Returnal – Arcade Lives
Following a bold declaration that “Arcade Is Dead” in 2017, following the launches of Matterfall, and Nex Machina, Finnish developer Housemarque’s future seemed in doubt. Financially they weren’t healthy due to lackluster sales of the aforementioned titles as well as their many other arcade-era inspired titles such as Super Stardust, Dead Nation, and Resogun, and optically they weren’t doing much better, with fans concerned that this shift in direction would result in a collapse for the studio. Certainly, things weren’t looking great following the announcement and subsequent shelving of 3rd Person PVP Shooter Stormdivers, but the studio has picked itself back up, dusted itself off, and partnered with PlayStation on the first big PS5 release of 2021. The question is, can Returnal, a title that carries with it so much hope and importance for Housemarque, deliver?
Fans concerned that the spirit of Housemarque was vanishing can rest easy; despite the 3rd person shooter perspective, and AAA stylings, this is a Housemarque arcade title at heart. The premise is a simple one, Selene, the protagonist of this story, crash lands on an alien planet, Atropos, your job, assuming the role of Selene is to help her survive the threats of Atropos. Short version, you won’t succeed, Atropos is a brutal environment, filled with numerous biomes of lethal creatures all set on killing Selene, and it’s upon dying that Selene discovers she has somehow been caught in a time-loop. After each death, Selene resurrects with flashes of her past failures taunting her, the world slightly reformed, and the quest for survival resumes. Little nuggets of narrative, threads from Selene’s past failures lay scattered around the world, from audio logs to debris, and houses that connect to Selene’s life pre-crash, all of which piecemeal out the narrative. There’s nothing overly in-your-face about the storytelling here, and in fact, arcade purists may push on through barely noticing that there is one, but it’s here, and it runs as deep as you want it to go. Selene’s story is a fascinating one.
The core of any Housemarque title has forever been the gameplay loop. It’s fair to say that people weren’t playing old coin-op titles, or any of Housemarque’s past work, for the story, no matter how good it may have been, and it’s in the gameplay here that we see old Housemarque shine through. Yes, there’s a pretty AAA skin on everything here, yes, it doesn’t look like an arcade title, but Returnal is every bit the Housemarque title. Though at first glance it looks like an Aliens-inspired 3rd person shooter, the systems embedded in the Returnal DNA run much deeper than that. Returnal is a rogue-lite at its core with other gameplay systems spliced into that DNA to making into something so much more than the sum of its parts. On the rogue-lite side, players will need to learn the environment, learn the weaknesses of their opponents, and grow from their failures in order to succeed, because you bring very little with you following a death. A few perma-buffs can be found in each biome that improves gun proficiency, overall health, and more, but for the most part, it’s down to considered progression as you move from biome to biome that gives you the greatest chance of success. You’ll discover buffs, health, and weapon upgrades as well as de-buffs/parasites which offer significant perks at a short-term price, constantly as you progress through your cycle, but it can all vanish in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful and considered as you explore.
Returnal is so much more than a simple rogue-lite however, with it merging some popular systems associated primarily with a few famous AAA IP, as well as their own arcade-inspired roots. On the AAA side, Returnal is an incredibly slick, wonderfully polished, 3rd person shooter, that implements popular features such as active-reloading and more to facilitate silky smooth combat. Alt-fire is present making your various pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and more feel superpowered at times, and there are enough alt-fire variations available that you can mix and match your weapon loadout to suit your playstyle and the needs you have at the time. Weapon drops are plentiful, so you won’t be without the right tool for the trade for all that long.
Housemarque’s arcade roots shine through in the attack styles of enemies which are in patterns identical to their past work in the top-down, twin-stick shooter space, and the chain based adrenaline system, that improves your attack potency, provided you don’t take damage yourself, which functions just like their past combo systems in the likes of Resogun or Super Stardust.
You will fail a lot in Returnal, but the drive for every player with each run should always be simply to make it to the end of each respective biomes boss. Upon beating the boss, the relevant biome becomes much faster to traverse on subsequent visits. Players can opt to grind through previously mastered realms, to grind out their weapon proficiency, and health upgrades, or opt to fast-forward through, whereupon entering each successive biome you’ll receive an upgrade that boosts you to a point where you’re at least competitive in the area. There are certainly pros and cons to both approaches, and that will be a decision each player needs to make with each future run.
Returnal is addicting, like arcade titles of old, there’s the constant lure of starting another run, adjusting your technique subtly, in the hopes of finally achieving success, and victory never feels that far away either. Despite the game’s difficulty (which is just that, not unfair like certain titles *cough* Souls *cough*), you’ll rarely feel defeated, with success seeming to be only a couple of well-placed bullets away. Returnal has been masterfully balanced to ensure that all players have the opportunity to succeed, if only they’re willing to play by the game’s rules.
Returnal both looks and sounds amazing. In every way, Returnal looks like a AAA title that has gestated in the bowels of PlayStation Studios like many other peers to launch exclusively on the platform. The product is an eye-melting title that haunts you in some areas and leaves your jaw hanging in others. Simultaneously the work in the audio space is exceptional, from Selene’s monologuing, to the sound of bullets piercing the air and the screeches and hums from your alien opponents, Returnal is a treat to behold. Also notable is the exceptional implementation of the Dualsense’s haptic features here, which causes the control to ripple when rain hits it, resist you as you fire, and even enact your alt-fire depending on how tightly you pull the L2 trigger. Housemarque titles have always looked, sounded, and felt good to play, but the caveat had always been that they looked, sounded and felt good… for arcade-style titles, but that caveat exists no longer thanks to Returnal. The game crashed 1-2 times across dozens of hours of gameplay, but nothing of any significance, another incredible feat for a studio developing a game whose scope is 10x bigger than anything they’d previously developed.
Though a much harder game to pitch than many other exclusive titles that come from PlayStation Studios, Returnal has every right to belong in the same conversation that titles from the likes of Insomniac, Naughty Dog, Sucker Punch, Guerilla, and Santa Monica do. It’s a wonderful point of difference within the PS5 portfolio of titles, but in its own right, it shines too. It might feel like you’re beating your head against a very smart wall, but persist, because as you learn to play by the game’s very specific set of rules, mastery will reward you with one of the finest titles you’re likely to play in 2021.
Returnal was reviewed on the PlayStation 5 with code kindly supplied by PlayStation Australia.