Used to productions for the PlayStation Network, the Housemarque studios are revising their ambitions upwards on the ninth generation of consoles. Returnal is a 3D Roguelite shooter draped in a sci-fi thriller. Does this first PlayStation 5 exclusive in 2021 live up to the hopes placed in it?
The Chronicles of Atropos
The story begins with the crash of a spaceship on the exoplanet Atropos with astronaut Selene on board. The heroine, whose first name is a direct reference to the Greek goddess of the Moon, discovers a mysterious world, and explores it in the hope of surviving an openly hostile environment that will overcome her time and time again. Returnal is defined as a science fiction thriller, and tells the multiple adventures of a protagonist captivated in spite of herself by a time loop. For an enigmatic reason, each death results in a resurrection and therefore a return to the scene of the crash. Understanding this strange phenomenon and getting out of this cosmic trap, such are the objectives of this lonely character on an unknown star.
Returnal relies on this concept of time loop to build a narrative made of cycles and therefore non-linear. The multiple deaths of the heroine are as many opportunities to learn more about the planet Atrapos as well as about Selene herself via various audio documents disseminated in the environments, but not only. The writers play at times with a particular narrative process by which one or more writers suggest what is to come in their story. The foreshadowing thus makes it possible to flesh out the staging, and to titillate our natural curiosity. The desire to know more and to understand is a powerful driving force on Atropos.
However, as intriguing as the story is, it suffers from a constant dilution born of a video game genre that pushes to die again and again. It is not uncommon, if not frequent, not to progress narratively speaking one iota. The result is a sparse narration that struggles to structure itself. The playful dimension ultimately takes precedence over the story, not for lack of interest, but simply for lack of density. Housemarque tries to surprise by integrating into the adventure sequences in the first person which recalls the sweet memory of a demo, that of PT by the late Silent Hills. These timeless moments, the finality of which we will keep silent, seek to destabilize us with an unusually calm atmosphere, and snatches of revelations which ultimately complete a complex temporal puzzle.
Gameplay: Selene’s First Cycle on Atropos
A new world
The first thing that jumps to the eyes once Selene “delicately posed” on the surface of the planet Atropos… it is the dark and abundant universe imagined by the studios Housemarque. The inspirations are numerous, controlled, and give a rarely seen cachet that should be appreciated at its true value. We are in the presence of a work of science fiction which by nature tends to pay tribute to the great currents of SF, from “Dark Science-Fiction” to “Dark Cosmic Horror”, without forgetting some major authors and artists, from Lovecraft and his myth of Cthulhu to Hans Ruedi Giger and his now legendary creation… the xenomorph (Alien).
In the small game of references, we could cite jumbled up The War of the Worlds, Hellboy, Mimic, Stargate, Dune, The Hallucinated Mountains, etc. because Returnal does not only take over science fiction, but also popular culture in the broad sense. The universe is nonetheless tangible. All the above elements and much more fit together perfectly, and together build a complex world that encourages exploration for the simple pleasure of discovery, and which justifies the heroine’s many deaths by its very existence. Traveling around the planet Atropos could be an end in itself as the satisfaction of strolling there is an integral part of the experience.
As intriguing as this universe is depicted by the artists and seductive are the bioluminescent visual effects which light up the different biomes that make up Atropos, Returnal cannot claim to be a technological showcase for the PlayStation 5. The Shooter from the Housemarque studios does not have not to be ashamed of the other productions available on the Sony console. Technically speaking, it does not stand out in any way, but provides the essentials within partially destructible environments. 4K resolution with Ray Tracing activated, all at 60 images per second, guarantees optimal playing comfort in the face of the challenge that Returnal represents.
Gameplay: Discover the expanses of the Crimson Desert
Returnal is by definition a third person shooter (or TPS for Third Person Shooter) which takes on its own certain codes from another video game genre… Roguelite. This meaningful decision implies a principle of cycles, a procedural generation – understood here as random – of the environments and therefore of the elements that are there, and dozens, if not hundreds, of cascading deaths. These failures are then synonymous with returning to square one, in this case Selene’s ship. For the uninitiated, this means that you lose most of your equipment between two attempts, except for a few permanent items., hence the kind of game mentioned above.
