So, I am writing this as impressions rather than a review, as I am not sure when I will get to the “end” of returnal. I am sure however one day I will, which is why I want to leave my impressions. This is a special game. I say this as someone who hates roguelites, yet I love returnal.
I may not have experienced the entirety of the story, however what I can say is the way the story is conveyed, the way you peel away the layers to try and understand what is going on is masterfully done in my opinion. The first person segments are fantastic and do actually have a sense of dread and horror about them. There are the audio logs you find throughout the world too, however there are also ciphers to help you translate the alien language found in the biomes.
The way you and to some extent the game pieces this all together Is truly engaging, I actively want to learn more about what is going on, this is something I did not expect but I am so happy Housemarque have nailed this. It makes the game feel very unique, It is disjointed, yet focused.
This is where the game really shines more so than any other roguelike in my opinion, for reasons I will go into. I do however want to point out the two things I can argue as a weakspots, but it really depends on viewpoint. The first is saving, there is a point you can spend another resource called ether on that if you die in that biome you will spawn there with the loadout you had when purchasing the respawn, however if you do not there is a problem… Runs can be significantly long in this game other an hour, there is no way to save a run apart from rest mode.
This would be just about be acceptable, however a lot of users have issues with rest mode corrupting data, not only that if an update for Returnal comes out and installed you also lose your progress. The second issue is the following, I came into this expected procedurally generated biomes, and technically they are however, there are pre-made layouts and it seems to just rotate between them.
I personally enjoy this, as they are handcrafted which makes them much more high quality than your average procedurally generated game where it just randomly assigns props and so on with no real artistic vision or integrity. For some this limited variety in layouts may be disappointing, for me however this is a strong point.
As for the moment-to-moment gameplay there are multiple mechanics that combined make this my favourite roguelike by miles. You start off with a standard pistol and a random alt fire, you also have a dash that has a cool down, and later in the game you unlock a melee attack. Your health bar (integrity) can be extended by 2 methods. One is collecting resin the other is having a full hp bar and picking up the general hp restorative, you have 3 bars to fill. Resin depending on the type, fill 1 -2 so far, if you have a full HP bar however and pick up a restorative item, it also fills one bar.
This alone adds to a risk reward system that you genuinely must think about, do you want to leave them and heal after a fight, or do you want to increase your max integrity for later biomes? Just learning how to use these basic things effectively is a learning curve, you really must time your dashes, your jumps and really learn how to bob and weave, it feels like a bullet ballet. As you progress however you get a chance to unlock more weapons, perks/traits for those weapons and alt fires.
All the weapons are very varied and the individual traits and perks they come with can make the same weapon feel like a different weapon entirely. There is also a proficiency bar for health and weapons, the more you kill and so on you level up your weapon proficiency, the higher it is, the better the weapon.
You will find yourself dropping and changing weapons regularly potentially not because of their better rank, but because of their traits/perks and the different weapon type, there may be sections where you want to rock the assault rifle like weapon, and others the rocket launcher. The variety and perks I’ve such a variety you really will be planning optimal routes and weapons and juggling them constantly to deal with the onslaught coming your way.
As if this was not enough, there are parasites and malfunctions, acting as another risk/reward system. Some of these parasites are super helpful such as reducing alt fire cooldown, others may not be worth the trade off such as the currency enemies drop (obolites) lasting longer but massively increasing your dash and melee cooldown. Talking of obolites these can be used throughout the game to fabricate items, or even buy artefacts.
Items can be as simple as regenerating health or providing a shield, there are however some fantastic ones such as giving you an extra life or making attacks heal you for 30 seconds. Artifacts can do a variety of things such as increasing your max integrity. I could go on and on but there are so many little mechanics and things you should experience first-hand.
The enemies all feel quite unique and require their own technique to take down, no enemy is the same and planning on how to take them on, use the invulnerability frames on your dash to perfectly time a dodge and so on are a learning curve. This is one of the many reasons returnal excels. The enemy designs are fantastic.
There are multiple side pathways and even treasure rooms where you must fight an onslaught of enemies for multiple waves, adding another risk reward system, do you want to rush to a boss or do you want to risk your current loadout to potentially increase it, but maybe reducing the amount of integrity you have left for the boss right.
Talking of boss fights, they are absolute amazing, tonally fantastic and design wise amazing. They are trademark Housemarque, these boss fights may not be revolutionary but the character designs, the music and so on make them truly memorable and have an unmistakeable identity. That’s not all however, when beating some of the bosses you get a new piece of equipment, which adds to exploring previous and the new biome you unlock.
