I won’t say too much about the story just yet, not only because it’s best left to discover yourself, but also because even after 3 to 4 hours of time in-game, it remains largely a mystery as to what is going on on Atropos. I’ve encountered audio logs from who knows how many of Selene’s previous time loops – Returnal quickly makes it clear that the first loop you play is not Selene’s first go at it – I’ve seen flash frames of astronauts and wheat fields, and most confusingly so far, I’ve spent time in a P.T-like suburban home in the middle of an alien planet clearing. It’s moments like this that have given me welcome memories of 2019’s Control, but whereas Remedy was more interested in bringing the alien and weird into our world, Housemarque is insistent on bringing recognisable elements from ours into this thoroughly alien world.
Returnal Game Awards Trailer Screenshots
Housemarque of Hades
Finding the familiar in the wholly unfamiliar is a running theme so far in Returnal. The second biome you enter is in stark contrast to the first and consists of red-sanded desert with elements from the 1994 Stargate movie that I have a bizarrely good memory of despite only seeing it once at the age of 7. Anyway, there’s no Kurt Russell, but Selene must’ve had a hurt muscle or two along the way as this area, especially towards the end, pushes the difficulty up a bit.
On the whole Returnal is challenging, but from what I’ve experienced it’s not overly punishing. My first run lasted around 90 minutes and took me all the way to the second biome, Crimson Wastes, after defeating the first boss, and only ended once I came up against a threatening new enemy I hadn’t yet encountered. I wouldn’t say I had to play outstandingly well to reach that point but had picked up a couple of useful abilities and items along the way that made life easier, such as the ability to create shockwaves of damage every time I jumped. But all in all I haven’t played enough loops yet to know just how lucky I got. From this early point, though, the challenge feels about right, difficult but not unfair, and having reached the second area’s boss recently I can tell it’s not going to be the relative cakewalk that the first felt.
Despite all of the artistic inspirations on show, Returnal is still very much a Housemarque game. While not a twin-stick arcade shooter, and instead opting for a third-person trigger pull shooting style, the DNA of favourites such as Super Stardust HD and Resogun remains. Not only in the variety of weapons you wield, but in the enemy design. Alien creatures will fire spiral patterns of projectiles your way that need to be danced around and dashed out of the way of, while lines of neon death-spheres require a well-timed jump to avoid. It’s like playing a dynamic, fully 3D version of Space Invaders albeit with you, ironically, playing the invader of this space in this case.Enemies may have fun flurries of attacks up their sleeves, but Selene also has a highly enjoyable arsenal of weapons to play with. They feel great to shoot with, and at first appear to be fairly standard guns; a semi-automatic pistol, carbine rifle, shotgun and so on. But it’s the alternate fire options on them that really make them fun. These range from shield bursting beams to homing rockets that, despite being on a short cooldown, really take Returnal’s combat to the next level. They’re also the best use of the PS5 DualSense controller’s adaptive triggers that I’ve experienced yet, with a soft push of L2 allowing you to aim-down-sights, but a full press of the trigger activating your alt-fire option.
It’s this sort of bullet-hell pedigree and heritage that Housemarque made its name with, combined with the studio bringing story to the forefront like never before that has me so excited to play more Returnal and see where on Atropos it’s going. Early on, it appears to be combining the satisfying loop of action and discovery that Hades offered with every new run married with a striking space-marine aesthetic. The inspirations and influences are clear to see, but Returnal is still very much a Housemarque game at its core, and that’s what has me wanting to play and indeed die, again and again.
Simon Cardy still thinks that Returnal is not a great name for what is shaping up to be a great game. Find him over on Twitter at @CardySimon.