Review – Returnal

Next-Gen Metroid Prime

Overview

Developer Housemarque
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre Third Person Shooter, Roguelite, adventure
Platforms PS5
Release Date April 30, 2021

Super Stardust Delta, Alienation, Matterfall, Resogun–Housemarque had been showing favor toward Sony for years, with games like Outland and Nex Machina representing outliers. In light of Sony’s acquisition of Housemarque in June 2021, one could surmise that when the formerly-indie company decided, “[We cannot sustain our business with shooters targeting niche audiences, and so] Arcade is Dead [but lives on in our hearts],” and shifted to AAA development, they might have needed help funding the expensive endeavor. I can imagine Housemarque approaching Sony with the proposal that they could deliver a next-gen experience exclusively for the PS5, as a marquee “launch” title; Sony replies “Bet,” while tossing Scrooge McDuck moneybags in the formerly-indie developer’s general direction. The result of at leas four years of development is Returnal, one of the PS5’s few exclusives.

Content Guide

Whatever it is, it lurks.

Returnal does not contain content that conventional Christians would find offensive. This game is a third-person shooter at heart, so there are guns, but enemies do not shed blood in a way that is readily recognizable. Because of this, I felt comfortable playing even when my twelve year-old was in the room. Suffice to say, the most “teen” elements in Returnal are its appeals to cosmic horror, and the H.R. Giger school of alien design. 

Review

A white, blonde-headed spacewoman navigates a solo-piloted craft across the galaxy. Her explorations bring her within range of a faint distress signal, “White Shadow.” Its source is a remote planet that her Chain of Command designates as forbidden. She disobeys the warning on her HUD, and descends into low orbit. The planet’s atmosphere embraces her tempestuously, and her ship sustains critical damage, accelerating her cruise into a dive. She crash-lands onto the planet’s surface, her powered suit likely preserving her bodily integrity. After regaining consciousness, she begins to explore the overgrown ruins of her surroundings–the vestiges of what appears to be an extinct civilization. 

Our protagonist stumbles upon the remains of what appears to be a fellow Astra scout. While examining their helmet for identification purposes, she makes a paralyzing discovery: the pilot’s name is Selene…but that is her name! How is his possible? She is the only Astra scout named Selene. Dumbfounded, Selene loots the body for a side-arm, a pistol. Selene proceeds deeper into the overgrown ruin and encounters hostile scavenger fauna chewing on the cadaver of another Astra scout. After suppressing the creatures, Selene recovers an audio log from the body–another Selene! The recording begins, with…Selene…naming the planet Atropos, and that thirty minutes had elapsed since the last crash–apparently there had been more than one. She notes that the forest rearranges itself like a puzzle whenever she…returns. 

Another ship crash landing?

Roll credits indeed! After all, a core principle of Returnal’s story and gameplay is that Selena will die habitually. This game is not just any roguelite; it is also quite possibly the hardest game I have ever played–and by hard, I mean maddeningly, vexatiously, tormentingly hard. I quit Returnal with the intention of writing the review without beating it a dozen times–more times than the number of attempts I needed to beat Hades the first time, to put things into perspective. Returnal’s devastating difficulty oddly works effectively;  video game suckers savants who endure the ruthlessness that this title delivers will be rewarded with the brilliance that is Housemarque’s vision an AAA cosmic horror. 

Close encounters with xenokind.

Those critical story and gameplay elements are at work from the initial enemy encounter. Those who successfully dispatch those tentacled foes without sustaining damage will be awarded with a notification about adrenaline, a mechanic that pays homage to Housemarque’s background in shoot ‘em ups (SHMUPs), a genre where players strive to “1CC,” or clear an entire game on a single credit. Every three kills, Selene’s adrenaline augments, granting additional buffs. There are five levels: enhanced overload (active reload), enhanced vision (see hostels through walls/less haze), upgraded melee attack (after unlocking the sword of course), a 50% bonus to proficiency rate(see weapons below), and a 50% bonus to all obolites collected (currency). In my humble opinion, the most important adrenaline level is the fifth, for it grants Selene a shield that allows her to absorb one free hit. The significance of this additional perk cannot be overstated in a game where one encounter gone wrong can end a run–an hour or two of meticulous decisions down the drain.

When you’re an indie studio getting the greenlight to make an marquee title close to launch, do the meta thing.

In regards to run-ending confrontations, there will be many; the name of the game is Returnal after all. And yes, every time Selene returns, her environment does indeed rearrange itself. In regards to level design, Housemarque demonstrates their studiousness, taking inspiration from Metroid Prime: Trilogy. The way in which I explored the Overgrown Ruins brought memories of the Tallon Overworld in terms of filling out my exploration map. However, imagine every time Samus succumbs to damage, the next time she appears, Tallon Overworld’s layout has completely rearranged itself; rooms and key landmarks do not change, only the order in which they appear. Returnal functions in this way; a weapons room or save chamber or bonus room relocates in a way that will make a run easier or more difficult depending on the order in which they appear. 

