Returnal Review: The Cycle Never Ends

Developer: Housemarque
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: April 30, 2021

Price: $69.99
Total Playtime: 50 Hours

Death is inevitable for every human being on the planet. It also happens a lot throughout most video games that you will play. In Returnal, it is part of the core design for the game. No matter how good or careful a player may be, this game has a lot of ways that can make you die. Death is just waiting for you, as you will die and return at least once in this game. The newest PlayStation 5 exclusive title did not disappoint me in the slightest, even if there are some issues that plague the title.

This game was originally a game that I was not interested in playing whatsoever. I saw trailer after trailer and was like it doesn’t look that fun to play. However, when the final previews dropped and I saw unedited and unfiltered gameplay, my opinion on how the game looked changed completely. In my personal opinion, the trailers didn’t really do this game justice. I decided to give the game a shot and I am really happy that I did. I wanted to support this title as it was a PlayStation published title from developer Housemarque, who is located in Finland.

Part of an early cutscene. Captured on PS5

In the game, you play as an Astronaut named Selene. You really don’t get a lot of information about her backstory, why she crash landed on the planet of Atropos, or how she was struck down. Throughout all of the six worlds, called biomes in the game, you piece together her story through different interactions that are scattered throughout the planet. These include different audio/scout logs, house sequences, xenocypher drawings, and more. Not all of it will make sense for a large amount of the game, but after a little while, things become so much clearer.

Scout logs are different logs that Selene has left on the planet that you listen to. These are scattered in many random places and are not the easiest thing to find… good luck trying to find scout log 9. Selene’s house is also on the planet with her. You go into the house and explore after certain things are completed. In the house, the game switches the camera to first person for a more immersive experience. You explore the house quite a few times and each time you learn more about her past and what has happened to her over the years. Another way is through cutscenes that appear throughout the game at different points that share light on things that happened in the past. You also learn the world of Atropos overtime throughout the game. The story was very interesting since you have to piece things together with all of the clues you find, it doesn’t just tell you directly. I really respected and liked how the team crafted the story in a unique way that you don’t see very often in games anymore.

Protagonist of the game: Selene. Captured on PS5.

The story is definitely a highlight for the game, but the main focus of the game is the combat and the gameplay. Is the gameplay in this game good? Yes, it really is. The enemies that you fight in this game are pretty different from one another. Some of them are fairly easy and predictable, while others are nightmares to fight. I absolutely hate bats after playing this game… and if you played this game, you would understand why. This game is not easy most of the time and shouldn’t be taken lightly for anyone thinking it is not that hard. If you die, you must start from the crash site all over again; either in the first biome or the fourth biome. Is there way to prevent this from happening? Kind of…

One of the ways that you can come back to life in the game without going back to the beginning is through the reconstructor machine. This machine is a randomly spawned machine, for most of the biomes that is. that allows you to spend a total of 6 ether per machine. This basically acts as checkpoint in case you die so you don’t have to do everything all over again. This can only be activated and used once per biome and only within the designated biome that you are in. Meaning if you travel to biome 2 and you activated it in biome 1, you would still go back to the beginning; so use this wisely as ether is not always easy to in the beginning parts of the game.

The reconstructor from Biome 1. Captured on PS5

Besides the reconstructor, there are different items that are unlocked after you complete some of the house sequences. One of these is a watch. This allows you to come back with a little bit of health if you die but only once. The other object that allows you to come back is a figure. Same as the watch, but it brings you back with a little more health than the watch. After these are unlocked, they randomly spawn in different areas and different fabricators, machines where you can buy items with the oriblites currency that you find, around the six biomes.

Before talking more about the game, there is something that needs to be said. A large amount of this game is based on RNG (randomness) and luck, both fortunately and unfortunately. The fortunate part is because the game never actually feels dull or the same as your runs that you attempt are always different and never feel the same as the map is different every time. The unfortunate part is if you are hunting for specific items or trying to platinum the game, it is not very fun as things can take a while to appear. You never know what the next room holds and that’s honestly what makes this game so intriguing; you want to keep exploring and seeing all you can.

Occasionally, there are a bunch of different bugs that I noticed while playing the game. During one of my runs, I approached a chest the was locked and didn’t have a key but the game clipped me inside the chest and I had to reset the run. I wasn’t that far so it wasn’t too big of a deal but it was strange. Quite often, I got a specific bug that isn’t game breaking but irritating as it ruins the overall experience. This was an audio bug where the audio would basic make horrific sounds/cutting in and out and then turn off for the rest of the run. I experienced this during the second half of the game mostly, but it still was a issue I had with it. Other than these two things, I had no issues or bugs that made me die or have to restart a run.

In the game, there are a ton of artifacts and items that are spread out. Not all of these are unlocked right at the start and you have to unlock a lot of these items over time. When you are at the start, there is a machine that allows you to unlock some of the artifacts in the game. Besides this machine at the beginning, you unlock more items throughout the house sequences that you complete. There is also data cubes that are found throughout the world, and if you are able to bring it to a data cube machine before you die, you would unlock another item or artifact. Then there were areas that you couldn’t reach without certain upgrades first and those had new items as well.

The Biome 1 fabricator room. Captured on PS5.

In the game, you would find lots of items around on the ground in different rooms. Some of these items included health upgrades, health itself, ether, orblites, chests, or keys to unlock doors and chests. These rooms would also sometimes have riskier items in them as well and these throw a different aspect to the game as you have to think to yourself if it is worth the risk. These are items that have a malignancy around them, indicated by a purple aura. These could be any other the items that spawn in the room that I have stated above. Now there is either a moderate, high, or very high risk when it comes to taking some of these things. If you do choose to take one of these items that are malignant, you are risking a malfunction to occur.

