THAT WHICH DESTROYS NOW CREATES
Finnish game developer Housemarque was one of the most prominent 2D arcade creators from the last decade. The team was responsible for the very successful Resogun and Nex Machina. Both titles receive award nominations and positive reviews from critics, but the latter did not perform as expected sales-wise. In a blog post co-founder Ilari Kuittinen, revealed that those sales numbers made him and his team question their ability to pitch games to new publishers, even stating that they felt single-player arcade games were dead.
Believing that a change had to be made, Housemarque focused all their energies on translating their expertise from years developing fast-paced, shoot ’em up, bullet hell, 2D games into new and exciting projects. Nonetheless, pitching unique IP’s to publishers has become harder, and harder, and Sony’s support was crucial to the creation of their new title, as explained by Housemarque’s co-founder, Kuittinen in his blog post:
In the age when game publishers are taking less and less creative risks, we are truly thankful to our publishing partner Sony, who has given us an opportunity to work on something very risky and has given fantastic support during the whole project. We are forever grateful for having this opportunity.
It seems that the developer only needed the trust, support, and push of a gaming mogul to deliver the most ambitious and polished version of their established style, while also revealing to the gaming industry an entirely new level of craftsmanship. The game is the product of a more evolved, matured, and enthusiastic company, and the end result is a masterful display of their hard work and potential. For its support, Sony receives its first groundbreaking exclusive on the Playstation 5, and a master-piece roguelite that becomes the first AAA title of its genre.
A WORLD WITHOUT END OR BEGINNING
Returnal tells the story of Selene Vassos, an ASTRA corporation explorer that crashes on an unknown planet called Atropos. Surviving the crash our protagonist ventures outside in search of a way to return home, but moments into the game the players start to encounter the bodies of other explorers across different biomes. It doesn’t — or at least it shouldn’t — take long for the protagonist to meet her inevitable demise in the hostile world. And here is where the story fully kicks in, as soon as players die the intro — which is a cutscene that seamlessly puts players into the game — starts again, and players experience the crash once more.
Players are doomed — I’d say blessed — to restart their exploration from scratch every time they perish, this could be tedious if the game didn’t provide such a compelling narrative, that keeps pulling you back in time after time. As you explore, the game quickly showcases the fact that you have been there before, and that you failed before. Encountering different versions of yourself reveals pieces of the mystery as to why you are stuck in this time loop, and why some things seem to be unaffected by the loop.
The narrative moves forward through sheer exploration of the cryptic alien writings, audio logs, and mysterious events that unfold during the game. The more you learn the more intrigued you become by the motives, origins, and strange occurrences that occur in this world. Out of time things such as houses, cars, and people only add to the insanely captivating story of Returnal.
Brilliantly, story progression and character development very subtly shift Selene’s status as a reliable narrator into an unreliable one as her findings start to transform her. When players are stripped of this anchor point, everything discovered, and experienced becomes blurred, and when you start questioning your entire journey, you become more eager to get to the bottom of it.
THE BARRIER PUSHED HER AWAY
Returnal fuses the core mechanics of its grueling roguelite genre, with its narrative flawlessly. In roguelite games the concept of permadeath — restarting the game from the beginning without retaining progress — is paramount. If the protagonist keeps dying and going back in time, it makes logical sense that it would retain nothing of the progress it made. Of course, rare objects and places seem unaffected by the loop, because if nothing did any kind of story development would be nearly impossible to achieve.
This game is an over-the-shoulder, third-person shooter, roguelite, action game that earns its triple AAA title with astonishing visuals, next-gen 4K 60fps performance, very good voice-acting, sound design, and story. That being said, one of the only things that may dissuade players from experiencing Returnal is its unforgiving, relentless gameplay. Fans of roguelite genres are not the most common in the gaming industry, because the games are extremely challenging, which often becomes frustrating to casual gamers, who may never finish the game.
Popular titles that became benchmarks in the realm of “Hard Games”, such as Cuphead, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Nioh, are always brought into discussion when talking about difficulty. But, as hard as they were, they allowed certain levels of grinding, and progression that eventually would alleviate the difficulty of the game.
Returnal, on the other hand, is designed to minimize exactly how much of the challenge can be alleviated. Since you don’t retain a lot of things, except weapons upgrades, some fragments, and currency, the only way to make it easier, is to become better. Add to that the fact that there are no saves, and runs are wiped if the game is closed, or the PS5 shut off, these impositions were enough to already generate uproar among casual players — or those with limited time.
It takes a while to grasp what works and doesn’t work in Housemarque’s title, and for those like me who aren’t extremely proficient shooters, the challenge is amplified. Sheer persistence, patience, and repetition will allow most players to overcome the learning curve needed to navigate the game. As someone who finished most of what are considered “Hard Games”, this might not be the hardest, but it is definitely the most frustrating.
To be completely transparent, as much as I’d love for everyone who owns a PS5 to experience Returnal to its fullest, the game simply isn’t for everyone. This is not a game for you to take the edge off, if you aren’t a fan of dying repeatedly countless times while making zero progression for hours until you develop better strategies and fighting patterns, you won’t enjoy the game. Add to that the fact that luck and RNG play a big part in your runs, and you might even resent this game. Finally, runs for Returnal can be exceedingly lengthy, taking anywhere from two to five hours.
Each run is different in Returnal, mainly because of the randomness that generates the map, but also because there are different items, weapons, alternate-fire, and modifiers that allow players to tackle the game whichever way they see fit. The shooting aspect of the game never felt tiring as I played through since there are a lot of unique weapons that require different approaches to be successful.
Between all the unreliable maps, builds, and weapons, the game offers six unique boss fights. Granted some of them might feel repetitive, and can even be beaten with pretty much the same formula, but there is one in particular that one for the ages: Nemesis. This fight left me in awe and sitting at the edge of my seat — in gamer mode — as one of the most frantic, complete, and well-designed bosses I have faced. I truly re-played that fight more times than I care to admit, and honestly, I’ll be doing it again soon.
After several completions, the game might feel repetitive if you never stray away from your favorite weapons, or builds. Once you better understand the game’s mechanics and intricacies it starts to feel a lot easier, but as someone who struggled severely here are some of my best tips:
- Do NOT stop moving
- Master the reloading mechanics
- Don’t be afraid to melee
- Opt for shooting without the focused aim whenever possible
- Malignants and Parasites are your best friends
- Bad runs still help you collect Ether
- Hollow Seeker w/ Serrated Projectiles was the easiest way to navigate
- Collect everything you can
- Yellow Barriers are broken by a melee upgrade
- Locked gates have locks that can be shot
- Invest resources on runs you believe have potential
There are other tips and tricks, but those are the essential ones. The ones that once followed allowed me to make good progress, and navigate the game. If you only remember one tip, remember: move first, shoot later.
For those who find the resilience to endure, and push over the steep learning curves, on the other side of hardship is one of the best-crafted gaming experiences in recent memory. From the frenzy of running through countless rooms, varied builds, multiple strategies, different approaches, and awesome boss fights, Housemarque’s first triple-AAA title creates countless hours of cutting-edge entertainment.
Undeniably a mile-stone for Housemarque, the game pushes its creator to a new echelon of game developers, while gifting Sony with another Playstation exclusive masterpiece. A vulgar display of the Playstation 5 power, and a love letter to the roguelite genre, Returnal is a tour de force piece of entertainment.