November 17, 2021
Features game review Game reviews Gaming & Culture housemarque playstation 5 ps5 returnal roguelike roguelikes roguelite roguelites Technology

Returnal review: Roguelite arcade combat has never felt this epic—or hard

Returnal is a sci-fi video game about a person constantly reliving the past in order to find a new future. In some ways, it feels like a pointed metaphor for the game’s creators.

PlayStation fans are likely familiar with Finnish game studio Housemarque, whose best modern games have masterfully combined classic arcade chops with modern flourishes. Yet even its biggest PS3 and PS4 games (Super Stardust HD, Resogun, Nex Machina) have mostly felt like translations from classic cabinets, thanks to fixed perspectives and allegiant action. Blow stuff up, aim for the high score, game over, and repeat.

This week, Returnal sees the studio aim its pedigree at a much higher scope: a game that combines the pure action of ’80s arcade games with the plot, production value, and world exploration of a full-blown “adventure” game. It’s as if someone at Housemarque looked at 1981’s Galaga running next to 2018’s God of War and said, “Can we somehow combine these two?”

The result feels like a statement game for Housemarque, arguably in the same way that 2019’s Control solidified Remedy Studios’ own reputation—though this effort isn’t quite as successful. At its best, Returnal delivers the studio’s finest-yet action and tension within a phenomenal 3D-shooting system. I’ve gone to sleep thinking about the game’s best blasting moments, eager to wake up the next day and return (returnal?) for “one more run.” Yet at its worst, Returnal‘s roguelite trappings sometimes threaten to bring the whole package down—especially if you’re not very good at high-speed shooter games.

Returnal will be some people’s favorite game of 2021. But even those players should prepare to strap in for a bumpy, weird start.

A Selene for every (deadly) occasion

Returnal product image

Returnal [PS5]

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Returnal stars a modern-day astronaut named Selene, whom players take control of the moment she crash-lands onto a mysterious planet named Atropos. You crawl out of your wrecked ship, get your bearings, and run (as seen from a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective) to find a useful weapon… next to a dead astronaut with the same outfit and callsign as yours.

More dead Selenes appear, usually clutching personal audio recording devices that spoonfeed more of the game’s mysterious plot. You’ll add to that pile of corpses before long, since the opening tutorial segment includes a brutally difficult monster that traps you in a pit and kills in two hits. Immediately after your death, the screen flashes black, and the opening crash-on-a-planet sequence plays again with different camera angles; Groundhog Day stuff, but instead of “I’ve Got You, Babe,” your mornings always open with screams and smoke.

Your version of Selene remembers dying and coming back to life this time, but the world you’ve landed on looks different. The opening door reveals a new zone to run through. Different dead Selenes lie in different places (sometimes with new audio logs). Different rooms, lairs, and caverns appear, now full of new arrangements of enemies, items, and secrets.

Hence, we’re in roguelite territory, and the object is to die-and-retry while unraveling Atropos’ mysteries and finding a mix of temporary and permanent upgrades within every randomly generated sequence. That’s different than a roguelike, where each death starts you from scratch; roguelites bring you back to life with some upgrades remaining persistent after every death, while other stuff vanishes if you don’t use or spend it before you die. (The latter is much more common in the modern gaming era, with popular examples like Hades and Dead Cells; comparatively, Spelunky is the best example of a modern roguelike, if not the titular PC classic itself, Rogue.)

You’ll get stronger, you’ll keep going, you’ll keep dying

By the time you find that stronger monster again, you’ll have recovered a permanent “alt-fire” mode for your gun that shoots a charged, concentrated blast, along with a likely assortment of temporary upgrades. You’ll get stronger, in both permanent and temporary ways, and you’ll keep going.

But you’ll also keep dying.

Selene’s spacesuit has some nice batteries built in.

