one thing that holds this incredible roguelike back is how it handles saving progress. Once you start a run, you can’t stop until you die. Death is the only way to save progress and there is no way to stop playing mid run and come back to where you left off. Turning off the console, playing a different game or an unfortunate power outage will cost you all progress on a run. When a really good run can take one to three hours of time, it’s frustrating that this is a part of Housemarque’s design philosophy. Having said that, these long run times don’t impede a desire to try again after death, it just feels like a misstep when considering gamer accessibility.
Returnal is a game that absolutely rewards you for taking risks, learning the systems and exploring every inch of it’s world. It’s systems interact with each other in meaningful ways, it’s weapons are rich in their design and enemies are varied and distinct. It just feels so good.
Visuals and Audio
Returnal is an intensely beautiful game. Each biome has a distinct art direction, combining lush environments, gorgeous weather effects and lovingly crafted structures that not only continue to pull at narrative threads but also make the world feel lived in. The Playstation 5 hardware is taken full advantage of, running the game at a full 4k resolution and a firm 60 FPS, all with ray-tracing enabled. With so many particle effects, a living environment and Selene running and gunning through dozens of enemies at a time, it’s incredibly impressive that there are no dips in quality to be seen. Load times are almost non-existent, with even fast travel across the map taking only seconds. Bright neon lights plume from monsters as an onslaught of vibrant projectiles fly at you; vivid colours contrasting Atropos’ often dark and gloomy world. Everything about how this game is styled is so visually striking and it’s attention to detail scream quality.
The impressive visuals are only accentuated by the craftsmanship gone into the game’s audio design. 3D audio makes every ship crash thrilling and every gunshot powerful. Each enemy sounds distinct and biomes only become more immersive. Jane Perry’s portrayal of Selene is powerful, invoking distress and fear that resonates with the intense feelings that come with difficult battles or strange discoveries. Exploring Returnal’s stunning world and getting engrossed in Selene’s story is worth the price of admission alone.
Returnal is Housemarque’s best venture yet. Taking their tried and true action shooter formula and applying it to a deep sci-fi narrative has given us an incredibly meaningful roguelike. Selene’s journey through Atropos is as distressing as it is beautiful. The emotional and unnerving story is a welcome surprise and each action sequence is as intense as it is gratifying. Although you are unable to save progress over long runs, procedurally generated routes, a plethora of permanent upgrades and online daily challenges make this game endlessly replayable. With intelligently designed systems that rewards risk and exploration and excellent integration of the Playstation 5 hardware, Returnal not only cements its place as an innovative roguelike but is a must have Playstation 5 exclusive.
So, why should you play it?
You like roguelike games that reward you for learning their systems.
You're a big fan of weird sci-fi mysteries and alien worlds.
You're looking for a fresh, innovative shooter.
You own a PS5 and want to try something new.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
You don’t like dying a lot in games.
You struggle with bright lights and particle effects.
You don’t have hours of game time to put into a run.
James is a writer, voice actor and absolute dork who is as passionate about making puns as he is about video games. From Melbourne, Australia, when he's not playing Dungeons and Dragons or rocking out at karaoke, you can usually find him engaged in some kind of story.