[REVIEW] Returnal – In space, nobody can hear you die again

There are plenty of games out there that are designed to pull your chain. Generally speaking, I fundamentally hate them. Games like Dark Souls, The Surge, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice… fuck ’em all. If I really want to be tested, having to figure shit out the hard way, I’ll commit to this game called life. But there’s a new game in town, brought to us by the Finnish people of Housemarque. Just like the other games I just mentioned, Returnal’s prime directive is to test your patience to the limit, not making a secret of its agenda and blatantly telling you that you’re probably gonna snuff it a lot. Still, this game is different. I don’t hate it. Weirdly enough, I’m hooked to it. It keeps drawing me back, even if all the odds keep getting stacked against me. And that’s exactly what Returnal is all about.

Since I’m a total sucker for space sci-fi mindfucks, the story of Returnal formed the first selling point in my case. Returnal tells the tale of Selene, an ASTRA scout who isn’t doing female drivers a solid favor. I’m trying not to generalize, but Selene is also really good at parking her space vehicle. Planting her Helios nose-first into the surface of an alien planet called Atropos, Selene has gotten herself into some deep extra-terrestrial doo-doo. ASTRA isn’t going to pick her up any time soon and Triple-A doesn’t really visit other planets. In other words, Selene is shit out of luck.

Things take a turn for the worse when Selene stumbles upon another ASTRA spacesuit, containing the lifeless body of herself. From that point on, the situation becomes clear and bleak. She’s been doing this crashing and dying thing for a while now and obviously stuck in a loop. For some reason, Selene also has weird visions of her own house on this ruins-filled planet and a creepy astronaut also keeps tailing her. Trying to make heads and tails of her dire situation, she sets out to the source of a distress call, the main reason why she set sail to Atropos in the first place.

It doesn’t take long to figure out why Atropos is littered with Selene’s corpses. The planet isn’t really trying to win any hospitality awards. Atropian fauna can be described as hostile as fuck. At the mere sight of a visitor, every life form is dead set on bloodshed. Spewing thousands of neon-colored projectiles, these aliens really make sure you know that they don’t want you there. At some point in time, you’ll run into one projectile too many. When that happens, Returnal strips you of almost everything that you’ve acquired and makes you start over. Only your base weapon and certain artifacts remain, but that’s about it.

Starting over brings its own challenges. Not only do you have to find all your precious resources, weapons, and upgrades once more, you also have to find your way to them again. After each death, Atropos shuffles its layout, so no run is the same. You never know what lies beyond each door. This mechanic is both Returnal’s strength and weakness. Making a run unpredictable keeps you on your toes. It makes you question every decision you have to make. But it also infuriates, mainly because Housemarque doesn’t really hit the “marque” when it comes to balancing this randomness out.

This lack of balance creates major fluctuations in the game’s difficulty level. Firstly, Returnal is supposed to be tough as nails. But the way the game handles the random resource and weapon provision make way for some difficulty spikes that are often hard to digest. Where one run can go (almost too) smooth – granting you everything you need and giving you a sense of accomplishment – other runs feel like they are rigged, destined to make you fail without even giving you a chance. The problem is that decent preparation for the road ahead is paramount. Going underequipped or underleveled will get you killed sooner or later. So not finding the gear you desperately need – no matter how hard you look for it – feels unfair.

It’s not like we haven’t got enough on our plate. Even Atropos’ resources – Obolites for buying stuff and Silphium for repairing your suit – throw you for a loop. Many of these resources have been infected by Malignancy, making them potentially harmful. In times of pure desperation, they can be picked up to help you out of a tight spot, but not without suffering the side effects. These malignant items bring an elevated risk of defects to your suit, potentially causing some serious disadvantages. After contracting three defects, the damage becomes critical. Performing tasks nullify those defects, but some of those are a total pain in the ass until that time. In extreme cases, certain defects are so disabling that you might as well die and restart your run, sacrificing everything along with it.

The same goes for the parasites that roam Atropos. Parasites can be picked up and be semi-permanently attached to your suit. They usually provide you with an upgrade or ability, but not without also having a significant downside. Things like “repairing your suit with every kill you make, but Silphium won’t heal you anymore”. Or “Dropped obolites will remain for 1.5 seconds longer, but opening loot chests will cause damage to your suit”. They all pose risks that you have to assess before picking them up. Returnal is filled to the brim with high risk-high reward, making you think twice with every given opportunity. And all this has to be done in one flawless run, while all of Atropos is trying to murder you.

This sometimes makes Returnal overwhelming and slightly too hardcore for the masses. Given the fact that the game is considered to be a PlayStation 5 launch game, both PlayStation and Housemarque are taking a huge risk with it. Then again, if you are familiar with Housemarque’s work, you should’ve known that Returnal will give you a run for your money. Games like Alienation, Rezogun, and Matterfall already showed us that the Finnish studio likes to play dirty bullet hell games. Then again, Returnal doesn’t feel as unfair as other roguelikes or “Soulsborne” games. Defeated bosses won’t have to be defeated again and shortcuts are provided as you progress. Every biome has a way of getting there without having to cross all previous ones. Fast traveling is also incorporated, so going back to a safe haven when you’re down on your health – healing up for a big fight – is possible.

Returnal also offers some unintended advantages, showing us that even Housemarque is experiencing a learning curve and makes mistakes. Where the studio usually ventures into the land of 2.5D games, Returnal is their first 3D AAA game. As a result, things like wall clipping – which are rare in 2.5D sidescrollers – occur in Returnal. This is all swell when a big-ass monster head protrudes through a solid door, giving you all the time and safe space to blast it to smithereens. But when a pre-bossfight fast travel point disappears into the floor – making it unusable – it’s less enjoyable.

Then again, if that’s the biggest issue to face, I’ll sign off on it any day of the week. I’ve been longing for the time where games felt polished and complete at launch. Publishing rudimentary games seems to be a normal thing and Day One patches are nothing peculiar anymore. So getting hit with a few clipping errors in a game that – for the rest – is pretty much technically immaculate, I couldn’t really care less. Maybe if the story would suck major ass and if the graphics were unbearable, I would, but that’s also hardly the case. Give or take a few minor discrepancies, Returnal’s Alien/Prometheus setting looks to die for and the story had me glued to my TV for countless hours. Having to deal with that for 30 to 50 hours is no punishment, even if the gameplay unmistakenly is.

To die for, again and again
The Yays
Gameplay is extremely challenging, without being blatantly unfair
The narrative keeps you on the edge of your seat
The graphics are otherworldly
Easily has you dying and retrying for 30 to 50 hours
Runs buttery smooth on the PlayStation 5, making good use of its peripherals
The Nays
Lack of balance in runs can get frustrating
Minor graphical errors
9