Returnal would rather you learn its systems within the course of the game’s die-and-retry loop, instead of breaking its brutality out to a tutorial. To some extent, I get it. This serves a plot that hinges on Selene’s confused dedication to breaking a time loop, and plot morsels emerge at a steady rate—which, I assure you, I haven’t spoiled here in the slightest. Still, you’ll have a better time if you understand the type of difficulty you’re getting yourself into.

Like Demon’s Souls before it, Returnal establishes a unique, tough-as-nails ruleset for combat, only this game’s take feels so much more like a Housemarque game. In a major departure from the Souls-like genre, Selene’s default movement speed is “damned fast,” and this is helped by unlimited “run” stamina (for even faster movement) and an instant dash-dodge button, which needs a second to recharge. In fact, there’s no “stamina” limitation anywhere in Returnal. Selene’s spacesuit clearly has some nice batteries built in.

This speed is imperative because players see Selene from a tight third-person angle as she runs through a mix of open fields and fallen-apart architecture. To live, you’ll have to keep moving, lest you get caught by waves of enemy bullets (usually large, slow-moving laser orbs) coming from all sides, along with foes that hunt for Selene’s body and pounce with melee attacks. To organically encourage your “git gud” mentality, Housemarque offers built-in help in the form of “adrenaline,” a meter that fills up every time Selene kills a foe without taking damage. Get your adrenaline high enough, and you’ll get perks. Some are combat boosts like increased melee damage (for the sword you eventually find), but others contribute directly to combat visibility. One perk makes ghosts of enemies appear if they’re behind cover. Another creates a warning radius around Selene’s body, lighting up to indicate whether you’re being targeted by bullets (white), turrets (purple), or pouncing foes (red) in any direction.

The only “wave” I will do

Hence, your path to survival is visibility, landscape mastery, constant movement, and strategic retreat—though like other modern action games, you’ll want to be close to your enemies’ corpses shortly after they die, since they spew a coin currency that you’ll need to purchase upgrades, health refills, and more during a given run. Kill enemies from afar and their coins will vanish by the time you reach them—which isn’t a novel concept in these kinds of games.

And getting into the weeds of how Returnal‘s individual parts resemble other roguelites could miss the larger point. Instead of describing game aspects in isolation—each gun, each power-up, each difficult min-max decision—I’d like to set the stage by describing one of my more successful gameplay runs.

I open the game with Selene once again gasping in the despair of dying and returning to the same stupid crash site, on the rainy, forested surface of Atropos. I have a few permanent upgrades at this point, including a melee attack and certain unlocked perks for the four guns I’ve found thus far: a pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun, and a weird rifle (the “Hollowseeker”) that shoots slower, weaker, heat-seeking shots than other guns.

Newer weapons may list perks with a percentage next to them. These indicate that you need to rack up a certain number of kills to unlock that perk, and doing this will make future guns you discover more powerful.
Enlarge / Newer weapons may list perks with a percentage next to them. These indicate that you need to rack up a certain number of kills to unlock that perk, and doing this will make future guns you discover more powerful.
Sony Interactive Entertainment / Housemarque

Every run starts with a base, perkless version of the pistol, and before long, I find other weapon options in randomly generated treasure chests. Some have perks I’ve already unlocked; others have grayed-out descriptions of perks I can unlock by killing enough foes. My first chest contains a Hollowseeker with a new listed perk called “wave.” I’m not a fan of this rifle yet, but I’d like to unlock and understand this perk. After getting through early rooms full of weaker foes, I learn that “wave” means “shoot big, slow, purple saw blades in addition to my standard firepower.” Wave is rad. Really, most of the perks are as rad, and they routinely put you in the head-scratching position of picking between guns. The shotgun, for example, is a tricky weapon when enemies float from afar, but once you perk it up with things like additional heat-seeking missiles and “stagger” abilities, it becomes a game-changer in some of the toughest battles.

In fact, in this run, I survive some of my toughest fights against hunt-and-pounce foes by staggering them, which drops them to their knees and exposes a weak point long enough for me to focus fire, kill them up close, grab their useful coins, and resume strafing-and-dodging other nearby pests.

