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Returnal review

An atmospheric, bullet-hell romp but I wish I understood the story it’s trying to tell.

Returnal is an interesting game to say the least, it’s a procedurally generated roguelike that does a great job at building atmosphere and emphasises on the isolation of a desolate remote planet, but the nature of the genre leads to a scattered narrative that never really reaches a satisfying climax.

Set on the planet of Atropos, Selene must work through her own dark past and confusion to discover the secrets of a planet that refuses to let her die as she hunts down mysterious signals and uncovers audio logs from her previous failed attempts. It’s a plot that contextualises the roguelike mechanic while giving it some much needed narrative – probably the deepest narrative from a roguelike to date.

Selene stands before a grand structure

What makes Selene so interesting as a protagonist is that she’s discovering the planet as we do - unearthing her own nightmares as the world becomes more and more turbulent. As she tries to understand how and why there’s a conceivable connection between the two through audio journals and monologues you constantly have to question her mental state (And she does too). The lack of human contact lends itself to her likability as a human character who’s simply terrified by the tormenting situation she finds herself in… real or not. Through it all, we’re right there with her.

You’re left with so many more questions than answers

The problem I found however is that because of the games randomly generated nature, the story had a habit of making you piece together an already scattered narrative from the audio logs, P.T. style house scenes and translated glyph markings left by the previous inhabitants of the planet… And while I can’t say I understood a lot of what the game was presenting, I was fascinated all the same and I couldn’t put it down. Returnal is massively addictive with each run leading to a “one more” mindset in the hopes that next time you’ll learn a little bit more about the terrifyingly lonely planet and Selene’s nebulous timeframe on it.

Enemies look like something from a horror film

With that in mind, Returnal doesn’t really respect your time with runs taking just under 2 hours to complete… if you don’t die first that is. Thankfully through post-release updates you can now suspend your runs and safely turn off the system – preserving your progress and hard-earned upgrades for a later time.

Uneasiness fills you with every empty room

Atropos itself is a masterclass in visual storytelling, each level focuses on a distinct biome: Forest, Desert, Arctic and Sea with the exception of the dilapidated Citadel – all relentlessly isolating and increasingly disconcerting. Returnal does an incredible job of creating its horror-like atmosphere through a masterful use of otherworldly sounds and aesthetically alien design without really doing much that’s necessarily considered “Horror” in intention. It’s more about the players interpretation of the hostile planet and anticipation of figuring out more of the story behind this bullet-hell romp.

Portals lead to new biomes to explore

Adding to this is the PS5 controllers’ haptic feedback which I can safely say is the best use of this generation’s unique hardware feature to date. Certain skills and contextual actions like attaching upgrades to your suit and using the grappling hook all play through the built-in speaker with its own distinct vibration and while it sounds annoying, the distorted, travelling vibration along your hands adds to the unsettling alien atmosphere that the game presents.

Long reloads are the worst

During each run you’ll also find an abundance of collectibles varying from health pickups that either boost max “Integrity” or repair a portion of your health, parasites that boost your stats in exchange for a penalty elsewhere like sustaining damage for using keys or falling great heights, and the games currency known as Obolites to forge single use items and new artefacts that add temporary upgrades for the duration of the run.

There is also Ether that can be used to purify “Malignant” items. Malignant items run the risk of incurring “Malfunctions” when collected and have to be resolved through completion of a randomly generated objective that vary from very simple kill quota’s or perhaps something worse if your parasite penalties are adding something more difficult to the mix.

A rare moment of respite before the next wave of bullets

I’ll refrain from marking down the game like most others I’ve seen due to upscaled 4k resolution because it does run (for the most part) at 60fps and really that’s what you’re going to want the most when the bullets fly – there’s simply never enough time to take in the environment and notice too much amiss in terms of detailing and shape unless you’re actively scrutinising. (Or using the photo mode.)

The spectrum of colours that assault your vision is bewildering to say the least

Enemies range from floating jelly like pests to incredibly fearsome brutes all using a slew of chromatic shapes and colours to bedazzle the player amidst the bullet ballet. Even when the models are recycled in the later stages, they start behaving a little differently just to keep you on your toes. The generous aim assist makes it clear that the focus should be on evasion over doing damage with the exception of later boss’ absolutely melting under the power of the later weapons once you permanently unlock their higher tier traits. (And if you’re lucky enough to find one in the run.)

No damage runs are almost impossible with all this going on

With only 10 weapons to find including their alternate fire you’d think there’s a limitation to the arsenal at your disposal, not so. Once unlocked at higher proficiency levels through collectibles and killing enemies, each weapon can come with up to four random traits that drastically changes how the weapon behaves from adding a sniper shot to the Spitmaw Blasters already decimating spread and the more obscure weapons like the Hollowseeker that along with the assault rifle primary fire can also add wave blasts and independent portal beams to supplement the need for evasion over damage.

The bullet patterning is very pleasing to the eye

The players combat prowess is rewarded through the adrenaline mode mechanic. This mechanic works in a kill-streak fashion and teaches players to use the dash invulnerability to escape the more chaotic bullet waves and physical strikes. Adrenaline grants up to five stacking buffs per level from wider “perfect reload” segments, enhanced proficiency gain, melee cooldown reduction, wider radius scans and enhanced collection radius for Obolites. Taking a single hit however resets the meter and you have to start from scratch. Returnal is difficult that goes without saying but, it rewards methodical and conscious play in a way that I’ve yet to feel in other games of its kind.

The HUD manages to convey a lot of information without looking too messy

From a completionists perspective roguelikes are a nightmare and Returnal is no different. With trophies locked behind random chance and an incessant amount of frustrating retries; your time can easily take you upwards of 100hours from the 40hour base completion time despite only needing a handful of collectibles for that secret ending that still leaves the overall narrative to the players own imagination. The reality is… I still had a lot of fun with it, I just wish I understood the story it was trying to tell.