Inside the cycle, it feels good after a while. In the beginning, everything is complicated, with the urgent need to learn everything, adapt and exploit every resource and system provided by the bowels of the planet Atropos to rebel against its own children. By the dozen, the creatures throw themselves continuously and obsessively against Selene, a cosmonaut who has ended up in who knows what dimensional and existential joke. But after, yes, after you feel good in the sky, in that seemingly endless succession of explorations, fireworks, and spectacular failures.
When you have made the laws of the world your own, when you begin to anticipate the movements of the enemies, when the areas have become so recognizable, even in their random arrangement, that you move with that certainty that takes you from bed to fridge even at night, with the lights off, in the end, indeed long before the end, Returnal and his planet Atropos become another home, in an elsewhere, ideally light-years away: a timeless “room” in which to lock oneself up to continue spinning, in a (not) eternal cycle of challenges and bets and satisfactions and disappointments.
Returnal can boast a series of merits that are the same as the great games; not for nothing is it a great game. It has the ambition to dare, supported by the means to do so and the experience necessary to set up an apparently complex ecosystem, but in fact impeccably precise, reliable, and generous in continuing to put the player at the center of its continuous whirl. To begin with, Returnal faces an issue that can be defined as capital in the historical situation in which video games are found.
Housemarque has set itself the goal of finding the synthesis between the potential of a design that relies strongly on random or procedural elements and the breath and the “emotional curve” of a more traditional experience, supported by narrative elements and climaxes that they are not flattened with every Game Over. Given that, the Game Over in Returnal does not exist. There is not even a title screen, in hindsight.
The creators of Nex Machina and Resogun, among others, wanted to somehow take a step forward without completely detaching themselves from their roots. Roots that suck sap from a classical arcade approach, fast, high-impact, all organized around points and systems of instant gratification of the skill demonstrated by the player. Once inside the Returnal cycle, it is clear that the goal has not only been achieved but that every rosiest expectation has been exceeded with momentum.
Reduced to a minimum, Returnal is a third-person shooter with a burning pace, whose game world is divided into prepackaged areas but alternate in a different sequence with each new exploration of the planet Atropos. Exhausted the vital energy (indeed, the integrity of her suit), Selene collapses to the ground and is brought back to the starting point. Ready for a new spin in that mysterious washing machine that is Atropo. A very significant portion of your gear disappears, but a handful of permanent items manage to survive the cycle reset. The balance between what goes away and what remains is that Returnal is a great chisel work between old-school shooters, semi-procedural / casual indie games, and a traditional AAA adventure with a beginning and an end, as they say.
It’s true, the very first impact is stunning, and you risk a headache with all those procedures, those rules, those mechanisms that short video tutorials try to illustrate. Despite this, it is precisely the minutes of debut on Atropo that establish that the foundations of Returnal are already excellent. Selene moves, explodes shots, sprints to avoid those of the lumpy beasts trying to chew her worthy of a great action game. The felt weight of the body of ours, the power and feedback of the guns, the elegance of the fugues, all work great. And that’s why Returnal is a great game because its new insights enrich it rather than be weighed down. Because, inside, it remains a game by Housemarque, a label that has shown its ability to set up extremely functional and engaging game systems.
In search of a scoring system or combo similar to that of the Resogun and Nex Machina already mentioned, initially, one is puzzled, thinking that something has actually been sacrificed on the altar of the narrative and the sense of progression. Everything becomes clearer after a handful of hours when the connection with Returnal’s fabrics is complete.
You move inside its rooms with the arrogant confidence of a bureaucrat between the counters of the land registry office: from the outside, it all seems too much, inside it’s all so clear … You see the code, like Neo in the Matrix, like when you ran at a thousand per hour in Burnout 2and only those who had the controller understood what was happening. Like when in Ikaruga, we went to tip-tap between carpets of energy bullets. Returnal is this kind of game that builds everything around you, and when you realize it, you are already in total and lovable slavery.
