Roguelikes tend to exist in a space where a story may help or hinder the gameplay. The frustration of starting a run over after a minor mistake can be a huge blemish on an experience and has the potential to end a player’s time with the game without seeing the full story. While I have not always been a fan of the genre, it has started to grow on me over these past few years with titles like Hades and Dead Cells being a big component in my experience with roguelikes. When Retrunal originally came out on the PS5, I missed out on it due to a plethora of other titles keeping me occupied but with its release on PC, it was time to change that.
Selene, our protagonist, is just as in the dark as we are once the game starts. After a rough crash on the planet Astropos, She embarks on a journey to piece together the puzzle that she’s been thrown into. During her adventure, Selene comes across statues and data fragments that hint at some strange occurrences with time on the planet. She soon comes to the understanding that each time she dies, the loop starts over once more with her emerging from her wrecked ship. This is a wonderful way to incorporate the looping gameplay that Returnal offers us.
During the journey, there are a multitude of alien documents that helps shed some light on the situation. Selene, and the player, will often be thrown into situations where she has to explore her past memories. The change of perspective in these segments does a wonderful job of cranking up the creepiness of the planet since we will be exploring things such as her home from a first person perspective. Since this story takes place on a different planet, there is something chilling about seeing her house out of place and in the middle of unknown territory.
Returnal is a roguelike that pulls from Housemarque’s experience of putting players in tough situations while maintaining their space on the screen. Their previous games put players in hectic battles where it was important to recognize enemy patterns and Returnal is no different. As you progress through the different chambers and environments on Astropos, enemies will bombard you with varying attack patterns and movements. For example, there are big dog-like enemies that will shoot out a basic line of orbs that are easy to dodge but a harder variant has a move that will rush the Selene. Thankfully she is equipped with a suite that allows her to dash and sprint at high speeds in order to avoid these obstacles. Pairing these dangerous enemies with an even dangerous environment can make for stressful encounters and a simple miscalculation can result in a run ending in frustration. While enemy designs may start to repeat themselves later on, their behavior can be drastically different from their other forms so gameplay doesn’t get too stale as you open up new areas.
Spread throughout the planet are upgrades to Selene’s weapons as well as parasites that are able to provide different effects that may help, and sometimes hinder, your progress. The first couple of hours will involve a lot of alien and made up sci-fi verbiage being thrown at you but once everything starts to click, the game opens up a lot more. I found myself scanning the ground in the midst of a hectic encounter in hopes to find another little parasite that may give me the edge I need to finish the fight. As you take out enemies, there is an adrenaline system that builds up as you take out more enemies and these stacks disappear once you are hit, which means you are rewarded for playing effectively.
There are also a ton of chests and items to pick up that are “Malignant” which means that there is a risk for picking these things up. This means that Selene can get stuck with a debuff that will make progressing much harder until certain requirements have been met. Pairing this with the Parasites means that players are always running the risk of making the game harder for themselves. This really forces you to be aware of what you are picking up and thinking about the risk of picking up another item. One wrong move can send you back to the ship with a run ended early or it can boost you just enough to get through the next encounter.
Selene is equipped with a simple pistol in the beginning but as she explores the world, there is a chance she will find a new weapon that may behave differently than the one currently equipped. With 10 different types of weapons, it was alway a pleasant surprise to find one of my favorites in the middle of a tough run. Each weapon type also has a chance to have a different type of gun trait that may make shots more accurate or may inflict different status effects. All of this on top of some guns with alternate fire modes means that your arsenal may not always be the same in between runs. This approach keeps you on the edge of the seat in hopes of finding the right weapon to take on the next wave of enemies.
Overall, I am pleased to see Housemarque’s work make it over to the PC. Both PS5 and Xbox controllers felt comfortable to play with without any hiccups and the game even makes use of the PS5’s adaptive triggers. Although I didn’t have any hiccups with my experience, I might make it a point to say that I was playing at 1080p at medium settings and did not try to play at a higher resolution or settings since I did not want that to impact my experience. Returnal is an interesting game and for those who want a roguelike that keeps the story hidden behind a challenging gameplay loop, this is a wonderful place to start. Astropos is full of mystery and danger but with enough runs, any player has the ability to master the tight combat offered up here.