When random isn’t random enough

This run might be my 12th time in the opening “Overgrown Ruins” biome, however, and things are starting to look familiar.

Roguelites revolve around premade building blocks for their stairwells, their treasure zones, their pools of lava, and so on. When a roguelite game is in 2D, those jigsaw puzzle pieces aren’t just simpler to jumble up; they’re also smaller. You might see tiny nooks reappear from one Spelunky run to the next, but generally, their block arrangements have a lot more leeway to work with—and benefit from a crapton of variables. You can mash together hundreds of 2D sprites without worrying about whether 3D geometry is going to intersect awkwardly or break the game.

I need that sweet, sweet adrenaline.

I wondered how Returnal would grapple with this as a fully 3D roguelite—a rarity in the genre—and the answer, as it turns out, is a bare-minimum effort. Atropos is largely made up of premade “rooms,” which I put in scare quotes because they’re marked on your handy mini-map with entrances and exits but can vary from constrained caverns to wide-open outdoor spaces. If you walk into a room and recognize its stairwell, then you’ll recognize the rest of it—every platform, every gap, every bottomless pit. This even applies to the very mild puzzles found in various rooms; the Ruins biome in particular is rich with a “shoot a hidden target to unlock a treasure chest” gimmick, yet it doesn’t use the roguelite system as an opportunity to randomize where the target is. It’s always in the same spot. Meh.

Instead, the game’s tension largely comes from wondering exactly what’s behind the next door. Will a room be full of enemies? Which ones and where? And what items are scattered around a room’s outskirts? This all works in service of Returnal‘s very satisfying combat—which, again, benefits from letting players enjoy freedom from stamina-related restrictions—and that means whenever you get into a fight, you can expect battles to play out in Housemarque’s finely honed mixes of cramped spaces, hidey-holes, open gaps, and temporary, destructible cover. In this particular run, I’m getting the added benefit of some zone mastery during these Ruins biome fights. “Over there’s the bottomless pit,” I remark as I dash around, knowing that an errant fall will cost me a bit of health and my entire accrued adrenaline meter. I need that sweet, sweet adrenaline to keep tabs on foes, after all. I’m doing better this time.

But I’m also a bit bored by the noncombat rooms’ familiarity. Was there really no way to move things around in the seen-this-before zones, Housemarque?

Building a machine in the Ruins

The beautiful thing about the run in question, however, is that I’d finally gotten a strong handle on the opening Ruins biome, along with some familiarity with the second “Crimson Wastes” biome. The latter opens the rooms up considerably and adds new and remixed foes—including a few fantastic air-controlling pests that take great advantage of newly opened skies.

Once you accrue enough permanent gear, Returnal offers players a few shortcuts when dying-and-retrying to skip ahead to later biomes, and part of me was eager to jump ahead to newer stuff. But for this run, I decided to explore every corner of the opening Ruins biome, since I had no idea which rooms, fights, and treasures it would hide. I did know I’d be more likely to accumulate useful temporary upgrades, along with a few more gun-specific perk unlocks, if I ran through the familiar biome one more time. (I also spent more time practicing Returnal‘s active-reload system, which largely resembles the one found in Gears of War and must be mastered to withstand the game’s worst fights.)

The result was exactly the build that roguelite fantatics drool over: a perfect “machine” of complementary bonuses, which came thanks to a mix of smart purchases and dumb luck.

Part of this was my selection of “mutations,” a risk-reward system that adds one benefit and one drawback. You’ll find mutations as alien blobs on the ground in some treasure rooms, and their pros and cons are clearly described via your HUD before you choose whether or not to equip them. I had also found an “artifact,” the game’s name for temporary, one-run-only bonuses, that gave me additional “repair speed” for every mutation I’d equipped, and another artifact that made each mutation’s positive aspect stronger. The negatives became noticeably less negative.