Making a Biome you thought you were already familiar with feel relatively fresh again. After you defeat a boss you can choose to skip them entirely in future runs, however you may well not want to do that. After beating a boss you unlock 2 machines, one allows you to unlock new items from datacubes you find, the other removes parasites. Do you find a datacube and then skip the first boss, potentially losing it as you try to beat the new boss, or do you try to beat the boss you have beaten previously to unlock tat new item?
This is just one of the many things in the game that are so superbly well designed and help make each run feel unique and fun. Most roguelites would already have been boring by now, but because of all these systems I can not stop putting Returnal down. All these mechanics superbly combine into the best roguelite period.
I was not expecting to be wowed by the sounds but WOW! Now the weapons their selves sound fine, however it is the environmental sound and haunting music that really make returnal feel unique. I cannot quite describe it, but it matches perfectly with what you are seeing on the screen, it sets an incredibly unique tone and is oddly alluring. It almost feels like it is wrapping me in tentacles and suffocating me, but in a good way, as unappealing as that sounds. It just gels together amazingly well and is a mastercraft. It is something I cannot describe but highly encourage everyone to listen to.
Now this is a mixed bag, numbers wise it is a MESS, art wise however it is fantastic.
As soon as I booted up Returnal I instantly knew it was not 4K native. I knew it was checkerboarded, which many people praise but it always sticks out to me no matter the game. I did also however notice it seemed to be a render resolution around 1440p, maybe as low as 1080. It turns out that the game is indeed a native 1080p, then temporally upscaled to 1440, then checker-boarded to 4k. I think this was a bad decision and they should have just stuck with the 1440 upscale. However, when I look at games like miles morales on the performance modes, the image quality is much higher than Returnal.
There are also performance issues that show clearly, the game is not a solid 60, it may not drop all the time, but it does drop frequently. Personally, I associate all these issues down to UE4. There are a lot of stock effects in the game and it being UE4 aka not bespoke, Housemarque as a small dev done the best they could. If they had the time to make a bespoke engine for the game, it would easily look like this and be native or near native 4k/60. When going to other biomes there is also loading stutter and sometimes gates will not open immediately. This will be down to the version of UE4 and its IO pipeline not taking full advantage of the PS5. Despite the marketing this is not a PS5 showcase, and it does not fully utilize the PS5.
On the positive side, the art style is fantastic, the scaling of probs and objects is spot on, and the colour usage is fantastic. Each biome feels haunting and unique. The forests are great, the deserts are oddly unnerving and a visual masterpiece, I do not want to spoil the other biomes, but truly the art team knocked it out of the park. Just like the sound absorbs you so do the environments; I want to explore more. I feel like I am in an alien world, and the use of fog and other effects really add to the scene. Given that all the areas are handcrafted even when randomized, artistic integrity is not sacrificed, unlike other roguelites.
Now this is something that personally underwhelms me, a lot of other shave been positive but for me this is not the case. The use of adaptive triggers is generally great however the rain does not feel like rain to me, the constant rumbling when teleporting feels off and disconnecting. The weapons do however get a lot of life from the haptics and do feel unique, I just feel there’s so much heavy usage that it gets more tiring than immersing.
Now the 70$ debate has been very explosive. I personally came into the game expecting it not to be worth the price tag but thirsty for a new PS5 exclusive, I did however buy PSN credit getting the game for £55 instead of £70 (I am in the UK). I can however say given the quality of this roguelike and the scale of it; I genuinely believe it is worth that full price tag. I write this coming off of RE8 on PC which I got for £36, even If I paid the full £70 for returnal I would still be happy, meanwhile I am regretting that RE8 purchase price BADLY.
Ultimately price is subjective but returnal is unrivalled, Ratchet and Clank is beyond the quality of almost every game ever made production value wise, standing up there with games like RDR2 (arguably more). Multi-platform titles are another debate entirely in my opinion, but when it comes to Sony exclusives released so far, they have all been worth their price tag due to being unmatched. ESPECIALLY RETURNAL.
Returnal is a very odd beast in a particularly good way. There is nothing quite like it, it takes a lot of different element from other games but combines them into something unique. Partnered with its handcrafted biomes and layers upon layers of mechanics and unique enemies make each encounter incredibly fun. It takes a long time to feel fatigued, I generally just want to do run after run, and even when you don’t make any progress the enemy variety and mechanics make the game so fun I don’t really care.
Something I cannot say about other roguelikes I have played, even games like hades (which is still a fantastic game in its own right). It is intoxicating, exhilarating, haunting and absorbing, I am in love with it, and I cannot wait to see what Housemarque’s next foray into AAA produces. I AM HOOKED