âReturnalâ combines the bullet hell shmups Housemarque is known for with new third-person rogue-lite elements. (house brand)
Difficult games always have a breaking point. This is the time when players have to decide if it’s their execution that is holding them back, or their tactics. It’s the idea of ââdoing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a better result or completely changing your approach. The key to success is figuring out what the situation calls for.
In Returnal, players are constantly faced with this decision in Housemarque’s genre project. The developers behind Alienation and Resogun use their expertise in bullet hell shmups and apply it to a third-person rogue-lite for a unique yet empowering experience.
It all starts quite suddenly when Astra space scout Selene Vassos crashes into the planet Atropos after being drawn to a mysterious signal. Upon awakening, she finds herself in the middle of an ancient alien civilization that has collapsed and her only way to leave the planet is to investigate the show that drew her to it.
This is where Returnal begins but where it ends is messy. You see, Selene ends up dying while exploring the ruins and she finds herself in a “Groundhog Day” situation. When she dies, she wakes up around her ship and does the same exploration again. This is how Housemarque naturally writes the rogue-lite element in gameplay.
With each pass, players start at the ship, Helios, and they must venture into a procedurally generated world. It starts out in a rainforest and moves through five more biomes. The developers have basically created multiple room pieces, and the game pairs them with different creatures and powerups each time. This makes each game one of a kind, and it also means players can’t rely on rote memorization to navigate the campaign.
Instead, players will need to rely on strategy and skills to progress. It means learning to adapt to the environment and knowing how to use trees and pillars for cover while avoiding the fire of the fauna, flora and living things that inhabit Atropos. Players will need to learn their attack patterns and find the best ways to defeat them. Housemarque takes advantage of the sound and haptics of the PS5 to increase immersion and improve combat awareness. Players have to maximize every advantage they have because once a player dies, they have to start from square one.
Discover the depth
It’s brutal at first, but as players master the basics, they’ll discover a game of incredible depth. Every decision they make is important. At first, they have to bypass treasure chests and secret rooms until they improve their weapon proficiency, which increases the strength of the weapons they find. When collecting Spoiled Resin or Clever Bonuses, they must determine if they have the health or skills to survive the bad side effects, such as dysfunction. When they encounter a parasite, they must decide if its stat boost is worth the inconvenience.
As with learning to read rooms, players will find that experience is the best teacher when it comes to choosing which bonuses to collect. One parasite may be a poor choice during a scan, another may be considered in a follow-up scan that might make it beneficial. If the players are in poor health, it is best to throw in a spoiled resin, which could kill them.
Fortunately, as players progress through Returnal, they will reach a point where they don’t always have to start from scratch. They will find permanent items such as Aether that will stay with players even after they die. They will also discover a sword, grappling hook, and other tools that open up the world of Atropos for further exploration and improve the odds of survival. Players will also reach certain unlock points that offer a shortcut through a game.
This doesn’t mean players have to run straight to a boss. Each game takes time as players collect artifacts that offer boosts and use obolites, the in-game currency, to purchase life-preserving upgrades and consumables. In many ways, this feels like âSpelunkyâ bullet hell that focuses on the purity of exploration and combat.
As players move forward without dying, there is tension in boss fights and rooms where Selene is locked in with hordes of opponents, as every game is an investment of time. To die is to start over and to deflate. Do this over and over and âReturnalâ is extremely frustrating, especially when certain design levels result in unexpected deaths and things like choosing a weapon can mean death in certain situations.
Selene’s tale helps keep fans interested in Returnal. During the campaign, she discovers bodies and data blocks of herself from previous races. The sentiment behind each missive ranges from fierce determination to scientific curiosity to madness. After each major breakthrough, Selene also has access to her 20th century home, which is impossibly remade on the planet Atropos and further deepens the mystery behind the planet and its alien civilization.
The strangeness further deepens the unsettling atmosphere that reigns in Returnal. It’s a psychological horror journey through a world that seems straight out of HR Giger’s mind. He vibrates with the same fear of “Alien”.
It’s almost enough to get players through the frustrating moments of the campaign, but what will really motivate players through Returnal is a sense of progress. The game distributes it in different doses. Sometimes it’s like a drip on how to deal with an enemy. Other times it’s a decision to play differently and aggressively kill enemies while collecting Obolites that makes a huge difference. Either way, Returnal is all about hitting that maddening breaking point, finding a way through it, and ultimately getting that sense of triumph by beating seemingly impossible odds.
Platform: Playstation 2