Returnal review: A fantastic roguelike with top-notch storytelling
Whether you’re a seasoned roguelike gamer or you’re looking to try the genre out, it’s fair to say that Returnal deserves a chance.
I’ve spent a lot of time by now on Atropos, the hostile alien planet in Returnal and I’m still not tired of going on another run. That’s the beauty of Sony’s major PS5 exclusive which has finally made its way to PC last month. Returnal came out in 2021 for PlayStation 5 and it was developed by studio Housemarque.
Sony tasked Climax Studios with the PC port for Returnal and they’ve done a great job at bringing a game made for next-gen consoles, to PC in a way that retains seamless gameplay and is free of technical issues.
Climax Studios is best known for developing Silent Hill games such as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which remains one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. So, for Sony to go with Climax Studios to port Returnal, it’s not surprising to see it pay off.
I think it’s a fantastic accomplishment to manage a clean PC port of a PS5 exclusive. PS5 crossplay would have been a cherry on top for those who wanted to play with friends on consoles but it’s still an impressive port.
Returnal's performance on PC
I ran Returnal on the maximum graphics settings on a gaming laptop equipped with RTX 3080 Ti and 32GB RAM. So, the setup is more than capable of handling the specs required to play Returnal. Most of the required specs for Returnal are manageable, however, there were initial doubts about the 32GB RAM that was initially recommended to run Returnal.
However, that requirement was dropped later on and Returnal now requires a minimum of 16GB RAM to run the game.
As I mentioned in my first impressions of Returnal, we’ve seen it happen that even though the PC specs far outweigh the requirements set by developers, gamers still experience stuttering issues, glitches, and frame rate drops.
I’ve experienced none during my time playing Returnal. It has been smooth gameplay throughout and it was a key factor especially in Returnal, given how engaging the game becomes after a couple of runs.
Returnal’s roguelike gameplay, coupled with the procedurally generated levels, ensure that each time I play the game, I get a unique experience. That’s no exaggeration either as I’ve died enough times in Returnal to get sent back to the ship and not once did it feel like a mammoth task to start again.
There are several weapons in Returnal and you’ll be running into new ones as you progress through biomes and their bosses.
My favourite so far has been the Tachyomatic Carbine and Hollowseeker which have served as my best friend in the bullet-hell that is Atropos. With enemies all around and no idea which gate can land you in a pile of trouble, it’s these two automatics that make the journey easier.
Housemarque’s game promotes fast-paced action, the 1-second cooldown of dash encourages you to be on the move all the time, especially in combat. With a plethora of enemies firing countless projectiles at you, having a gun that sprays bullets back at them has been key for me to progress in Returnal.
In Returnal, aiming is not an issue. It’s far more important that you avoid taking damage. Apart from the Spitmaw Blaster, a shotgun, I’m yet to come across a weapon that makes me conscious about my aim or even keep track of the rounds fired.
Skills and upgrades
Combat is exhilarating and extremely fun in Returnal. There are 11 different weapons, each with its own sets of perks to unlock. Furthermore, there are so many layers to levelling up, rewards, skills and more.
Returnal is all about the risk-reward factors. Parasites can grant a perk at the cost of a disadvantage in some other area. There are malignant containers which can be opened to find artefacts and consumables but at the risk of causing malfunctions to your suit.
Artefacts, consumables, and permanent upgrades are what make the difference in Returnal and add much more depth to combat. Artefacts give players some upgrades which last until they die. Consumables have to be activated and usually last for a limited duration. There's also Ether and Obolites in the game which is basically the game's currency.
You get Obolites by eliminating enemies and also scattered around the levels to collect. These are used for fabricating consumables and arterfacts in the game. Ether is used to 'clean' malignant items so that there's no malfunction to the suit when it's opened. Obolites are not carried over each cycle you play, so if you die, you lose all Obolites collected in a run. Ether is a permanent currency and it does not get lost when you die.
Players play the role of Selene, a space explorer whose spaceship crashes on Atropos, a mysterious planet. Trying to find her way off the planet, Selene encounters hostile lifeforms and when she dies, gets resurrected right back at her spaceship. Soon, Selene realises that she's stuck in a time loop and on an ever-changing planet.
There are glyphs scattered around as well and collecting them helps you decipher the messages left by the alien race. Storytelling in Returnal also employs horror elements through in-game moments and cutscenes.
Returnal’s storytelling of an ancient civilisation and the scattered voice clips of Selene keep you on the cliff about wanting to know more about how an ancient yet advanced civilisation fell and how she can get out of this place alive.
Each time you make significant progress in Returnal, you can unravel more of the story in Returnal by visiting a 20th-century house which helps fill in some blanks about the exact story. There's a blend of cinematic approach and in-game movement that I personally loved, which made me look forward to completing the challenges the game threw at me. It's these choices of storytelling that deserve creative appreciation
Whether you’re a seasoned roguelike gamer or you’re looking to try the genre out, it’s fair to say that Returnal deserves a chance. There’s enough difficulty for those looking for a challenge, and a good enough learning curve for those new to roguelike to prevent Returnal from being too exhausting at the start.
Returnal’s storytelling goes hand-in-hand with its gameplay. It’s usually one strong department that gets carried by another when it comes to narrative and gameplay in video games. Every now and then, there are games that have a great balance of strong narrative and gameplay.
Returnal is one of those games.