Returnal is a powerful, rogue recipe that features intense combat, a drop-filled narrative of palpable fear, and a cohesive combination of artistic elements. Housemarque’s third-person shooter features lightning-fast action with incredible exploration, equal intensity, and lingering discomfort. Each run is the start of something new, but what you learn about many mistakes provides an added benefit when trying to capture the sci-fi horror world of Atropos. Returnal cleverly combines gameplay, graphics, and musical composition to create a haunting tapestry to be part of, even if a fake evasion or sinister trap takes your life.
Returnal is a challenging game that places relatively high demands on the player. There’s no difficulty adjusting the dials, so the experience can feel haughty at times, especially at one of the later stages. While this adds to the overarching horror elements emerging from Returnal’s core, it improves the sweaty moment when a massive boss is killed. However, it is important to note that it is possible to lose hours of potential progress in just a few seconds if something goes wrong. Death is inevitable and can be devastating. A willingness to learn and be ready to adapt your strategies and insights for future runs is essential. I felt that Returnal’s challenges improve the nature of the unknown alien planet and that these elements make a positive contribution to the overall game. However, some gamers may find that these requests are outside of their enjoyment range.
As Selene, stranded on an alien planet, your journey to Atropos brings questions and exciting revelations with it. The story is communicated layer by layer over time as you work through different biomes, with each narrative piece adding an element to a larger puzzle that is a joy to work on. While the narrative is far from a blissful fairy tale, it acts more like a calming balm to the endless cycle of damn runs and awkward discoveries. When things got at their worst after a few failed runs, I at least learned more about the secrets that hold the world together. Try not to get spoiled by the story before playing as it is a joy to put together note after note.
The exploration by the biomes is procedurally generated in some ways, but you learn to recognize spaces and their contents over time. That knowledge is power. Careful exploration and mastery of each room can lead to the discovery of hidden powerups hidden in hard-to-find places, whether they are behind false walls or just out of sight on an abyss above. In addition to the temporary build you create each time you run, there are other permanent unlocks that your character can uncover. As you progress, areas that you previously had no access to become available through tools like a grappling hook, hazard protection boots, the ability to travel underwater, and more. Every time you find one of these new tools it feels amazing as you finally have access to areas that you’ve mocked with treasure for many, many runs. Every time you find a crossing, you can breathe a sigh of relief when a checkpoint is closed.
Applying the knowledge you have learned to situations and scenarios carries over to combat, which is incredibly fast and is rooted in the “Bullet-Hell” genre. Players must avoid various objects on the screen, each with its own pattern and directional movement. Learning each pattern against standard enemies is a constant struggle as you progress as new and more deadly skills and patterns appear on a regular basis. Boss fights take this to the next level, and you’ll rely on muscle memory and maybe say a quick prayer as you try to dodge growing rings, moving barriers, and hundreds of projectiles at varying speeds all at once. During the game, you may be surprised at what you can achieve in this regard. Several times I said to myself, “No way,” as the game hit another bolt of whirling projectiles on my screen, but with well-timed evasive maneuvers and jumps I shocked myself. Patterns that seemed challenging at first became ridiculous, as I mastered the game’s many systems and it feels great to complete encounters with finesse.
Avoiding things is half the battle. The other half shoots back. In Returnal, you will unlock a variety of different weapons with different fire modes and properties to unlock over time. This is a kind of permanent progression mechanism that improves your damage from run to run. I became a huge fan of the rocket and grenade launcher archetypes and their various enhancements that allowed me to pay more attention to getting out of the way while spending my payloads. However, you never really know which weapon is the best option during a run, so you will need to familiarize yourself with many of them regardless. This keeps things fresh and got me stuck with one of my least favorite weapons during an especially tough boss fight, but it’s all part of the freshness that comes with every run. You never know what you are going to get and you have to put everything together to survive. In a truly roguelike fashion, you may have barrels of excellent guns that make you a lot of progress across biomes, and in other cases you could perish a room or two in your adventure.
Risk and reward are closely related in Returnal as there are numerous upgrades that come with the risk of a malfunction that weakens your character while collecting. This means that you may be able to increase your health pool or collect some bonus resources, but you may receive a serious penalty as a prize, such as being paid. B. Lose 85 percent of your damage while standing still. You can get around these penalties by accomplishing various goals. Therefore, careful planning of when to take the risk of malfunction is essential as it can completely change the way you play. A late game biome plays with the concept of causing malfunctions in order to be hit by some enemies. This, as you can imagine, is a massive incentive to improve your dodge game. Learning how to deal with malfunctions is a long process, weighing up when and if certain bonuses need to be picked up, and which can make a world of difference when you run. Again, the subject of learning comes into play over time, and I enjoyed tinkering with my risk profile with every run. Some runs say that when you get off to a bad start the philosophy is simply, “Well, I’m going to die anyway, why not roll the dice?” And sometimes those dice roll in your favor.
Returning is a delightful immersion for the senses, even if the aspect it tries to convey is terrible, persistent fear. It nails it in that regard and is steeped in both monstrosities on your face and lurking terror. Enemy drafts are terrible amalgamations of tentacles and teeth that feel right at home in this bizarre alien infernal landscape. One of the late game biomes is incredibly stressful to explore and can even put some players with thalassophobia off significantly.
The soundtrack, composed mainly by Bobby Krlic (Midsummer) provides a haunting backdrop that adds immensely to Returnal’s constant and growing sense of fear. The annoying melodies gnaw in the back of your mind long after you’ve turned off the controller. There is one phase in particular that depends on the music, and the feeling you get when you rise to the job when it gets louder and louder radiates cacophonic fear. The feedback from the DualSense controller is a nice touch for the entire ensemble, offering nuances from the tiniest raindrop to the impact of a titanic monster bumping into you at high speed.
Returning is a relentless nightmare that is a dream. The journey is full of horror and terrible discoveries, but also unbridled curiosity and amazement. If you have the taste for it, this is an adventure to be had.