These malfunctions are problems that you should fix as soon as possible. Sometimes, your dash or melee attack might be affected while other times you can’t pick up new weapons. There is also the possibility that you would take damage if you pick up or use items. Just some examples I have run into with the game. There is an item that helps fix these issues but there is always a way out of the issue. Sometimes you may have to collect certain things, preform different kills, or use fabricators to get items. Honestly I do like these, sometimes, when the do occur because it always changes the run and I never feel like I am getting bored with the game but you have to be smart on whether or not you take the risk.

Taking damage from collecting items is BAD. Captured on PS5.

Okay, besides malfunctions and all of the other items, there is one more item that I have yet to talk about; parasites. These are spider looking creatures that attach themselves to Selene and they give you both a positive and a negative reaction. Sometimes the positive outweighs the negative and then other times it’s either vise versa or they are equal in effects. You might come across something like orblites drop for longer as a positive but a negative is you get hurt when using keys. Is it worth the risk of picking this one, or do you move on? It’s always the question of whether or not you want to focus on certain things. Alright, with most of the items discussed, now it is time to talk about the combat situations.

An example of a bad Parasite, in my opinion. Captured on PS5

In the game, there is a ton of battles. Normally, the object of the game is to shoot everything and try not to die. This takes both bullet hell style of combat and combines it with traditional fighting. There are many different weapons that you unlock over the course of the game and some of these, in my opinion, are terrific while others are mediocre at best. Now, for each weapon, there are different levels of stats that you can find, different alt-fire attacks (kind of like special attacks), and different ammo capabilities. Some have a lot of ammo per round while others have a small number of shots. If you run out of shots, you can overload your weapon by timing the reload button just right. There is so much more than just shoot and kill in this game. You also have a melee attack that can be used to hit enemies that have shields or just go down quicker with physical attacks. There is a dash that is very helpful when trying to close gaps or avoid certain attacks.

Sometimes, when you get to rooms or areas, the game will lockdown the room and there is no way to escape until you complete a specific objective. Some of these rooms are hard while other times they are easy. The game has a proficiency scale for when killing enemies with weapons. Increasing this by killing enemies allows you to pick up better weapons. Another aspect of this game is the adrenaline bar. The more you kill enemies and you don’t take damage, the higher this bar goes. Different results occur depending on what level you are, all the way up to level 5. Four key words: run, jump, dash, and attack. This is just a slice of what you might experience in the game for combat wise.

Battles are sometimes intense. Captured on PS5.

This might sound very weird, but I actually had a much harder time with mini bosses than I did with the actual bosses in the game. The only main boss that I couldn’t defeat the first time that I tried was Phrike, the first biome boss. I was still new to the game and I didn’t prepare myself enough for the fight. After this one time that I died, I came back to him with better equipment and items and I beat it without too much difficulty. Other than this, all of the bosses were fairly easy to overcome the first time around.

The mini bosses on the other hand were pains. Some of them are not that bad, but I died more on these than on the main ones. One of them throws malfunction homing missiles at you so it is hard to dodge them. I think I died like 3 times and then I finally was able beat him; this was biome 6 so it was frustrating having to start from biome 4. Another one was a mini boss that took me 3 tries to beat in the second biome since it can really pack a punch. Preparation in this game with different items and upgrades is key to having long runs and being able to take down the bosses and mini bosses.

First boss in the game. Captured on PS5.

This game looks absolutely stunning when going through the six different biomes that are a part of the world of Atropos. None of them feel the same in terms of design and layout so it is doesn’t get boring at all. The game is 1080p with an upscaling to 4K through different means, but it looks amazing nonetheless. Most of the time you are trying to not die so it’s harder to tell, in all honesty. In terms of framerate, I haven’t seen too many dips in the smoothness I have felt throughout the whole entire game, but I have noticed it on occasion when battles were intense. Voice acting in the game is mostly only Selene, except for the occasional other character, but I really like her voice and I think it works for who she is as a character. The load times are almost non-existent. I personally love that as it never feels like I am out of the action for more than a couple of seconds.

Biome 2: Crimson Wastes. Captured on PS5.

Okay, sound design is something that normally doesn’t stand out to me besides the musical score. However, in this game the sound design for the game is absolutely stunning and is great, especially with the 3D audio that is baked into the game. The vibes that are apparent throughout the whole game play into how you feel when you are in rooms which require fighting. The audio when you do a scan is also good since it feels like you are scanning things. All of it really just works so well together. The score and music is also just so amazing as it has newer sounding areas but also feels retro in some ways. The audio design is definitely a highlight of the whole entire experience and I am happy that it works so well, assuming you don’t get the audio bug.

Alright, this game was a game that was a huge gamble for me as I did not expect that I would actually like it at first. I personally do not like roguelikes whatsoever, but this game definitely feels different from anything else I have played before. I really liked the challenge and the ability to learn how to get further into the game through practice. Now, would I personally recommend this game; that is actually something I cannot do unless you enjoyed seeing the gameplay in action and also reading this review. If you don’t like the fact it is based on RNG, you will probably not like this game. If you don’t like the fact that you have to start from the beginning if you die, assuming you use all other options already, then you will probably not like this game. If you like games that have a challenge, then maybe you would like it quite a bit. This game is definitely not for everyone, but some people will really love it while others will hate it. I personally have this as my GOTY at the moment, and I am currently trying to Platinum the game now.

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