That repair-speed bonus coupled nicely with an artifact that automatically healed me whenever my health got low—which normally takes way too long to recharge. As described, this build’s mutations overclocked the auto-heal process, so whenever I took too much damage, my health would almost instantly refill to a small-but-doable amount. I had other perks that helped with things like shields and damage output, along with consumable items that (thanks to an artifact) would sometimes remain in my inventory after use. Suffice it to say, I’d finally stumbled upon a build that stared back at Returnal‘s high difficulty and growled, “Bring it.”

I began feeling confident. I leaned into each weapon’s special abilities. I got extra bandwidth to understand new enemies’ patterns and how multiple creatures’ AI might crescendo to rain lightning-orb terror on Selene if I didn’t react appropriately—and that bandwidth came as much from the run’s bonuses as from the die-and-retry learning I’d done up to that point.

Story and visuals

The run, sadly, ended with a wacky game crash (see above), but not before I’d reached an entirely new threshold of game progress. Returnal establishes solid stopping points within its campaign, and the biggest ones automatically wipe your temporary inventory, anyway, so there’s less inherent heartbreak no matter how far you get or how brutal your last death was.

Though the action is randomized, the plot is not, and you’ll follow Selene’s journey of interstellar discovery and existential dread via some trippy, haunting sequences. Occasionally, Housemarque’s Finnish take on an English-speaking hero tips its hat with awkward phrases and pronunciations, but it’s not enough to devalue one of the cooler repeating-loop stories I’ve seen in a long time—and certainly the best and most polished I’ve seen in a game. (If you’re wondering, this year’s Loop Hero comes in at second place.)

I can’t ascribe the same praise to Returnal‘s visual makeup, and the more I have played it, the more I’ve wondered whether Housemarque had originally planned this game for PlayStation 4 instead. Enemies look cheap and plasticky up close, and tight zooms on Selene’s in-game face, typically behind an astronaut helmet, are remarkably gaudy. Landscapes don’t teem with wind-swept plant life or other tiny, dense details.

And while the game’s official site mentions “ray tracing,” I have yet to see any particular in-game proof that either its reflections, shadows, or other lighting pipelines actually benefit from a next-gen light-bounce system. Instead, I’ve seen particularly unattractive reflections on some waterfalls and lakes, and absolutely no dynamic light bounces on others.

Perhaps most telling of all, PS5’s PCI-e 4.0 storage isn’t leveraged to render massive, unbroken worlds. Instead, most biomes are broken apart with doors or barriers, as if to help an older game platform (like, cough, PS4) contain each battling zone in a safe amount of system RAM.

The game’s PS5 benefits are mostly found in nearly instant loading times when warping between distant rooms and dense particle and alpha effects, evidenced by flashy enemy laser-orb attacks and rainy, windy weather systems. Perhaps the game will add “locked 60 fps refresh” to its visual bullet-point list at some point, but until I see the day-one patch, I’m left contending with a few inconsistent, sub-60 fps stutters during some fights in larger biomes. The slowdown I’ve seen thus far hasn’t been bad or frequent enough to criticize the game over—everything runs fast and fluid enough, and I’m not sure whether PS4 would’ve run the same game anywhere near 60 fps—but Returnal doesn’t look next-gen enough to make me shrug off those stumbles, either. Since Returnal prioritizes the moments when attacks fly fast and Selene dashes madly, I’m ultimately in the thumbs-up column about how it looks and runs.

This zigs where Hades zags—and that’s fine

I must admit, I haven’t beaten Returnal yet. The game is freaking hard, for one, and even upon completing the campaign, I imagine Returnal will offer other ways to continue engaging over time. As one early example, a “daily challenge” run gives players a static perk loadout, then asks them to play through a specific “seed” of combat-filled rooms and compete for a spot on the day’s leaderboards. It’s a nice combat-forward option to help new players experiment with higher-powered loadouts and battle through smaller stakes, and I’m glad this unlocks quite early in the campaign.

But my 24 hours of play, in spite of being unceremoniously interrupted by crashes, have convinced me that this is a fine addition to the roguelite pantheon, even if it’s not quite up to the same caliber as Hades, last year’s Ars Game of the Year.

