There’s a fine line between repetition and redundancy, especially where video games are concerned. But while the time loop conceit of the third-person sci-fi shooter Returnal (PlayStation 5) may have goal-oriented gamers thinking they should take a pass, this game’s lather-rinse-repeat motif actually works to its advantage.
Made by the good people of Housemarque [Alienation, Dead Nation], Returnal casts you as Selene, an astronaut in the distant future who crashes on a hostile and spooky alien world, only to learn that the planet is caught in some kind of temporal anomaly. As a result, you always go back to the crash site, and to the moment you crashed, whenever you die. And while you do remember what happened — by which I mean both you as Selene as well as you, the player (of course) — you quickly realize that everything else has reset, while the layout of the world has changed dramatically.
At its core, Returnal is a shooter, and a rather good one. The natives clearly understand the concept of self-preservation, and while they may not duck for cover, they don’t just stand there and let you shoot them, either. The game also boasts fluid and intuitive controls that, for the most part, work as well as those in The Division 2 and Outriders (we’ll get to the “for the most part” part in a moment).
Returnal also does a good job of mixing together some familiar sci-fi tropes and influences. We’ve seen the time resetting thing before — the movie Edge Of Tomorrow and the excellent novel that inspired it, Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill, come to mind — which may explain why some of the natives resemble that film’s fluid, octopus-looking aliens. Then there’s the alien structures, which look like they were designed by the same architecture firm that worked on the building in Prometheus (they do good work), while the world has the same kind of spooky vibe as that film when they were inside the alien structure.
But while Returnal seems, at first, to be a familiar-feeling shooter, that goes out the window the first time you die. While you and Selene remember what happened in your previous lives, you’re still faced with a rather different world, one that looks the same, but is laid out differently, and with everything back to how it was before you came around.
Well, mostly. You do get to keep any augmentations to your suit or weapons. Which, interestingly, automatically work on every weapon. For instance, after finding a device that gave my pistol the ability to launch a more powerful charged shot, I found an alien assault rifle, only to quickly realize that the secondary fire option automatically moved to the rifle, and without me having to do anything. It even took on different properties later on, when I found a different alien gun.
Having powerful and versatile weapons in Returnal is rather helpful given how the changing topography influences the combat. Areas are multi-leveled, giving you — and your enemies — opportunities to attack from multiple angles. But since they change when you die, you can’t just run back to an area and expect to know where the enemies will be waiting, which keeps the fighting fresh and somewhat unpredictable.
Though the operative word in that last sentence is “somewhat.” That’s because the world isn’t completely remade every time you’re resurrected. It’s more that there are a ton of different layouts, and they’re chosen at random (though there are sections that seem to link together frequently). As a result, feels more like you’ve just crash landed on a different part of the same planet, as opposed to having your whole life reset.
Navigating the constantly changing topography in Returnal is also entertaining, as you not only have a jetpack, but can do a quick dash, including in mid-air like in Doom Eternal. This is not to say this ever feels like a Donkey Kong Country-esque platformer — or that the platforming-ish parts are annoying as they were in, well, Doom Eternal — just that you have options when it comes to getting around and, more importantly, avoiding incoming fire. The dash also comes in handy when something grabs you, which happens on occasion.
Not surprisingly, Returnal shares aspects of the arcadey shooters Housemarque made in the past. For instance, some aliens shoot balls of energy that come at you slowly, and in horizontal lines, kind of like how aliens used to shoot at you in old arcade games (or new ones made by Housemarque) You also have an unlimited supply of ammo, though weapons do need a moment to recharge, and longer for the charged shot.
Returnal even apes old school (and new school) arcade games by giving you a bonus for not being hit. The payoff being that you unlock special abilities — such as being able to see better in the dark — though only so long as you keep your streak going. As soon as you get hit, you lose your streak and your newfound skills. Though Returnal does stray from convention by not requiring you to keep on killing. Your adrenaline stays high until you get hurt; it doesn’t wind down over time.
Adding yet another layer, Returnal also has a fair bit of freakiness to deal with. And not the jump out at you kind; the terror here is more psychological. Hence my earlier reference to Dead Space, though the Silent Hill games, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, and Resident Evil Village come to mind as well.
Working in concert, these aspects make Returnal a rather effortlessly engaging shooter, one that even the most goal-oriented of gamers won’t mind repeating. Granted, having your progress undone because you died for some dumb reason — and I mean because you did something dumb, not because the game is dumb — is infuriating. Doubly so if you’ve made a lot of progress. But that frustration will quickly dissipate once you get into the next firefight. Er, first firefight. No, wait, “next” was right.
That said, there are aspects of Returnal that could’ve been better. Not the least of which is that letting you keep more of the things you find could’ve made this more fun, even if it was just for people who play this on “Easy.”
Which is another thing: this desperately needs options when it comes to its difficulty. Not just for people who want less of a challenge, but for those who want more of one as well.
And then there’s the control issue I alluded to earlier. As I mentioned earlier, your guns always have that secondary charged shot. The problem is that its activation is assigned to the left trigger; i.e., the button normally used to make Selene look down the barrel of her gun for more accuracy. But while the triggers on the PS5 controller have two levels, which means you can pull the left one a little for iron sights or a lot for the secondary fire, I was almost never able to make this distinction when engaged in a frantic gunfight and fighting for my life. Which essentially meant I couldn’t use iron sights, a real detriment given how your enemies are spry, and their attacks make them the kind of enemies you want to take out from afar.
What makes this control choice more annoying, and unnecessary, is that the right bumper is unused, while the square button is used for melee attacks, which is pointless given how, as I just mentioned, the aliens need to be taken down from a distance.
Thankfully, these issues are more annoying than they are deal-breaking. Which is why I plan on playing Returnal a second time. And maybe a third. And a fourth. Okay, maybe not that much; eventually I’ll want to move on to Returnal II: The Return or whatever they’re going to call the sequel. But until then, I’ll be happy to play Returnal again for the first time.