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Gimme That Good Hurt

Returnal, developed by Housemarque and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, released in 2021 exclusively for the PS5, is a 3rd person, rogue-like, bullet-hell game. Think a randomized Galaga, but orders of magnitude harder and three dimensional instead of a 2D plane. Retural centers around Selene Vassos, an ASTRA Corp. explorer who decides to follow a signal she intercepts, which she dubs the “White Shadow”, against the orders of her superiors. This leads to her crash landing on the alien planet Atropos, whose Xeno-Type society seemingly crumbled underneath the weight of “Lovecraftian” madness. Upon initial exploration Selene encounters hostile flora and fauna and eventually is killed in combat only to re-awaken right when she crashes on to Atropos, introducing the “time-loop” mechanic the game centers around- because death happens quick and often. 

Once the initial on-boarding of the game is done, the player is sent forth with a singular objective- find the source of the “White Shadow” signal. To do so they must jump, shoot, dodge, and kill their way there. The movement in Returnal is fast.

Very fast.

The player will find themselves dead sprinting through the randomized maps with an oil-slick smoothness, with their jumping and dodging not impeding their forward momentum. The movement just feels good and responsive, so the next question is how does the shooting feel? 

That’s a tougher question to answer because that depends on the randomly rolled loot in the game, as there are 10 different weapon types, and in those 10 weapon types each one has its own, unique modifiers. Beyond that there can be up to 3 modifiers on each weapon. How the shooting feels really depends on the RNG (random number generation) you get with every weapon randomly generated from their lists of possible traits. Overall, shooting the guns does feel good with (in my opinion) the exception of the Thermogenic Launcher (a rocket launcher) and the Rotgland Lobber (a grenade launcher) due to the basic nature of the types of weapons- they have slow but powerful projectiles with teeny-tiny magazine sizes that replenish VERY slowly. The slow projectiles seem at odds with the often frenetic pace at which the enemy encounters occur; especially since it doesn’t take a lot of damage to “stagger” the enemies out of their attacks against you, so the more projectiles you can get out quicker, the less likely you would be hit. 

The last thing I would like to touch on is the difficulty of the game. It is hard, but not necessarily unfair. I mentioned death happens quick and often, but it is also almost always earned. Typically it’s a mistimed dodge or jump, or just being too trigger happy and emptying your mag without noticing how much is actually around you. Technically speaking, once the player has completed their tutorial (which does include some mandatory deaths) they are given everything they need to complete a “full cycle” of the game. The upgrades and skill modifications of each run (all upgrades and modifications are reset upon death) are there to make your run easier, but it is in no way impossible to beat the game (complete a cycle) with just the starting pistol and raw skill.

Returnal is a challenging, death-filled good time- so long as you have the patience and respect it so often demands. 

Alex Thomas