However, Returnal is not a Roguelite in the true sense of the word. Indeed, this TPS takes some liberties with the rules which govern this extremely codified genre. It is not necessary to go through all the levels again each cycle and even less to beat all the bosses. Housemarque incorporates several shortcuts in order to quickly reach certain biomes, the first serving as a central hub, as well as increased experience gains when entering said environments in order to adjust Selene’s level to that of the enemies present. Yet even with all of these elements, a run in Returnal easily exceeds an hour of play.
Exploration is at the center of an experience that encourages survivors to show curiosity, and at the same time invites them to be cautious, which may seem paradoxical at first. The planet Atropos is a puzzle aimed at altering its structure, and therefore the arrangement of its zones, between two deaths without disorienting us too much. Survival is essentially about discovery. Selene searches for various items, weapons and improvements for her suit, able to facilitate her progression. This takes the form of modules, parasites and relics, with varying properties (bonus and / or penalty) depending on the cycles. The armament recovered is, for its part, linked to the experience accumulated (called “Mastery Level”), during a run. The latter determines the effectiveness of the arsenal made available, and therefore the astronaut’s chances of survival.
Gameplay: Explore the Dilapidated Citadel
Death is only the beginning
This hard-won rise in power is never too much to overcome an environment designed to eliminate you. The bestiary, moreover varied and inspired, gives a hard time to a heroine who knows how to respond with arms to these provocations. Both nervous and tactical battles require the hard way to learn the forces involved, their behavior and their attacks. The clashes take on Atropos airs of explosive ballets. The feeling arms in hand, voluntarily energetic, underlines the urgency of the moment. The latter at the same time is accentuated by the haptic feedback from the PS5 controller and the adrenaline system which rewards successive eliminations (a kind of killstreak) with various bonuses, on condition of not being hit.
What about boss fights? These unique sequences are the icing on a cake called “Difficulty”. These epic games and their different stages of intensification are real sound and light shows where blinking can quickly turn into swansong. Death is often the only possible alternative before triumphing and feeling the birth of an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment in its purest form. Let’s not beat around the bush any longer. Returnal is a difficult experience from which no one comes out unscathed. The challenge that this game represents is up to the promises made by Housemarque studios, which could discourage less persevering players.
Death follows the heroine like its shadow, but far from being a source of frustration, Selene’s multiple failures are all sources of motivation that pushes to persevere. However, procedural generation, which most of the time manages to maintain a certain balance between generosity and difficulty, sometimes lacks discernment. Sometimes the “God of Random”, in this case the planet Atropos, has nothing more to offer than a quick death. Accepting this tragic fate is the only possible option. Then, the end credits do not sound the end of the adventure for the heroine. On the planet Atropos, nothing is ever really finished. To complete this overview of Returnal, it is advisable to mention the various social features added by Housemarque as well as the “Daily Challenge” mode, even if this Shooter remains in the end an adventure above all solo.
Gameplay: A first boss fight against Phrike
- An inspired and inspiring SF universe
- An attractive artistic direction
- Optimal gaming comfort (4K, 60fps, Ray Tracing)
- Nervous and strategic battles
- A controlled Roguelite dimension
- First person narrative sequences
- Social features and the “Daily Challenge” mode
- A story too far behind
- A sometimes unbalanced procedural generation
Returnal is an indisputable success, not without flaw, but who skillfully manages to merge Shooter and Roguelite. This thriller steeped in mystery pays a vibrant tribute to science fiction, despite a diluted narrative which is the consenting victim of its initial premise… the heroine’s multiple deaths. However, this adventure which takes place on the planet Atropos, magnified by a careful artistic direction inspired by the different currents of the S.-F, is a real ode to discovery. The combat system itself ensures a memorable experience made up of constant challenges, of which the bosses are the focal point. The difficulty inherent in the genre is very rarely a source of frustration, and the exhilarating sense of accomplishment is so present. Unfortunately, the procedural generation sometimes struggles to find a certain balance, which penalizes the time of a time loop for the players.
April 29, 2021 at 2:00:00 PM
What readers say
Give your opinion on this game!