Go straight to the objective and fight the boss while underpowered, or take a detour for chances to get stronger?

I must note that Returnal “only” contains six biomes. “Only” because ten hours will elapse before the average player manages to reach the first three. Technically, two out of the final trio are reskins, `while the final stage is unique. Under different circumstances, I might agree that Returnal is short for its $70 MSRP price tag. However, as Supergiant Games does with Hades, Housemarque demonstrates in Returnal the superiority of intentionally-crafted rooms placed in random order over procedural generation. I attest that this method pays dividends, for I while I did grow tired of traveling through the same areas for the umpteenth time, my familiarity with room configurations became etched into my brain like a kind of spatial memory, an important proficiency to have in a SHMUP.


Spatial memory is an unspoken skill to hone in Returnal, but weapon proficiency is an explicit one. Simply put, weapon proficiency is the game’s “experience” system. As Selene gains levels in proficiency during a loop, future weapons that she fines will be higher level. The higher level the weapon, the more damage it does, and the more modifications the weapon will carry. Mods are weapon-specific, and Selene must unlock mods by using the specific weapon that features the mod. The fact that weapons have their own proficiencies in addition to Selene’s is admittedly confusing, and I did not learn about the difference until ten hours in the game. I was not frustrated by this late revelation though, for I was still unlocking enough weapons and items to distract me and keep gameplay fresh.


There are way too many weapon mods and alternate fire modes to reasonably discuss within an appropriate word count for a review. However, I will attempt to briefly summarize the base weapons and a few of their mods. The Modified Sidearm is the standard Astra-issued ordinance, though “modified” suggests that Selene has, or some other entity on Atropos, has tampered with it. At any rate, the Sidearm is a decent starter weapon, but it is not a gun I keep for long because of the strain rapidly firing it causes on my right middle finger, my preferred digit to hit the R2 button.

Being able to recover (or FIGHT!!!) the body of a fallen Selene from another instance of Returnal is an unexpected asynchronous multiplayer feature.

All other firearms in Returnal follow a xenotype theme–alien yet uncanny in their resemblance to human design and pragmatic function. The Spitmaw Blaster and Tachyomatic Carbine are the “shotgun” and “automatic rifle” standards. The Spitmaw is good enough for me to use and defeat the first boss, but it is vastly outshined by the later-acquired Rotland Lobber, a xenotype “grenade launcher” that fires with enough velocity to be a super shotgun, but with corrosive shells. Both weapons are best for enclosed areas and encounters, but marks(wo)men can make the Lobber work from ranges that rivals the rifles.

YES PLEASE!

Speaking of rifles, I rarely used the Carbine–almost exclusively in the second biome that introduces flying enemies, or when I can find no other weapon besides the pistol. This is because it is immediately outclassed by the Hollowseeker, a xenotype rifle that comes with a larger clip, rate of fire, and bullets that eventually become wide waves for increased accuracy. Most importantly, it is a weapon that, with enough proficiency, unlocks what is called a portal mod, which appears after firing the weapon for an extended period, dealing massive damage with a laser that emerges through a…portal. Later, Selene will find the Dreadbound, another xenotype rifle that does not overheat; instead, it rapidly fires four bullets that return upon striking enemies. The more accurate Selene is, the faster bullets return to be fired again. A mod for a fourth round makes it a particularly devastating weapon, though a liability upon a miss, for bullets return much more slowly when fired into open space.

Running at 60 fps at all times with no frame drops that I could detect, Returnal is graphically on par with what I expect to experience on modern PCs. The PS5 is a beast.

There are other weapons too, such as the Thermogenic (rocket) Launcher, the Coilspine Shredder (railgun), Pyroshell Caster (another grenade launcher), but by the time players find them, it is simply easier to just use previously-discovered weapons with their unlocked proficiencies; those aiming for 100% completion may try. As for me, I like to beat games and move on, which is the Electopion Driver’s specialty. This weapon fires rounds akin to an electrical net that deals massive DOT. Trust and believe that this weapon is as devastating as its late acquisition would suggest. 

Clear the obstacle course that disables dashing for prizes!

The Lobber, Dreadbound, and Driver are my favorite primary arms. I often used the Atropian Blade, but it is more of tool used to deal a melee-ranged finishing blow, or dissipate shields that prevent progress. Because it only has one animation I do not think Housemarque intended for players to try melee-only builds, but there are a few powerups that augment the sword’s power.


