Returnal is an odd game to try and review. Most games you can say, “Oh, if you like platformers, than something with Super Mario in the title is a good choice”, or “If you want a First Person Shooter, Call of Duty is your go-to.” However, the same could not be said of Returnal, it is almost too hyper-specific in its focus, so a typical player might get frustrated by some of its mechanics.
The Returnal: The Bullet Hell of Roguelikes
How it’s like Remnant
I loved Remnant when it came out but controlling your character was clunky, to say the least. It still adhered to the dumb conceit of “a Dark Souls game must control like mud” so that’s how your character felt as well. In a melee game that might be semi-acceptable, but in a game where you mainly fought in ranged combat, it was extremely weird. Thankfully, Returnal doesn’t feel this way.
But both games are mainly third-person action shooters with roguelike elements. No two runs are the same, enemies aren’t in the same places, even levels aren’t the same, etc. Although, Remnant plays this up more with an AI director system that Returnal doesn’t have.
How it’s like Nier: Automata
Now, Nier Automata was, primarily, a melee-based action game with shooter elements. The similarities with Nier Automata and Returnal are how you dodge and the bullet-hell mechanics. Some of the bosses in Nier Automata, particularly the opera boss and the carnival tank boss were fairly tough due to the sheer amount of bullets they could spray at you. It’s the same way in Returnal only magnified by five, especially the deeper you go. Thankfully, you have a dodge move that makes you invulnerable while you use it, which is very important.
How it’s like a Roguelike
As said above with the Remnant part, Returnal has roguelike elements. Well, I should be clearer, it is a roguelike. It has gameplay systems from games like Hades, Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, Risk of Rain, Rogue Legacy, Dead Cells.
Basically, every time you start the game, you are starting from scratch, at least when it comes to the big things. You start off with the same health, pea-shooter weapon, no artifacts or money. You then have to play the level to unlock gear, defeating enemies and bosses along the way, but if you die, you start back at the same spot as before with (almost) nothing gained, aside from maybe unlocking the abilities for items/weapons to show up in future runs. But, on the new run, almost everything is changed, weapon drops are different, enemy types and locations, gear, etc.
Returnal’s actual story is pretty interesting. You play as Selene, who is scouting planets. She finds a signal on a planet in an illegal zone but decides to check it out. She promptly gets shot out of the sky, crash lands, and then finds the zone littered with corpses of herself. Every time she dies on the planet, she wakes up crashing again, thus setting up the Edge of Tomorrow-esque time-loop. I will say that the ending left a lot to be desired, at least in my own non-spoiler view.
P.T. Part 2
There are also the “House” sequences in the game. These are the first-person sequences you might’ve seen in trailers. They only activate once you’ve beaten a level boss and are meant to give you some hazy backstory about Selene and what’s going on. However, they are boring and nothing actually happens in them. I think they were trying to go for a P.T. type vibe but there isn’t anything scary going on. So it just devolves into a “walk around the open areas, and look for stuff I can interact with, until I get back to the main game” series of sequences.
The actual controls of Returnal are fairly easy but they get complicated once you unlock more things. Your basic controls have R2 to fire your gun, L2 to aim it, L1 to use a consumable item, X to jump, Triangle to interact, and Circle to dash.
You may notice a few buttons missing from this, like the Square button. Well, you do use it, you use it for your melee attack but you actually have to find the sword first to unlock it permanently. Likewise, every ranged weapon has an alternate fire mode, which you also unlock (very early on) in the game, which is also on L2.
You then may ask yourself “Hmm, how do you use L2 to both aim your gun and use the alt-fire mode?” That’s easy. Returnal actually uses the haptic feedbacks and the adaptive triggers of the PS5 controller very well. If you press the L2 button down, it stops at the halfway point for precision aiming. If you then press it down further, the alt-fire mode switches on, and you can use that. Also, the vibration in the controller is amazing, as well as the audio, which is important due to a bug I encountered later on.
The actual nuts and bolts gameplay of Returnal has you going through six different biomes (or environments), slaying aliens, picking up occasional audio logs, getting new weapons, facing bosses, and so on. You’ll shoot most of the enemies, and Returnal has an Active Reload system, called Overload where once your bullets are expended, a small bar appears and you have to press the R2 button in the center of the bar, for an instant reload and a few more powerful initial bullets. If you mess up the reload, your gun will be disabled for a few seconds. In case you are wondering, your alt-fire does work on a cooldown system as well.
Guns, Guns, Guns
There are around a dozen different weapons in Returnal, some are fairly intuitive and easy to use, and others, not so much. The Tachyomatic Carbine, for example, is your basic assault rifle type of weapon, and the Spitmaw Blaster is a typical shotgun.
Some of the more esoteric weapons are the Dreadbound which fires bolts at an enemy that comes back to you after a certain time, or the Coilspine Shredder that fires discs out, but is unwieldy to use.
