Ever since Sony’s push for next-gen consoles, Housemarque seems to be spearheading the potential of each console; with PS3 they launched Super Stardust HD and Resogun on PS4 – each game with endearing technology behind their excellent arcade gameplay. Since then, Housemarque launched Dead Nation, Alienation and Nex Machina – all of which are beyond exceptional and if you haven’t had the chance to play them, you should. The reason I mention all of this is because Returnal is their first true attempt in making a AAA title, and is one that I find not only to be their best project yet, but also one of the best titles on PS5 right now.
Selene’s Unending Life
Returnal is a third-person bullet hell shooter designed around the Rougelike-RPG sub genre. You play with Selene Vassos who is a Scout for an interstellar station called ASTRA. She crash lands into a planet called Atropos that triggers a cycle where if she dies, she is repeated back to the crash site with the curse of remembering what happened. With each death the environment shifts and throughout your journey you soon find that there’s corpses of yourself littered around from future versions. Returnal’s story is surprisingly deep with some story moments that made me appreciate the effort put into this game; I don’t want to spoil much of what happens in the game, just know there’s some P.T. inspired events that pushes the story into directions of wonder. By the time I got to the secret ending of Act 3 though, I found that I’m left with more questions than answers and maybe that’s a good thing. It wasn’t particularly a good ending, but it was one I was comfortable with and hope that Housemarque expands on in future DLCs.
Even though the focus on Returnal is its addicting gameplay loop, the story is deep enough that it makes it hard to not account to the overall quality of the game. It’s certainly not its weakest point, but the effort put into finding the secret ending lead to minor disappointment and jolted me back to the thought of, not everything has to be perfect to be phenomenal.
Returnal is Gorgeous
Housemarque pushed technology in ways that not only makes sense for the game, but also intensify the experience in exciting ways. GPU-accelerated particles are all over the place from weapon effects, environmental debris and even when you teleport from one zone to the next; I couldn’t tell you how intrigued and disgusted I was the first time seeing Selene disintegrate in real-time particles in one area, and reanimate in the next – It’s so cool! The game runs at native 4K resolution while managing to cap at 60fps with incredibly rare half second dips during intense battles. It’s truly a technical feat for a $500 machine. Housemarque is utilizing Unreal Engine 4’s lighting very well too, and it’s a wonder how they managed to set the mood in each of the 6 biomes while also managing to program the random shifts to its environment. Honestly, it’s hard to wrap my head around it and I love it.
The Gameplay Loop of the Ages
But I digress, just like the story, Returnal’s gameplay is incredibly deep and surprisingly balanced given the bullet-hell nature of this game; it’s an RPG, but in the Rougelike subgenre. Throughout your journey, you will acquire materials to further increase your abilities with Artifacts that gives you added bonus or consumables to help you stay alive longer. Since you can’t heal over time, you have to constantly avoid getting hit and make sure you strategically save your healing items that are scattered around the arena in order to stay alive. There’s also healing items that expands on your overall integrity (health). As you explore, you can find secret paths and chest that contains weapons and mods to increase your potency. Additionally, you’ll encounter another set of items called Parasites that gives you positive and negative affects; they’re integral to your survivability and truthfully, I encourage all players to experiment with them as much as possible. With each death however, you’ll lose the progress you’ve made for Selene – with the exception of the Ether resource and your permanent upgrades.
The beauty of this gameplay loop is that the environment shifts making each run incredibly fresh – and once you’ve earned your permanent upgrades, new area’s becomes accessible, furthering your on-the-fly master of destruction. The shooting is so refined with just the right amount of aim assist to help you cap your Adrenaline buff and get enough kills to increase your overall weapon’s proficiency; what does it all mean? Well, the Adrenaline mechanic works as a way to reward skilled players with even more fire power, as long as they don’t get hit. It’s an overcharge mechanic that caps at x5. Weapon Proficiency is a method where the more kills you get, the more experience goes to your overall weapon power to get stronger weapons on your journey. Act 1 caps at level 15 and Act 2 caps at level 30.
It goes without saying that Housemarque has also utilized the PS5’s haptic feedback feature on the controller, and it seems that no matter how often I play games with this feature, I always get surprised by how effective it feels. Returnal’s triggers are unique in a way that there’s 2 firing modes on L2 where if you want to ADS, you slightly pulldown the trigger, and if you want to use the alternate firing mode of your weapon, pull the trigger down all the way. The resistance of the trigger is noticeable and feels very natural just 30mins into the game. Additionally, the famous Gear’s of War active reload feature plays a huge role into your playstyle where if you reload at the right time, you’ll overdrive your weapons making it potent and nice.
The biggest concern I had going into Returnal was their enemy A.I. – I was afraid it would be too punishing and unfair going through the campaign. Truth be told, Housemarque seem to have gotten their behaviors down to a science of near perfection. I love challenging games, but nothing grinds my gears more than unfair tracking from enemies; Returnal’s A.I. is so incredibly fluid and intuitive, it felt as if they could exist. Staggering mechanics plays really well to give you just enough breathing room to reacclimate your surroundings. Unlike other game’s A.I. (I’m looking at you Outriders) enemies doesn’t feel robotic in the least and that is an area most developers seem to disregard. The only other games I can think of from the top of my head that has tremendous A.I. is Doom, Destiny, Halo and The Last of Us.
Throughout my 30hrs of Returnal, I found myself reliving the joys of just video gaming; Housemarque crafted a near-perfect experience that should be welcoming to everyone, yet be challenging enough to have people try again and again because conquering each cycle just feels too damn rewarding. Despite it’s disappointing secret ending – Returnal truly stands tall amongst the giants of today’s games.
REVIEW SCORE: 9/10
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