America - Front
America - Back
By Paul Broussard 31st May 2021 | 3,029 views
The first entirely new major AAA next gen console exclusive has finally landed. With it, the opening salvo in the ninth generation of console wars has been fired. Returnal is now available to everyone, or at least everyone fortunate enough to acquire a PS5 while the pandemic makes a mockery of supply-side economics. At an eyebrow raising $70, is it worth a purchase? Could it even be good enough to stand up alone as a solid reason to buy a PS5?
Returnal is something of an anomaly amongst other AAA games, as big budget roguelites aren’t exactly common. Truthfully, I can’t imagine why; it seems like a game based around replayability and randomness would be a prime opportunity to insert microtransactions and lootboxes. Thankfully, Returnal has no such concepts, and instead remains a fully enclosed, tightly knit adventure game that does pave the way for big budget roguelites to become more common... although hopefully not too common that EA starts to take notice.
The premise follows a spacefaring woman who winds up tracking a distress signal to an alien planet. Upon entering the planet's atmosphere, her spaceship is struck by lightning, and she winds up faceplanting her newly flambee’d ship into an uncharted alien planet. After escaping the wreckage, she finds herself alone on an isolated planet filled with the ruins of a now deceased race, with her only company being a bunch of deformed dark tentacle monsters, some rusty auto turrets, and the bed in her own ship.
You may have found yourself reading that paragraph and wondering if you had accidentally stumbled onto a review for Metroid Prime 2. Rest assured, you’re in the right place. Returnal’s set-up does feel a lot like a Metroid game, with much of the same feeling of isolation and discovery from exploration. There’s very much a feeling of near-hopelessness pervading Returnal; being trapped on an alien world where the friendliest entity you can hope to encounter is your ship’s computer. It’s depressing, which is just the way a strong atmosphere like this should be.
But while the initial feel of Returnal’s plot may sound similar to the adventures of a certain other blonde galactic adventurer, it quickly differentiates itself by focusing much more on the protagonist. Returnal’s hero, Selene, stumbles upon a dead human upon arrival, and is quite shocked to find that the corpse appears to be her own - or to be precise, a past version of herself. Exploring further reveals that these corpses often contain audio logs left by these past Selenes, each one more unhinged than the next. As she goes deeper, Selene finds that the planet is beginning to mess with her mind more and more, spawning hallucinations of figures from her past and even her own house on Earth.
The trouble is that Selene isn’t a particularly interesting character, and her backstory doesn’t really do much for me from a narrative perspective besides give the game an excuse to have her repeatedly come back to life and occasionally hallucinate astronauts. As intriguing as the prospect of a story where a character constantly resurrects is in theory, it doesn’t ultimately mean much unless that character herself is compelling, and Selene isn’t. We just get some audio logs that explain Selene’s past and her more recent history, which don’t do enough to get the player invested in her present events.
That said, there’s another side to Returnal’s story, which is the lore for the planet that serves as Returnal’s setting, Atropos. Along with her own dead bodies, Selene will inevitably stumble upon corpses of the previous inhabitants of the planet, raising all sorts of lovely questions about what happened and what caused them to go extinct. A myriad of audio logs and text files are littered throughout the planet, most of which reveal a tiny piece of the game’s lore. It’s all nicely told and contains plenty of intrigue, with more and more of the planet's scarred past being revealed as you progress further.
It’s just a shame it’s forced to share the same stage with the story surrounding Selene. If Returnal had just exclusively focused on the story of Atropos and what happened to the species living there, I think it would have been much more intriguing. As it stands, however, it’s a story about a relatively uninteresting character taking up the majority of the screentime over a vastly more interesting plot. It also doesn’t help that by the end of the game there's a certain degree of spoiler-related ambiguity about the whole thing that potentially makes the entire journey somewhat pointless.
The core gameplay loop of Returnal revolves around a mixture of exploration and third person shooting, with a heaping helping of character customization as you find new gear and status effects to equip. The customization is actually quite layered, with an interesting risk/reward system that functions in two ways: Malfunctions and Parasites. Malfunctions serve as a mechanic where certain pick-ups will give you an obvious upgrade in exchange for a chance of receiving a negative side effect that can be removed by accomplishing certain tasks. It’s a nice little mechanic that adds some extra spice to proceedings. I think it would have been even better if Returnal showed the player what the debuff will be, to allow for more strategic decision making, but it’s not bad in its present form either.
Parasites, conversely, do convey that information to you, and will tell you what debuff you’ll receive along with the buff. Unlike Malfunctions, Parasites cannot be removed simply by fulfilling an in-game checklist and instead can only be gotten rid of with certain machines, making the decision to accept one far weightier. These aspects make Parasites the better mechanic of the two, as they’re not something that can easily be undone and require the player to really think about whether the benefit outweighs the detriment.
