'Returnal' Is a Gorgeous And Fun Sci-Fi Shooter, But an Awkward Roguelike

It feels incredibly good to shoot weird monsters in 'Returnal,' but over 10 hours, the game's loop doesn't hold up as well.

Apr 29 2021, 12:00pm

One of my bad habits while frustrated with a game is that I'll twist the controller after everything goes wrong, to the point of hearing the plastic bend a bit. It's so satisfying. I don't want to break the controller, but sometimes swearing isn't enough, and the knotted up tension is released by, for a brief moment, thinking about dismantling this plastic object with my bare hands. My ten hours with Returnal, the new sci-fi roguelike from arcade specialists Housemarque, have been an exercise in discovering the durability of PlayStation 5's Dual Sense controller. I'm happy to report that you can twist that thing hard before it's worrying. 

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Playing a roguelike is strange, because so much happens beneath the surface, hidden in the player's brain and fingers. A traditional action game has the player moving through a story, their skill arc bent alongside the unfolding narrative and escalating difficulty, reaching a crescendo as the plot and mechanics, ideally, match the dramatics at the end. But in a roguelike, there's a loop, luck, and randomness. The player enters the world, dies, and comes back. Each loop typically reveals knowledge about how the world operates or provides a round of practice with an enemy giving you trouble. The next loop, maybe you get a little further, and eventually, the skill arc breaks. You're blasting through a game you once considered hard.

The question with a roguelike becomes: are you enjoying the moment-to-moment enough to endure the quiet accumulation of knowledge? Are the risks and rewards introduced by the random nature of a roguelike run generating enough variety? Is there enough to grasp onto when the traditional rewards, like a story drip, don't exist or are less important?   

On those points I'm mixed. Returnal is gorgeous, and the shooting feels real good. But I'm less convinced of its roguelike merits. Perhaps the most important indicator is I keep twisting my Dual Sense while dying for the upteenth time in the second area—and coming back.

Returnal's loop starts with the player crashing on a strange and hostile planet in search of a cryptic broadcast signal called "White Shadow." Why? No clue. But it is cryptic, certainly. Most roguelikes handle storytelling through players interacting with layers of game systems, but Returnal, like last year's breakout hit Hades, has a discrete story to tell, albeit one chopped up into a million tiny pieces and doled out to the player as they return to the loop. 

Whether that story matters remains an open question. It's a fine hook, but it's not what's kept me coming back. In that regard, Returnal is hardly Hades. Even the most abysmally botched Hades run resulted in new and meaningful dialogue, but upon returning to the same area for the 20th time, maybe you'll get lucky and find a new dropped voice recording? A lot of Returnal's formal storytelling is tied up in pushing to new areas. It's a drier approach, but one that underscores the strength of Returnal, and what Housemarque is known for: the action.

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The shooting feels great in Returnal, which is important, because you do a lot of it and it's intricately tied up with the game's systems. Defeating enemies without getting hit results in passive bonuses, such as a stronger melee attack and the ability to see enemies through objects. Shooting slowly fills a proficiency meter that, over time, levels up and increases the strength of the weapons drops you get from high-level enemies and glowing chests.s The game is always flashing and glowing and generating loud noises and making you feel cool.

It does not take long to become intimately familiar with the slate of enemies in a given area, and it's a testament to Returnal's combat and movement options that even the most basic encounters still feel good this many hours in. While shooting, players can jump, dash (with a longer dash by holding the button down), and eventually, swing a dope-looking sword. There's a lot of options available to the player at any given moment, and that's without taking into account that every enemy in Returnal has the Housemarque specialty of spamming the player with bullet hell projectiles, ensuring you never stay still and are always on the move.

The shiny blue and red orbs frequently fill the screen in Returnal, and stand in stark contrast to the hopelessly grim H.R. Giger-influenced world surrounding you. It's strangely beautiful.