Hades‘s Greek-god trappings, humor-filled plot, and gorgeous art helped a lot, but its systems truly made it a tantalizing over-and-over roguelite. You could aspire to tailor your runs to certain play styles but still be left with compelling min-max decisions all along the way as other options and power paths shouldered in. These were combined with six fantastic weapon options—and each had its own variety of sub-styles, along with a solid rewards system encouraging players to try each as they moved into endgame mastery.

Hades‘ results tapped more successfully into the genre’s endorphin-producing potential than anything I’ve played before or since. Returnal is clever enough with its randomized min-max decision trees, thanks to systems like the aforementioned mutations and a mix of temporary and permanent currencies that drive a number of “Ugh, should I spend my cash?” decisions along the way. But on a systems level, it’s not surpassing what Hades got so right.

Returnal launch trailer

Instead, Returnal stands out thanks to how its brilliant 3D combat is bolstered by the unpredictability of its randomized worlds—and how Housemarque somehow managed to marry that content with a cinema-caliber story. Sadly, the studio left too much randomization off of Returnal‘s table, arguably in service of the plot. Additionally, the game often beats its players silly before they become “good enough” to see its most compelling plot twists—and how those twists affect Returnal‘s worlds and mechanics.

I really like Returnal, but if you check the Ars Slack logs, you’ll find that I complained quite a bit along the way. I needed a full 10 hours for its combat and universe to click in a crucial, “I want to beat this game” way, and I’m still left wondering how many good ideas and systems were left out of this game just to get its sky-high aspirations out the door. Maybe some of my positive bias comes from dreams of a sequel, which might build upon Housemarque’s first stab at the genre. But I won’t blame anyone for having less patience with Returnal‘s uneven ambition (or its $70 price point, which, from what I’ve seen, does not favorably compare to last year’s $60 Last of Us Part 2 or Ghost of Tsushima, also published by Sony).

But this is the stuff that keeps Sony fanboys drooling: ambitious new IP that succeeds more than it fails while turning the familiar into something fresh. Returnal clearly heralds a new era for Housemarque, in terms of turning the focused arcade-blasting likes of Super Stardust HD into quest-worthy 3D action. Keep it coming, Sony and Housemarque.

The Good:

  • Housemarque’s arcade-action pedigree scales tremendously to 3D combat against waves of enemies and their lasers, in ways that feel dramatically different than other modern third-person shooters.
  • Enemy variety lays it on thick in terms of tricky attack patterns and AI—and these organically and fairly ramp up, no matter how difficult the results may be.
  • Die-and-retry system, as bolstered by a dense soup of temporary and permanent buffs, ultimately serves the game’s battling mechanics and tension, even if it’s not your cup of tea.
  • 3D positional audio and a sensible “adrenaline” meter keep players keenly aware of nearby threats—which they can whimsically dodge and dance around thanks to the lack of limiting “stamina” meters.
  • Masterful weave of compelling time-loop plot into an otherwise randomly generated game.
  • Daily challenge system adds powerful, quick-burst play as a palate-cleansing alternative to this game kicking your butt.
  • I don’t want to spoil them, but the boss fights are redonkulously good. This is the first time I’ve ever typed “redonkulous” at Ars Technica.

The Bad:

  • “Roguelite” suggests a lot more variation in repeating environments than what Housemarque has built.
  • In terms of endgame replayability, other roguelites do it better.
  • If you like a gentle ramping-up of difficulty, Returnal is not for you.
  • The story and atmosphere are pretty desolate. It’s a proper match for the Alien and Dead Space mold, but be ready for zero sense of humor.

The Ugly:

  • Too many crashes, ahead of the game’s day-one patch. We don’t know if those will be fixed.
  • A lack of a crystallized save-game option. Housemarque may need to be petitioned to change that.

Verdict: “Buy” is tough to flatly state at a $70 price point, but Returnal certainly isn’t the worst purchase a content-starved PS5 owner could make right now.

Listing image by Sony Interactive Entertainment / Housemarque