Returnal Review – Haunting Harmony
April 30, 2021
Returnal is a powerful roguelike recipe offering intense combat, a drip-fed narrative of palpable dread, and a cohesive combination of artistic elements. Housemarque’s third-person shooter delivers lightning-fast action transfused with incredible exploration, featuring equal doses of intensity and lingering unease. Every run is the start of something new, but what you learn over many failures provides an extra edge as you attempt to chart the sci-fi horror world of Atropos. Returnal deftly combines gameplay, graphics, and musical composition to create a haunting tapestry that’s an absolute joy to partake in, even when a mistimed dodge or a sinister trap claims your life.
Returnal is a challenging game that puts relatively high demands on the player. There are no difficulty dials to tweak, so the experience can feel overbearing at times, especially in one of the later stages. While this adds to the overarching horror elements that exude from Returnal’s core and enhances the sweaty grip-for-your-life moment of slaying a massive boss, it’s important to note that it’s possible to lose hours of potential progress in mere seconds should things go awry. Death is inevitable and can be devastating. Being willing to learn and ready to adapt your strategies and glean takeaways for future runs is essential. I felt that the challenges presented by Returnal enhanced the nature of the unknown alien planet and that these elements contributed positively to the overall game. Still, some players may find these asks to be outside of their enjoyment range.
As Selene, who gets stranded on an alien planet, your journey on Atropos brings questions and exciting revelations. The story is communicated slice-by-slice over time as you work through different biomes, with each narrative piece adding one element to a larger puzzle that’s a pleasure to work out. While anything but a blissful fairy tale, the narrative functions more like a soothing balm to the endless cycle of doomed runs and discomforting discoveries. When things were at their worst after a few failed runs, at least I was learning more about the mysteries that tie the world together. Try not to get spoiled by the story before playing the game, as it’s a pleasure to put together clue-by-clue.
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The exploration through the biomes is procedurally generated in some respects, but you learn to recognize rooms and what’s inside each one over time. This knowledge is power. Exploring carefully and mastering each space can lead to discovering hidden powerups tucked away in hard-to-find places, whether they are behind false walls or just out of sight on a precipice above. In addition to the temporary build that you craft each run, there are other permanent unlocks for your character to uncover. As you make progress, areas that you couldn’t previously access become available via tools like a grappling hook, hazard-protection boots, the ability to travel underwater, and more. Every time you find one of these new tools feels incredible as you can finally access areas that have taunted you with treasures for many, many runs. With each traversal find, you breathe a sigh of relief as a checkpoint is locked in.
Applying learned knowledge to situations and scenarios carries over to combat, which is incredibly fast and rooted in the “bullet-hell” genre. Players must avoid various objects on the screen, each with its own pattern and directional movement. Learning each pattern on standard enemies is a constant battle as you progress, as new and deadlier abilities and patterns regularly appear. Boss battles take this to the next level, and you will find yourself relying on muscle memory and perhaps uttering a quick prayer while attempting to dodge growing rings, moving barriers, and hundreds of projectiles at varying speeds simultaneously. Throughout the game, you may be surprised at just what you can accomplish in this regard. Several times I said to myself, “No way,” as the game pushed another blitz of swirling projectiles onto my screen, but with well-timed dodges and jumps, I shocked even myself. Patterns that seemed challenging at first became laughable as I mastered the game’s many systems, and it feels great to complete encounters with finesse.
Avoiding things is half of the battle. The other half is shooting back. In Returnal, you unlock a variety of different weapons with various modes of fire and traits to unlock over time, which is sort of a permanent progression mechanic that improves your damage output from run to run. I became a huge fan of the rocket and grenade launcher archetypes and their various tweaks, which allowed me to pay more attention to getting out of the way while issuing my payloads. However, you never really know which weapon will be your best option during a run, so you have to become comfortable using a lot of them regardless. This keeps things fresh and had me stuck with one of my least favorite weapons during a particularly tough boss fight, but it’s all part of the freshness that comes with each run. You never know what you’re going to get, and you have to use everything together to survive. In true roguelike fashion, you may have runs with excellent weapons where you make a ton of progress across multiple biomes, and in others, you may perish a room or two into your adventure.
Risk and reward are intricately tied together in Returnal, as there are numerous upgrades you can find that come with the risk of a malfunction that debuffs your character when you collect them. This means you might be able to increase your health pool or collect some bonus resources, but you might get a serious penalty as a price, like losing 85 percent of your damage while stationary. You can ditch these penalties by completing different goals, so careful planning for when to take on the risk of malfunctions is essential, as they can completely change the way you play. A late-game biome plays with the concept of issuing malfunctions for getting hit by some enemies, which, as you can imagine, is a massive incentive to up your dodge game. Learning how to manage malfunctions is a long process of weighing when and if to pick up specific bonuses, and it can make a huge difference on a run. Again, the theme of learning over time comes into play here, and I enjoyed tinkering with my risk profile on each run. Some runs, say when you are off to a bad start, the philosophy just becomes “well, I’m going to die anyway, why not roll the dice?” And sometimes, those dice roll in your favor.
Returnal is a delightful immersion for the senses, even if the aspect it’s trying to convey is horrifying, lingering dread. It nails it in this regard, and is drenched with both in-your-face monstrosities and lurking terror. Enemy designs are hideous amalgamations of tentacles and teeth, which feel right at home in this bizarre alien hellscape. One of the late-game biomes is incredibly distressing to explore and may even significantly deter some players with thalassophobia.
The soundtrack, primarily composed by Bobby Krlic (Midsommar), provides a haunting backdrop that contributes immensely to Returnal’s constant and rising sense of trepidation. The unnerving melodies gnaw at the back of your mind long after you set the controller down. One stage in particular hinges on music, and the feeling that you get while climbing up to the boss as it gets louder and louder exudes cacophonic anxiety. Feedback from the DualSense controller is a nice touch to the overall ensemble, providing nuance from the tiniest droplet of rain to the impact of a titanic monster crashing into you at high speed.
Returnal is a relentless nightmare that’s a dream to play. The journey is full of horror and terrible discoveries, but also unbridled curiosity and wonder. If you have the taste for it, this is an adventure that begs to be experienced.
Summary: A deadly alien planet is a playground for your senses and curiosity.
Concept: Battle your way through a mysterious alien world in a third-person shooter roguelike featuring intense bullet-hell action and atmospheric dread
Graphics: Returnal’s presentation is a massive treat, and while you can’t always focus on the luscious visuals and lighting because you’re dodging your demise, they are striking and powerful
Sound: The amazing soundtrack by Bobby Krlic adds gloomy, dire tones to punctuate a potent palate of gunblasts and ruin crumbles that accompany the dark exploration
Playability: Picking up a weapon and firing at your first batch of aliens is easy. However, experiencing Returnal should be accompanied by some tolerance for failure, frustration, and willingness to learn precise timing, as each journey can end abruptly and devastatin
Entertainment: Returnal brilliantly meshes roguelike mechanics with precise combat and enigmatic exploration, making for an excellent game