Happy Death Day
Returnal is a fantastic game, but it’s certainly not for everyone. This clever time-loop story takes the best parts of roguelike titles, combines that with a slap of Alien horror and paints the whole thing with adrenaline-soaked bullet hell. The ensuing result feels like a hybrid of many different influences, one that’s combined in a such a way to produce a uniquely satisfying and challenging experience.
Instead of just going gung-ho with the gameplay, Returnal also comes with its own story too. You take on the role on space explorer Selene, who crash lands on a strange, alien planet called Atropos. She’s on a mission to investigate a strange signal known as “White Shadow.”
As Selene explores the planet, she’s shocked to find corpses of herself dotted across the landscape. More often than not, these corpses also come with an audio log of some description, hinting at sequences that have come before your current run on this planet. When Selene inevitably dies on her journey, the time-loop effect kicks in and Selene is forced to relive her journey all over again.
As you progress forward, a strange recurring house allows for some much-needed background to bleed through. Within this are segments involving an unnerving astronaut and moments from Selene’s past. There are six sequences in total, each one unlocked the further into the story you progress. These sequences are also wholly important to which ending you receive at the end of the game too.
This forms the crux of the game’s story, with each death (depending on your progress up to that point) delivering a slightly different flashback sequence that foreshadows what’s to come later on. It’s a clever hook, and one that actually make death a meaningful part of the experience. And that’s just as well because you will be dying. A lot.
For those unaware of what a roguelike is, Returnal serves up a tough, challenging, fast-paced experience where every death will start you from the very beginning of your journey.
To prevent the experience growing stale, the world is procedurally generated, with different doors leading to alternate parts of these different biomes. Early on, a lot of this can seem quite daunting and overwhelming – especially when enemies start entering the fray and attacking. After a few hours or so, you start to get the hang of how the game plays and the quirks inherent with its mechanics.
Shooting is done with simple L2 and R2 controls, with the adaptive triggers locked halfway for a simple stream of bullets. A full throttle squeeze however, allows for an alt-fire blast.
Within the game are around seven different types of weapons ranging from rocket launchers and pistols through to LMGs and acid-spewing machine guns. For the alt-fire range, there’s around 4 or 5, ranging from a bomb blast, horizontal stream of energy and pulsating electric shocks. When you combine these two different ways of shooting together, Returnal has a surprising amount of variety.
No two runs are the same and this is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to Returnal. Before diving into that, the game itself essentially splits itself across five different, gorgeously rendered biomes. These are then divided further into around 10-15 different rooms that each have their own quirks. Some may span a large distance horizontally or require a fair amount of vertical traversal.
Further unlocks allow you to venture underwater and to use a grappling hook to access hard-to-reach areas. Understanding all these different symbols and quirks can be the difference between a good and a bad run, so we’ll dive into each of these now.
Dark blue doors lead to side-content which holds anything from chests and power-ups through to new weapons to switch out your load. By comparison, light blue doors lead further toward your objective. Yellow doors with a marked star at the top are challenges, complete with waves of enemies to defeat. This is not to be taken lightly but the rewards are worth the steep price of admission, with multiple chests on offer. Red rooms or blue rooms with a circle atop lead to different worlds and bosses, respectively.
Within each of these rooms are a number of different collectables too, visible through coloured projections. Green is your standard health pick-ups, although with full health you can add a notch to a counter of 3 which allows you to increase your vitality further.
Blue items improve weapon proficiency, which increases your odds of gaining a higher-leveled weapon from chests. Yellow represents obolites; the in-game currency. This can then be exchanged at different terminals to provide a random assortment of goodies including health kits and skill boosts.
Orange collectables represent those aforementioned skill boosts, which can be controlled with a tap of L1. These range from health and repair timers through to electric currents left over when you jump. Red marks the location of new weapons while purple showcases parasites.
Speaking of which, one of the more unusual and interesting elements of Returnal comes from the parasite system. This is essentially the game’s own risk/reward system with perks given at the same time as a consequence.
For example, you could well get a massive boost to health by attaching one, but as a consequence every locked door will damage you when you open it.
With the basic set-up out the way, Returnal doesn’t have a difficulty bar but it is a game that will punish you from start to finish. Thankfully, you don’t have to repeat bosses again and with each biome unlock, the ability to bypass large sections of the game opens up.
However, the way that Returnal is set up, it’s actually advised to work your way through each biome like you normally would until you get a weapon you’re comfortable with.
There really are no overpowered weapons here, and each come with their own strengths and weaknesses. While some will prefer the rocket launcher with its high damage and high cooldown, others (like myself) will favour the LMG route, spraying bullets across the battlefield to hit numerous targets while on the move. There really is no right or wrong answer here, and Returnal is pretty accommodating with its gameplay.
One of the biggest gripes with Returnal though comes from its save features – or a lack thereof. The game is absolutely punishing with its runs at the best of times, and this is not a game you can pick up and play for 30 minutes.
In fact, one run caught me completely off-guard. After a string of bad luck early on, I managed to hit a good stride and blasted through three biomes back to back, only to realize a good 3 hours had gone by. And then I died at the hands of the boss and had to start again. C’est la vie!
Thankfully, the game does come with one perk. After finishing the brilliantly imaginative third boss, Returnal allows for a checkpoint of sorts, but that’s the extent of hand-holding here. This is a real double-edged sword because although death is part of the game’s experience, losing 3-4 hours of progress and being forced to start again is a little heartbreaking.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that there is a heavy element of luck involved. Although you can skew the odds in your favour, it’s still quite unpredictable what sequence of rooms you’ll get. Will you be given three decent rooms with lots of chests in a room? Or will you be stuck with an annoying gun for five rooms full of tough-to-beat goons? It really can be that cut and dry at times.
Of course, this unpredictably will divide the gaming community completely. A good portion of the hardcore gamers will scoff at the idea of a save feature and claim people need to “git gud”. While that’s fine for some, Returnal is a game that requires solid time management before you even pick up and play it – hardly ideal for a game charging £70.
So really it comes down to the big elephant in the room. Does Returnal do enough to justify spending that much money? Given the polarizing feel to this game, Returnal definitely won’t be for everyone.
For some, gamers will pick up and play this for 5-10 hours, put it down and never return. For others, the cathartic experience of slowly getting better and stringing together a good run brings an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that rivals games like Dead Souls and Bloodborne.
Returnal is a moody, atmospheric and adrenaline-soaked thrill-ride. Like the most extreme rides at a theme park, this won’t be for everyone. Those taken by the challenge though can buckle up safe in the knowledge that they’re on-course for a bold, brutal and absolutely brilliant game.
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Verdict - 9/10