There aren’t many video games that can successfully start their story in medias res, but that’s exactly what Returnal, the roguelike psychological horror game from Housemarque and Sony Interactive Entertainment, does.
At first, its opening moments seem a fairly standard setup: Astra scout Selene flies a spacecraft that is crashing onto the alien planet Antropos. Surviving the crash, Selene explores the area, logging her observations – though no one at Astra can hear her. Eventually, she stumbles upon a gory corpse, surprised another Astra scout has been there. Checking the scout’s ID, Selene makes the stunning realization the dead body is herself.
At this moment, players realize they have landed in the middle of a cycle; rather than starting a journey, they are continuing one and must piece together clues of what happened in the story before they logged in. Throughout the maze of chambers, players occasionally find scout logs from previous Selenes, giving some insight into her history.
This unique perspective makes the story inextricable from the gameplay, as discovering new artifacts, natural resources and creatures gives Selene more research and knowledge. This method of storytelling makes it difficult to turn off the game, keeping the player thoroughly immersed in progressing through the world.
The gameplay itself is a marriage of the third-person shooter and roguelike genres. Atropos is fraught with native beasts Selene must shoot before they kill her, and her exploration of the chambers will provide weapon and utility upgrades at random. This is the game’s major diversion from a traditional shooter game, and while the inability to choose a weapon loadout can be frustrating at times, learning to win with whatever tools given is what makes the game fun and keeps the gameplay interesting.
In true roguelike fashion, each time Selene dies, she respawns at her ship Helios, the starting point of the game. Any weapon upgrades or buffs are lost, unless it is a permanent upgrade, and Selene will start the journey again with her base Astra pistol. The Helios base is the game’s diversion from the roguelike genre, as spawning there does not provide the player an opportunity to further dive into the game beyond checking out a daily challenge.
Returnal has six total biomes, allowing for a varied experience and for the game to show off stunning visuals. Scenes in the forests, wasteland and beyond are detailed in a way only possible using next-generation console technology. The sound design is also so realistic it was difficult to distinguish if the sounds of thunder were happening in the game or in real life.
The game also makes use of the PlayStation 5’s Dual Sense controller, creating a thoroughly immersive experience. Players can feel everything happening in the environment around Selene, whether it’s charging a gun, harmful impact, pulsating xeno-technology or droplets of rain.
The controllers also elevate the gunplay in the game, effectively combining a gun’s primary and secondary mode into one trigger, eliminating the need to toggle between the two. Pulling the left trigger halfway will cause the gun to shoot regular bullets, while pushing it all the way down will activate the more powerful mode, usually a missile or burst of electricity. It takes a couple fights to adjust to the dual trigger use, but listening to the controllers vibrations makes it easy to learn.
Players should be aware the story of Selene and Atropos isn’t done when the credits roll; though the game may seem complete, there is more to uncover. This is a common trope in roguelike games.
A day one patch is currently planned for the game, and fixes include performance optimizations, gameplay balancing, visual polish, audio polish, localization polish, extra tutorials and multiple bug fixes.
Returnal is an excellent addition to any game library, particularly for fans of the roguelike genre. It launches April 30 exclusively on PS5 consoles.
This game was reviewed on a PS5
Photos courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment