(RETURNAL is out now for the PS5. Distributor provided review copy.)
Live, die, repeat
RETURNAL represents many things. Mainly, it’s the first AAA title from Finnish developer Housemarque, who made their name with superlative arcade shooters that kept the genre alive well into the 2010s. Sadly, though well-reviewed, they never proved themselves as best-sellers. This lead to Housemarque to publicly abandon the genre some years ago. After dipping their toes into the Battle Royale scene with the now postponed STORMDIVERS, Housemarque emerges from hiatus with a big-budget launch title for the PlayStation 5.
The result is a technical marvel that propels the Finnish gaming house into the highest echelons of developer heaven, but also a frustrating gameplay experience. One that can’t decide what it wants to be.
All you need is kill
On the surface, RETURNAL hits all the beats of what you’d expect from a Sony-backed release. The visuals are impeccable, the sound design is rich and intricate, and the high-concept setting borrows from every known source material available. Story-wise, there are elements from PROMETHEUS, ALIEN, EDGE OF TOMORROW, INTERSTELLAR, THE SPHERE, H.P Lovecraft, and countless others. But dig deeper into the experience, and you’ll quickly discover the influences don’t stop there. Major elements borrow, lift, and homage everything from Housemarque’s past to DARK SOULS and beyond.
Set on the distant planet Atropos, where an astronaut, Selene, crash lands after chasing a mysterious signal, RETURNAL shows many of its cards within the first few minutes. Before she even sets foot on the surface, Selene bumps into her corpse, complete with an audio log spelling out the situation. Atropos remains in a time-loop, or Selene does, and each death sends her hurtling back to the moment of impact on the planet. Something deep in the planet might hold the answers, but death awaits behind every corner, and it’s hard to say how long she’s been doing this.
For the first hour or two, RETURNAL cast a spell on me. The immediacy of the storytelling, the visuals, and the sheer horror of Atropos all worked wonders. Its moody, haunting ambiance owes much to the visions of H.R Giger and Ridley Scott, but RETURNAL repurposes them so well I found myself not caring. Led by stellar acting from Jane Perry, Selene’s journey into the heart of darkness begins so perfectly my expectations soared.
Time is a flat circle
Sadly, it wasn’t long before RETURNAL’s reach exceeded its grasp. Despite swearing off arcade shooters, it’s still clear that the genre is in Housemarque’s DNA. While reductive to a degree, you could easily argue that RETURNAL builds on the same precise format as NEX MACHINA or RESOGUN, only in a new perspective. The biomes comprise multiple rooms, or levels, each randomly generating several enemies to fight. These flocks attack in specific patterns of projectiles and lasers, which the player has to learn to survive. Power-ups and health boosts spawn at random, and save points are non-existent.
In theory, all that is fine. It’s a tried and tested gameplay loop that many (myself included) love. The rogue-lite genre saw a massive resurgence in the past decade, and it has consistently reinvented and iterated itself during that time. RETURNAL is no exception, deftly utilising the familiar and improving on the dated features of the genre.
But where it stumbles and stumbles hard is in combining other genres to the already established duo. RETURNAL isn’t just an arcade-heavy rogue-lite. It’s also an adventure game, a first-person narrative, a Metroidvania, a Soulsborne, and even a looter shooter. There isn’t a single genre it didn’t look at and think, ‘we could do that,’ and as a result, it feels disjointed and unfocused. It stretches itself thin through ambition that leaves its core experience wanting.
Everything and nothing
Strangely enough, it’s the rogue-lite that doesn’t sit well with others. By forcing players to repeat everything upon death, RETURNAL makes every other aspect of its core gameplay less attractive. Dying happens often and with frustrating regularity. But unlike the Soulsborne games, where enemies were static to their areas, everything in RETURNAL is randomised. Even though the biomes remain the same, and much of the repetition becomes familiar before long, it’s always guesswork how many aliens or mini-bosses you’ll encounter and when.
Combat is hectic and turbulent, often relying on twitchy reflexes and luck. Killing enemies grants you adrenaline, which boosts abilities and makes reloading easier. (Because of course there’s a reloading mini-game). But a single hit will nullify all progress, zeroing your adrenaline counter and boosts alongside it. That kind of a thing is fine in the beginning, but as the game progresses and nothing carries over, each knock felt like a pointlessly mean-spirited hit that made the experience worse.
