Returnal Is More Than the Sum of Its Many, Many Familiar Parts

It doesn't take long for the roguelike to ramp up. When it does, it's something pretty special.

Returnal invites comparisons to just about every big game of the past decade. Playing the first two zones has brought back shades of Hades, Control, P.T., Metroid Prime, Gears of War, and even developer Housemarque’s own shoot-em-up series like Super Stardust HD. You might think that works against the game. And for about an hour or so, for me at least, it did. But continue scratching past the surface of this sci-fi roguelike and you’ll discover something special and entirely its own.

The game begins in media res — a pleasant surprise after I worried Returnal would drag out its time loop conceit that we’re seeing in so many games these days. Protagonist Selene, an experienced astronaut, crash lands on a forbidden planet. Again. Apparently she’s done this many times before. Though she doesn’t immediately remember it. There are more pressing concerns than the bizarre mystery anyway: giant, hungry squid-dogs that strike with slow-moving orbs straight out of a bullet hell game. You can juke them or invincibly dash through them (à la Hades). But ultimately you need to stem the tide at the end of a gun. This is a third-person shooter at its heart. Though it’s much, much faster than something like Gears of War, from which Returnal borrows the “active reload” mechanic to make your shots flow that much faster.

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Selene absolutely books it through her randomly generated environments. Along the way, she finds dozens of upgrades, new weapons, and clues about why “she” has been here before. If she dies, however, nearly all that progress is lost. You restart from the crash site. What carries over from run to run are mostly traversal tools — a grappling hook, a sword that cuts through special barriers, etc. Your long-term progress depends on the ability to explore. The more areas you can unlock, the more resources you’ll earn early on in subsequent runs. That’s where the Hades comparisons end and the Metroid ones begin.

As for Control, the same Senior Narrative Designer worked on both games. And you can see shades of the former pop up here. Every new item you scan gets a lore entry. Every lore entry has “corrupted” words and phrases quite similar to the redacted text in Control. The narrative trick is a little direct. Though it works well with the strange mishmash of sci-fi setting and mundane items that keep popping up. A 20th century house, for instance, keeps appearing during Selene’s runs. You explore it in first-person (hence the touch of P.T.). And out-of-place children’s toys provide incredibly useful power-ups.

Despite all the similarities, Returnal congeals into something pretty unique. Chock a lot of that up to Housemarque. The game so clearly builds upon the studio’s shoot-em-up history — just with a more broadly marketable third-person aesthetic. The speedy dance between projectiles feels every bit like those “arcade-y” games. There’s other DNA, too, such as bonus abilities for killing consecutive enemies without taking a hit. It might not say “high score combo,” but that’s what it is, just focused through the lens of an action game. The combination works wonderfully in practice, too.

returnal story

The end result looks and feels like a AAA action game. Yet it retains the “just one more run” appeal of Geometry Wars. The PlayStation 5 likely helps matters. Its signature load speeds make restarting runs almost instant. It also helps power just an absurd number of particle effects onscreen (another Housemarque hallmark) for a bright, colorful contrast to the dilapidated world.

I haven’t made it that deep into the game yet. I keep dying too much for that… But surmounting the first two bosses has revealed other gameplay quirks that make my brain go brrrrr. Specifically, it’s an action game about risk assessment and management. Sorry to summon another comparison, but it reminds me of the modern DOOM games — where taking weak enemies off the board quickly gives you breathing room to tackle the real threats. Sometimes that means chopping up a squid-dog with a single melee strike to buy the time to shoot a flying sphere out of the sky. Sometimes it’s staggering a big, bad robot long enough to line up chunky hits.

It’s the sort of tactical, reactive gameplay that demands you keep your brain on, even as instincts take over and tell you to keep playing. The refreshing take on the time loop mystery keeps stringing me along, as well. I’m honestly amazed that a game with such a cheesy put so much work into setting and character. Since I got over my initial round of just comparing it to every other game under the sun, Returnal has become the game I just keep on playing. And that’s a damn fine thing to have on new a new console with sparse exclusives at the moment.