Exploration in Returnal is where things start to become more miss than hit, and that has a lot to do with the environment design. Graphically, the game is certainly impressive, but the art direction feels a bit lackluster. Atropos features six major areas, which are mostly visually distinct from each other. However, within each area there isn’t much variety on display. The forest is always gray and rainy, the desert is always red and filled with ruins, etc. For a game that is banking on having players repeatedly traverse the same rooms and this remaining entertaining for its entire runtime, some more artistic variety wouldn’t have gone amiss. Maybe the weather could change between runs, or the time of day, for example.
The level design itself can get fairly tiresome too, as there’s usually not much to it. At most, it will feature very minimalistic interactable elements like grapple points or vines that can be slashed with a melee weapon. While the order that rooms are in will change between runs, the rooms themselves stay the same, and it doesn’t take long to recognize that you’ve been somewhere before. Admittedly, many other roguelites don’t exactly have complex level design, but they’re also usually not trying to sell for full AAA price too.
Combat has its ups and downs. Guns do handle well and are generally satisfying to use, and there’s an interesting weapon proficiency mechanic where the quality of guns you’ll find directly correlates to a proficiency level you develop by killing things in combat. Returnal encourages and rewards precise play by increasing the rate at which you gain proficiency if you avoid taking damage, which adds an incentive for performing well in combat (besides, you know, the usual incentive of not being dead).
Unfortunately, the variety of enemies with which to use said guns on is disappointing. Enemy design in particular is lacking and generally boils down to some sort of black blob either firing homing lasers or shooting waves of bullet hell projectiles. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with enemies using either of these, I would personally argue that a game that revolves heavily around numerous playthroughs should at the very least be putting substantial effort into making each enemy feel unique, with varying movesets and visually distinct designs. The robots in the third region are probably the closest Returnal gets to feeling like having fleshed-out enemy variety, and even then attack patterns are pretty similar.
Bosses are a bit better on that front, and are at the very least visually differentiable, although again, each encounter does tend to boil down towards being a game of bullet hell with an occasional, slow melee attack sprinkled in. I can’t help but feel like an opportunity was missed to make bosses stand out. Without wishing to spoil, some late game encounters feature massive and incredibly imposing looking foes that just wind up mostly staying in place and tossing a bunch of tiny projectiles at you. It starts to feel unworthy of the stakes of the fight.
Perhaps my impression on that front is also informed by how relatively easy most bosses went down. There's been plenty of talk on the internet about Returnal being a brutally challenging game, but at least personally I found it to be pretty doable throughout. If you can manage to get to the boss of an area in decent condition and with at least one health restore item, then they'll usually go down without too much trouble. Difficulty outside of bosses is a bit more challenging, as you can always get surrounded by enemies in a room if you're not careful. That said, it doesn't take too long before deaths become more and more infrequent as you learn to manage the battlefield better (or just abuse enemy AI and hide behind doors).
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Returnal is very much a game that is not friendly to players who aren’t prepared to have a solid chunk of time they can block off for playing it. As of the time of writing, there's no in-game option to suspend your run and return to it later, and individual runs can sometimes take upwards of an hour or two, meaning that if you’re in a position where you have to fully power your PS5 off, you're out of luck. I certainly understand the desire to preserve everything as a continuous single run, but a suspend option is an easy way to provide for the unpredictabilities of life while also ensuring that players aren’t abusing a save feature. I wound up losing a run I was about an hour into due to a power outage at one point. There’s no excuse for lacking this kind of feature.
Despite these failings, there is something appealing about Returnal that kept me coming back. The critical person might say that Returnal succeeds at the superficial elements of a game and stumbles on its core gameplay. However, I’d personally argue that the sense of adventure, of setting out in a hostile world all alone, does helps carry it through a lot of its flaws. The solid atmosphere and engaging way in which the player pieces together the lore makes up for a lot of gameplay flaws. There’s certainly a lot that Returnal does right and, if nothing else, it is genuinely interesting to see an AAA take on roguelites.
The problem is that there isn’t enough done right to justify a full price AAA game, let alone the whopping $70 price tag. Other roguelites like FTL: Faster than Light or Binding of Isaac provide more enjoyable core gameplay loops and often more gameplay variety in general for far less cash. I hate to keep harping on the cost, but a game that sticks its neck out and tries to get away with charging an extra $10 on top of the standard AAA price needs to either be exceptionally well made or provide a ton of content, and Returnal fits neither description.
This doesn’t mean that Returnal is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just decent. It does a few things pretty well, and a few subpar. If it wasn’t apparent already, this probably isn’t a game I would recommend grabbing at full price, let alone buying a PS5 for. However, if you really enjoy roguelites and want the chance to see one operating on an AAA budget, then consider this as good a chance as ever to sate your curiosity.