For my money, my go-to weapons were the Electropylon Driver and the Hollowseeker. The Driver fires pylons at enemies that can ensnare them and do massive damage depending on how many pylons there are. The Hollowseeker is a minigun type of weapon that has a huge ammo supply and can also fire homing bullets.
Modifiers on Guns
While they aren’t available at the start, the deeper you get into the game, the more modifiers you’ll see on guns. Your basic pistol has no traits at the start, but you can find versions of it with Homing Missiles, piercing rounds, burst fire, or charging shots. This is all tied to weapon proficiency, something that you collect as you use the weapon more and more. Every gun has traits on it, which can really alter your approach to using them.
There are a handful of consumable items to pick up as well. You, initially, only start out with one inventory slot but you can permanently upgrade that by defeating bosses and collecting what they drop. Items include health potions, bullet forcefields, temporary turrets, and more. There are some ones that are fairly useless, like one that causes ground spikes, or cause you to emit shocks whenever you jump, but that’s just my view.
There is also an incentive system to make you not want to get hit by enemies. The more aliens you kill, the more your adrenaline builds up which gives you different rewards. The first level makes the Overload bar bigger, so you can get an easier active reload Second enhances your vision so you can see red outlines of enemies behind walls. Third lets you do your melee attack quicker. Fourth increases your weapon proficiency rate by 50%. The fifth, and last, level increases your Obolites (money) gain from killing enemies by 50%.
You have to kill three enemies to increase your adrenaline level but if you get hit once, you reset back to zero. There are ways to mitigate both these things, to lower the enemies needed for adrenaline levels or to let you take a single hit before resetting, but both are random drops and not permanent things.
Artifacts and Parasites
Two object types you’ll find in your runs are Artifact and Parasites. Artifacts are basically positive, passive upgrades for your character. It might make it so more Obolites drop from enemies, homing rounds will fire if you do a successful reload, increase in your melee attack, etc. Artifacts will always be positive items and can be found in levels, or bought in the level stores.
Parasites, on the other hand, provide good and bad bonuses equally. You might find a parasite that causes Obolites to stay around a bit longer on the ground but it decreases your health. A parasite might also increase the drop rate of consumable items but halve your melee damage. You can get rid of parasites with items or certain health stations in-game, but you really have to weigh the good and bad of each one.
M And M’s – Malignancy and Malfunctions
Most of the above stuff is all positive things that can happen to you, but what about the negative? For that, we have Malignant items and Malfunctions.
You will occasionally find corrupted items as you play, typically health-related or Obolite-related. These are Malignant items and when you pick them up, there is a chance they will either deal damage to you or cause a suit malfunction. You can cleanse most items with a special currency, but it’s not in great supply. Also, you don’t get a malfunction all the time, there is a bit of a hidden dice roll going on, but the more valuable a chest or item, the more it will likely cause a malfunction.
Malfunctions are conditional negative breakdowns of your suit. It’ll be stuff like “Cannot pick up new weapons”, or “Take damage when picking up items”, or “Take damage on long falls.” These are conditions that can really screw up a run. There are items to instantly get rid of Malfunctions, but the main way to do them is to fulfill the conditions to remove them directly. They all have objectives to fix them, like “Collect 200 Obolites”, or “Melee-kill 3 enemies”, which can remove them. If you already have two malfunctions and you get a third one, a “critical malfunction” will trigger instead, and an artifact will be destroyed.
There is one currency that persists between runs and that is Ether. Ether is a currency you can use in a few ways. You can use it to purge Malignant items, you can use it to unlock/use artifacts at the start of a run, you can convert it to Obolites, and finally, you can use it to activate a respawn machine, on any given level, but it only works for that level.
Discussing the Difficulty
It is honestly really hard to quantify Returnal’s difficulty. Some of the levels, specifically levels 3 and 5 were incredibly challenging to me. There are regular enemies that can wreck you instantly, including a few level 6 enemies that fire Malfunction-causing bullets or that can take off a third of your health in one hit.
On the flip side, I found that most of the bosses are actually fairly easy. There are only 5 bosses but 6 levels, one level doesn’t have a boss just a HUGE gauntlet of tough enemies to fight, but I was really only challenged by the first two bosses. Hell, I beat the third and fourth boss on my first attempt, in the same run. The last boss is also a little tough but in the three times I faced it, I beat it twice. This is also all related to how lucky you are, in your weapon and general gear drops, but this was just my experience.
The last thing I’ll mention are a few bugs I hit. I did have the game crash on me once, and because there is no saving, it kind of stung.
The more notable bug I encountered was all the in-game audio basically stopped working. The controller audio still worked, so reload sounds and stuff were still audible, but the audio coming from my TV was gone. I basically had to close the game out and then reload it.
I really enjoyed Returnal but it’s not for everyone. It’s a great PS5 exclusive game but you have to like bullet-hells, roguelikes, or both to really get anything out of it. It’s still a fun action-shooter game but some people really won’t like the repeating nature of it at all.