When killed, you wake up again at your crashed shuttle, bereft of everything you collected on your previous run, save for some key upgrades. These you achieve reasonably quickly in the beginning, but their full potential isn’t apparent immediately. Despite some helpful tutorials in the menus, RETURNAL plays coy with explaining anything to the player. As if playing obtuse was somehow a part of the experience — which isn’t fun, by the way, just pointlessly difficult.
The world hides within numerous secrets and pathways, some locked until you find the right tools to progress further and faster. But due to the constant combative nature of RETURNAL, I found myself uninterested in exploring or discovering. I just wanted to get to the next breather, find some health, and hopefully survive until a random revival drop appeared. These are the closest thing to a checkpoint within the game, and they cost a lot of a precious resource you will have no idea how to use or scavenge for the first few hours.
These checkpoints also reset between runs, so if you used one and died later, that’s it. No more for that run, and back you go. In other rogue-lites, like HADES (which set the gold standard for the genre), a single run can last around thirty minutes. In RETURNAL, my third run ended up around the two-hour mark, as I slowly and methodically made my way through the first two biomes. When I died at the hands of a random ricochet from an enemy off-screen, I realised I had no more interest in going back to try again.
Therein lies the major problem with RETURNAL. For a rogue-lite, it makes the attempts feel like a chore, and rarely did I feel like I had to go once more. Where HADES struck the perfect balance between shorter biomes and rewarding progression, RETURNAL buries it under various styles and genres. Without a rogue-lite element laid over it, RETURNAL would be a joy to explore.
It feels like RETURNAL even acknowledges this dichotomy, and elements within it are constantly at odds with each other. There are alien glyphs hidden within rooms to scan, which reveal parts of meticulously written lore, and the sprawling, complex map system invites you to go and have a closer look. But every time you do or pick up a new item, you’re either punished for it or introduced to a new gameplay element you probably didn’t want.
Combined with the distinct lack of a save system and a persistently high difficulty level which you can’t adjust, and RETURNAL turns into a depressingly off-putting experience that only feels interested in catering to a single, small subset of gamers.
Pioneering the way
To its credit, RETURNAL does come with an abundance of accessibility options, each welcome and praiseworthy. The first biome especially is aggravatingly difficult to sparse, leading to many pointless deaths by strolling off cliffs or into the water, and adjusting the image helps immensely. But it does raise the question that if Housemarque spent so long in considering making the game accessible for everyone, why skimp out on allowing variety in the gameplay?
Technically, Housemarque ushers in the first authentic next-generation experience, proving in one sweep what the PlayStation 5 is capable of doing. Everything from the 3D sound to the constantly awe-inspiring graphical wonders, RETURNAL is a tour-de-force in crafting a singular vision of otherworldly combat.
Likewise, the controls are honed to perfection, as you’d expect from a company of this pedigree. By utilising every inch of the PS5 controller, Housemarque shows how the haptic feedback and new trigger functions are far beyond a simple gimmick. Just holding the controller transports you to Atropos, and every rumble, whirr, and sound cue makes the action feel visceral and immediate. Before long, they’re all second nature, a single click or Ben Burtt -style effect giving out more information than any UI element could.
It might not be a system-selling game (those don’t exist anymore), but RETURNAL is the best, most thorough example of what the next generation has in store. Running at 4K and 60fps, RETURNAL is a joy to play whenever it doesn’t trip over itself. On a technical level, Housemarque sets the bar for all others to follow.
A brighter tomorrow
I want to like RETURNAL more than I do. I think it’s a tremendous leap forward for Housemarque, a developer I’ve championed for their brilliant games in the past. It does a variety of things well, and I can’t fault it for ambition, even when that ambition backfires. But I think that in attempting to show everything they can do, Housemarque has lost sight of what it does well. There’s so much promise in every aspect of RETURNAL; it feels like a calling card for someone who doesn’t need it.
We know this team can do wonders; no more proof is necessary. Next time, I hope they pick a single style and stick with it. I think then we’re in for the kind of masterpiece I know they’re capable of making.