A burst of plasma buckshot, two jumps pushed a little higher by the snorting rear-rockets determined, and Selene finds herself for the first, hundredth, thousandth times having to make a decision. Because in Returnal, when you’re not shooting, you have to make choices. A new weapon, a new parasite that clings to the suit (and not only) of the protagonist, a new find of the planet, a secondary gadget: each brings with it pros and cons, not only in the dynamics of bonuses and malus but also relative to what you have to decide to lose to gain something. Even just opening one of the containers that can bestow new equipment is, potentially, a risk: if it is crossed by malignant energy, it can (but it is not certain) assign a fault to Selene’s suit. Is it worth trying to open it anyway?
Of course, the failures can be “resolved,” following the micro objectives indicated on the screen (“Perform three melee kills”), but in the meantime, they bring with them painful consequences (“Take damage to every object collected”). A new weapon is accompanied by a precise secondary attack and specific traits that can make it prefer something to the one you already have in your hand, but we are always on the betting side. This rifle has the ability to drain energy to enemies and transfer it to Selene. Still, that other one brings more collateral damage in extra missiles and damages targets over time. Which one to choose? A parasite can provide a self-repair function of the suit when things get terrible… but at the cost of much more serious future failures.
All this storming of Hamletic doubts and roads to take make the player more and more the absolute protagonist. Play Returnal means sitting ideally on the leather armchair in the button room: you have the power to decide everything, which means that you have the responsibility to decide. A similar philosophy fits perfectly with the concept of the cycle and the random dynamics of the game. Every reboot can be the right one. Every time you can find different weapons and equipment first, and the variety is simply embarrassing. All failures bring hay to the farmhouse, in the form of experience accumulated in large doses, to be able to take new paths, new choices, with ever greater awareness … but also with the certainty of being able to change something every five minutes of play.
There is also room for some social element, such as sharing specific resources between players included in the same session (but who are never seen on screen). Or like when you come across the holographic projection of an explorer killed by Atropos. At that point, the corpse can be looted or nobly chosen to avenge it, which leads to the appearance of several respectable-level enemies.
There are a large number of enemies in Returnal, and they often know how to be lethal. Sometimes they work with such efficiency that they slide the experience into cursed realms of a soulslike. What matters is that the creatures are often spectacular and mighty, fearsome and fascinating in their majesty or simply admirable, wrapped in an enigmatic and elusive aesthetic… What matters most is that the tools to reduce them to nothing are all intriguing and not only those that explode bullets and vomit energy, but also a very nice sword that Selene can ask for help after the first part of the game. Running among dozens of screaming beasts and ending them with the broad gesture with which the blade is extracted and, at the same time, the opponent is pierced, is an absolute pleasure. There is a lot of Japan on this scattered planet who knows where and who knows when.
At Housemarque, with Returnal, we also had to deliver the first game conceived and created exclusively for the new generation. It sounds absurd, but that’s the way it is, and the only competitor in the race is Demon’s Souls, which as a general design, harks back to a game from a decade earlier. The visual impact is global of great effect, with appreciable care for the environments, an inordinate amount of effects, impact light effects, and a frame rate that tries to remain anchored to sixty frames per second (failing, especially in the second part of the game).
However, two aspects particularly strike, on the one hand, the non-existent uploads, which make Returnal a fluid, continuous, dynamic, and impossible to stem experience, even when the rooms are of fair size. Then there is the Dual Sense, which with its micro-vibrations, transmits the rain that falls on Selene or, even better, determines the resistance of the dorsal keys to help manage the main and secondary fire.
On all these triumphs, a masterful artistic direction conceives creatures between the mystical and the infernal and knows how to illuminate, how much to do it, and when not to do it what colors to leave to dictate the feel of the player. A result that is only partially undermined by references to “real” life, on Earth, of Selene who, however, have the merit of being able to frame a story made of paranoia and absurdity, of perceptions and suggestions (here is another reference, to the writing of the Remedy of Control and Alan Wake, neighbors of Housemarque). A cosmic madness that drags Returnal into the new dimension of action video games, ready to pave the way for a new generation of much more than bullet-hell.
Returnal is a great game, very skilled in building a complex game system but which (almost) always moves with a perfect rhythm. Inside there is the essential and intoxicating gameplay of the arcade games of the past, or Housemarque more generally, and the desire and the ability to expand everything.
Fast, smart, and intoxicating like a well-crafted arcade game. Ambitious and cared for like a great production, plus all the "tricks" of a game that knows how to tell itself and go beyond the limits of genres. Returnal brings Housemarque among the greats in the sector.