Into The Deep

HIGH Great premise, great controls, great graphics.

LOW The difficulty is brutal and inflexible.

WTF Why in the world is there no save function?!?

As a reviewer, there are few things more disappointing than a game that’s almost amazing, and out of everything I’ve played this year, nothing’s had a closer brush with greatness than Housemarque’s Returnal.

My initial impressions of this PS5 exclusive were fantastic. It’s a third-person actioner that blends many different elements such as running and gunning, bullet-hell shoot-‘em-up patterns, sci-fi storytelling, roguelike structure and the most immediately obvious thing — eye-melting visuals. However, it wasn’t long before issues started cropping up, most of them related to absolutely baffling design choices. However, let’s start with the good.

The premise of Returnal is strong. A space explorer named Selene crash-lands on a mysterious planet while tracking down a strange signal. She’s forced to explore the area on foot, and it’s not long before the alien life she encounters will get the best of her. The twist is that when she dies, she wakes up at the crash site as if nothing happened. Her only choice is to get back up and go further than she did the last time, hoping to eventually find answers. It’s intriguing stuff, and I was in.

Controlling Selene is marvelous. Her movement has the proper weight and momentum, she’s got a speedy dash to get out of trouble, and using her pistol (or any of the weapons she’ll eventually unlock, like a homing rifle or an acid spitter) is effortless after tweaking a few settings. I found that turning off the haptics, assigning the adaptive trigger’s alt-fire to its own button, enlarging the crosshairs and boosting the aim assist made the hyperfast gunplay something that I didn’t have to think about doing – my hands just did it. The physical sensation of playing Returnal is excellent.

Unfortunately, after this impressive opening I started noticing things about Returnal that slowly chipped away at the goodwill it had instantly racked up.

The gameplay loop of Returnal is that Selene always starts a run at at her ship (remember, this is a roguelike) and she’ll scour the first biome for weapons and items to increase her chances of survival. Once she’s beaten the first boss, a shortcut will open to the second biome. When she’s beaten the second boss she’ll gain a shortcut to the third, and so on. Since bosses never need to be defeated again this is a clever system, but the balance is off.

Pickups in Returnal come in two flavors – normal items that can be used immediately and harmful, “corrupted” items which require scarce currency to be cleansed and used safely. Without this currency, the player risks negative status conditions called “malfunctions” such as reduced melee damage or increased cooldowns. Players can fix these malfunctions in a few different ways, but the effect is that many items can’t be used without making the already-challenging game that much harder.

The developers lean into this difficulty with another type of pickup called a “parasite”. These creatures can offer a small boost but they all come with a negative side. It’s clever, but like corrupted items, the consequences incurred mean that most of them aren’t worth using except for a rare one that revives the player after a death.

Good roguelikes know that items are key – finding the right pickup and using it effectively can mean the difference between a failed run and a successful one, but the vast majority in Returnal offer only minimal gains and extra problems to deal with. Players who have trouble coming to grips with the first three worlds will find that there isn’t much help available in this regard.

However, those that manage to tough it out and get to biomes 4, 5 and 6 will find that the balance swings wildly in the opposite direction. Harm-free pickups become notably more common, the currency needed to cleanse items is laying around in surprising amounts, and Selene gets a huge boost in attack power. It’s such a wild shift, it almost feels like a different game — it took me two weeks to get through the first three biomes, and I got through the last three in a single day.

Apart from this reverse difficulty curve, I found many of Returnal’s other decisions to be equally strange.

The first roguelikes in the genre were brutal affairs, resetting a player’s progress back to zero if they died. As such, this style of game didn’t gain popularity until developers started softening the sadism with things like unlockables to work towards, and persistent gains kept from run to run. Thanks to these shifts, roguelikes are bigger than they’ve ever been, but Returnal turns its nose up at these proven advancements and delivers something closer to the original, harsher style.

Between runs players will keep lore they find, the currency needed to cleanse items, new abilities (generally related to shortcuts), and guns (randomly found) will earn extra attributes with repeated use, but that’s about it. This meager amount of persistence emphasizes a player’s raw skill at running, gunning and dodging over all else, and there’s nothing to support those who might need it – no permanently-increased health, no ability to start with a preferred gun, or anything of the kind.   

Players can boost their chances of success by consistently combing the first biome for useful items before moving on, but this makes every run longer and Returnal has no save function — a ridiculous omission that makes absolutely no sense.

Nearly every roguelike has a save function, and this basic amenity has no effect on gameplay other than quality-of-life convenience. There were many times when I needed to step away from my PS5 in the middle of play, and my choice was to either abandon the run or put the console in sleep mode. The developers specifically call sleep mode out in a tooltip, but if the game hiccups or the PS5 updates (both of which happened to me) then the run is lost. This absence of a save is absurd and I don’t see the point, other than perhaps to separate the ‘serious’ players from the casuals who let real-life concerns interfere with their gaming.

Whether the story pays off is up to personal interpretation (for me, it did not) but putting that aside, Returnal’s general lack of persistence, enthusiasm for negative items, and heavy focus on twitch skill without options for self-regulating difficulty results in an experience that caters to a very, very specific type of player and coldly shrugs off the rest. With some rebalancing and a few tweaks, it’s not hard to imagine Returnal as one of the year’s best thanks to its fantastic controls, intuitive physics and beautiful graphics. But as it stands? My guess is that most people will abandon Selene to her inhospitable time loop long before the credits roll.   

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Housemarque and published by PlayStation Studios.It is currently available on PS5. This copy of the game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 30 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood, Mild Language and Violence. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is a third-person shooter in which players assume the role of an astronaut reliving the same day after crash landing on an alien planet. As players traverse the alien landscape, they battle native creatures and mechanized sentries. Players use futuristic pistols, machine guns, and rocket launchers against enemies. Combat is frenetic, with realistic gunfire, explosions, and cries of pain. Some alien creatures emit splashes of blood when shot and killed. In one sequence, blood stains appear on an altar that players interact with. The word “bastard” appears in the game.

Colorblind Modes: There are colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played several hours of the game on mute and found that the audio cues given by enemies were helpful. They’re not necessary since the game does offer a comprehensive minimap that gives all the info a player needs, but you’ll have to get in the habit of watching the minimap almost as often as the screen itself in order to avoid being ambushed. Once I started keeping a much closer eye on the info there, I found that the game became fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls and a wealth of other accessibility options.

Brad Gallaway
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