That's to say nothing of the myriad and rapidfire risk/reward choices you're presented on top of the chaos. There are cursed chests that can be "cleansed" by using a rare item that carries over from run to run. (I've rarely found it worth it.) The chests can still be opened in their cursed state, it just means the game weighs you down with a temporary curse of your own, such having to open two more chests. Then, the curse is lifted. There's also parasites, little creepy crawlies that grant simultaneous positive and negative effects, such as health items becoming more powerful while enemies generate pools of acid when destroyed. 

I'm probably forgetting something, too.

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These are fun ideas, but I will say, too often, the risks weren't interesting enough to justify the rewards, and I'd just keep pressing forward without engaging with any of these systems. 

That's a bad sign in a roguelike. 

It's also not a roguelike where, by chance, you're gonna get an overpowered drop that lets you coast through. Returnal closely ties its upgrades and drops to the player's progress. You start out a level zero, and will not suddenly get, through sheer luck, a level seven weapon. In my mind, at least, part of the joy of a roguelike is when the hidden dice role has you accidentally stumbling into a build that lets you wreck the game. It's funny, and importantly, helps break up the variety of playing when you've had some bad luck. But Returnal is very serious in general, and very serious about the player grasping its combat and movement.

The initial difficulty curve of Returnal is steep, and I'm guessing will turn off some number of people who've enjoyed the game's spectacular trailers and want something new to play on their fancy PS5. (I wish Sony had released a demo that allowed people to experience a run or two and wrap their heads around how the game plays. Playing is different than watching.) 

I turned a corner on combat after an hour or so, and had my first deep run with Returnal, resulting in me making it through the first area, including besting the first boss. It felt like I was gonna break the game in a single go. My confidence was through the roof, and I pushed into the second, desert-like area. Progress was made, but around a random corner, I died to an otherwise innocuous enemy. It happens. That's a roguelike. The game looped, and sent me back to the start. More than two hours of play had vanished, and I started to do the math on how long it'd take to beat the game's four areas in a good run and I made a long sigh.

I don't think it'd take eight actual hours to see a run all the way through. I was being slow and meticulous, and am early enough into the game to not fully know how it all plays out. But having your time ripped away from you is part of the thrill and exhaustion of a roguelike, and trying to game out if you're getting enough from that loop is integral to whether it all works.

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One of the key changes that came alongside the roguelike going mainstream was allowing players to upgrade their base character for subsequent runs, making their default build more powerful as time went along. More health, perhaps, or a better starting weapon. Returnal has little of that. You're unlocking a larger pool of items, weapons, and abilities over time, but you're always gonna start the game with a dinky pea shooter pistol, and one of the game's few concessions is not having to deal with the area's boss fight again. It's not much, but I've bested Spelunky. Climbing the mountain isn't the problem. It's just gotta be a good mountain.

My subsequent runs into Returnal were distressing, because I was spending an hour or so fully exploring the first area, grabbing every upgrade and advantage that I could, before moving onto the second one. This seemed like a really big and wasteful time investment. It was around this time I wondered if maybe Returnal, like many non-Spelunky roguelikes, wasn't for me. Then, a run spawned the warp near the start. I said "fuck it" and ran through. 

On the other side was, surprisingly, an item that upgraded my weapon level to something more than adequate for this zone. Yes, I was still stuck with my lowly pea shooter, but there's always a weapon chest nearby, which meant I only had to survive a single fight to get on fairer footing. Importantly, the game recognized you might want to press forward quickly.

I did.

This revelation was important, because it changed the calculation of my runs. Now, I immediately spring for the warp, grab whatever I can along the way, and spend all of my time over there. I'm still, as I write this, banging my head against that zone, but at least it's increasing my base of knowledge. When I'm ready for a full run, I can start from scratch. 

The more pressing problem: the second zone isn't that interesting.
But the shooting is good. Really good. I just don't know how long that'll last.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)

Tagged:

Playstation 5, Returnal, Housemarque

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