As far as powerups are concerned, there are zounds. ZOUNDS! I have covered obolites (currency), but there is also ether, the only permanent resource that follows Selene through her loops; it is used to unlock items and artifacts that can be found in future runs in a fashion similar to the unlock system in Dead Cells. Silphium heals, and resin expands Selene’s health bar, er, suit integrity. Artifacts are (mostly)non-consumable items that follow Selene through her entire run, with one of the most important being the [redacted] that revives Selene on the spot one time after suffering fatal damage. Shields, which function like the fifth-level proficiency perk, is what I believe to be a top-tier consumable item. On top of all that, Selene can find certain items that provide her with permanent, terrain-conquering upgrades, as Samus does in Metorid. However, those are exceedingly rare, at a ratio near one per biome. 

Allow a crude alien apparatus to fuse itself into the ol’ spinal column? Sure, why not?

Now, while Returnal provides players with zounds of weapon options, items, power-ups, and upgrades, it will still kick the crap out of anyone who plays it. The enemies are unforgiving, and weapon, item, and power-up acquisition often come with strings attached. Remember the hostile tentacled fauna Selene talks about in the first encounter? They attack with slow projectiles that can are easily evaded, their melee attacks non-threatening, especially after acquiring the sword. But then, Selena clashes with the big brother version, which actively hunts her in a room, requiring timed dodges where a miss can mean pulverization. Later, Selena finds the big sister version that is agile enough to dodge fire, and shoots a continuous stream forcing players to take cover or die. And then there is the golden version of these foes, who leave toxic pools in their wake, some generating portal beams or lasers that teleport on the player’s position, others shooting lasers that Selena cannot dodge through, but must evade them entirely. And then Selena might fall into a trap door thinking it leads to a bonus room, but one of these brutes spawns instead. And these are just enemy types found in the first biome! 

In other words, as the player scales both in unlocks and skill, so does the game in its enemy types and generation patterns. This mechanic is as frustrating as it is fun; how Housemarque was able to balance making players feel simultaneously powerful yet weak defies explanation.  Twenty hours into the game, an inattentive player can enter the first room and still get murked–happened to me once! Skilled players can get wrecked, too, if they take on too many malignancies and parasites, getting OHKO’d from a mistimed dodge, or undodgeable laser. In a twist, bosses are comparatively easy compared to common encounters.

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The final game mechanics I hope to discuss consists of malignancies, malfunctions, and parasites. These elements speak the truth of “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23)” to power. With all the chests containing items or weapons, resins lying about, and obolite mounds, not all are all benevolent. Interactives tainted with a purple haze contain malignancy. Selene can cleanse these objects with ether, an expensive resource, or risk contracting a malfunction, or a randomized status ailment. Some, like melee attack cooldown increased by two seconds, are negligible; others, like cannot pick up new weapons, increased dash cooldown by 2.5 seconds or any number of take damage for [action] malignancies can end a run. In addition, if Selene accumulates three malfunctions the third escalates into a critical malfunction, destroying a random item in Selene’s inventory, such as a nullification sphere, which removes malfunctions, or a [redacted], which behaves like a 1up–brutal losses. As plentiful are malfunction causes, so too are their remedies, such as using a key, or killing x-many hostiles, or fabricating an item at a shop with obolites. Curing malfunctions ASAP becomes a sort of minigame in Returnal. Players will want to reap the benefits of pickups while seeking ways to mitigate the penalties.

And if the roulette of malignancy on pickups is enough for the adventurous, there are parasites. Unlike malignant items, where it is possible to not trigger a malfunction, the risk/rewards of parasites always come as a passive buff/debuff cocktail. Like malfunctions, some of the negative effects are worse than others; players will want to avoid increasing the difficulty of repairing upcoming malfunctions, upcoming malfunctions become more severe, and increase the chance of finding Malignant items, for the reasons I discussed in the previous paragraph. Hopefully, Selene will find parasites with reasonable penalties, paired with benefits such as auto repair, increasing proficiency rate, increasing protection, or reducing the probability of receiving a malfunction. Parasite removal comes way of a certain item, or module that appears once per biome.


Readers who are still reading this review should pat themselves on the back; Housemarque has jam-packed Returnal with a Pandora’s Box of features and managed to harmonize them. I can hardly do this minor miracle justice. Nothing about this game is easy–not mastering its mechanics, interpreting its story, or even writing this review about it because there is so much to discuss. Yet with all of its moving parts, Returnal exudes excellence, convincingly passing off a game fundamentally as a SHMUP to be 1CC’d as an action game. Rest assured, Housemarque has solidified their reputation as a premier developer. I fully expect Returnal to be in the running for GOTY 2021, if not the outright winner. 

The Bottom Line

 

Returnal is an apex-tier game that capitalizes on the PS5's capabilities as a "next-gen" platform.

 

9.5

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Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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