Returnal, the new Housemarque game exclusively for PS5, presents a mix of bullet hell action, roguelike elements and a powerful narrative. How does the cocktail work? In this analysis we will tell you.
Housemarque is one of those studios that, without playing in the big leagues, has built a good reputation, particularly among fans of arcade action video games. Titles like Resogun , Nex Machina and Matterfall have shown that these Finns know very well what to do when it comes to shooting covering the screen, scores and devilish difficulty.
But what happens when you give a small team, accustomed to those kinds of games with such a direct style, the resources necessary to do something worthy of the big leagues? The answer is Returnal, his new work exclusively for PlayStation 5 .
It is not even necessary for them to announce from the rooftops that it is their biggest and most ambitious game to date, because that is obvious: it can be seen in the much more cutting-edge graphic section, in the renewed importance of the narrative or even in the style of play, with the third-person camera behind the back so common in the AAA.
But despite the changes, Returnal is above all a Housemarque game . And any fan of the studio will easily recognize its hallmarks, expanded and improved. In our analysis of Returnal for PS5 , we tell you if it is worth it.
- What are the bosses at Returnal like?
- How long does Returnal last?
- How is the history of Returnal?
- What does Returnal look like?
All You Need Is Kill
As soon as you know the previous works of Housemarque, you already know that it is a studio with fundamentally arcade roots. And that action, fast, frenetic, with hundreds of shots covering the screen and perfect controls, has been perfectly transferred to Returnal gameplay. We simply can’t think of buts to put it in that regard: Returnal’s gameplay is one of its greatest strengths and you won’t tire of shooting, jumping, dodging and watching enemies explode to pieces.
It is worth noting the use of adrenaline, a system that invites us to demonstrate our ability : if we manage to defeat several enemies without being hit, the meter increases. And for each new level of adrenaline a new improvement is added, such as facilities to use overload (the reload system, nailed to the one in the Gears saga), greater melee attack damage, see enemies through walls … But if we are hit only once, the adrenaline restarts and we have to kill again to recover those useful improvements.
We must also highlight the variety of weapons available in Returnal and, especially, their originality. Initially we find the typical ones: pistol, carbine, shotgun, missile launcher … But as we progress, we get gadgets that break all the rules, such as the Electrophile Conductor , a weapon that instead of the usual ammunition, places posts that are connected by a damaging energy beam; or the Nightmare Hunter , whose four “bullets” have to return to the magazine to be fired again (which means that the closer we are to the enemy, the greater their speed).
But if there is something that differentiates Returnal from other third-person action games, that is the bullet hell element , which in turn is also one of Housemarque’s hallmarks. At the first levels it may not seem too obvious; there is some enemy that fires a wave of shots and little else.
But as we progress, the number of enemies that resort to firing bursts increases … as does the number of shots that each burst includes. By the time we get to the last level, Returnal has finished its ” third person bullet hell ” conversion process , putting swirling shots before us, light waves that cannot be crossed with the dash , laser beams that cross the screen at large speed and everything you can think of. It is a real moving show , and the feeling of dodging the hundreds of shots that cover the screen is very good.
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It is curious when compared to the recent NieR Replicant ver. 1.22474487139 … , which also contains a strong bullet hell element . Compared to what Returnal offers, the Yoko Taro game is four pellets (and beware, we like NieR very much).
Returnal bosses are the enemies in whom the expression ” bullet hell ” takes on its full meaning: a true bullet hell . They are all a true spectacle, both in visual design -very impressive and, as expected, drinking from the classics of cosmic horror- and in mechanics, since they require us to give everything to the controls, achieving that magical feeling of being fighting a confrontation in which we are at a clear disadvantage but there is a way to survive.
The only but is that for a game in which the main mechanics consists of repeating levels, their number seems low . Or perhaps it is that they are all so spectacular that we have been wanting more. Of many more.
Returnal also has a small multiplayer component, in the form of daily challenges and corpses of other players. While exploring, we may stumble upon the body of another human player, being able to contemplate their last seconds. Once this is done, two things can happen: that the corpse rises up turned into a mass of tentacles and attacks us, or that we have the possibility of avenging that player, which means facing an enemy of great power. If we are victorious in combat, both we and the avenged player get a reward.
Returnal is committed to a roguelite structure , in which death means starting over from the beginning while preserving some very specific improvements. Although initially it gives the feeling of being the facet that most breaks with the style of previous Housemarque works … We soon realize that this is not the case.
All the artifacts, objects and improvements that we obtain are still the usual power-ups of arcade video games, even in the fact that they disappear when we die. Do you remember the improvements of the shoot’em up that alter the burst of shots of our ship? In Returnal they are called traits , and they make a weapon go from firing bullets … to adding missiles, lasers, waves that pass through surfaces, pursuing shots … There are a large number of possible, random combinations in each game.
Returnal does something very smart with these traits : by using a weapon, it raises the level of equipped traits and we unlock new ones. And that progress is preserved even after death, so the next time we find the carbine after we have unlocked a few traits, it will be a much more powerful weapon than it was initially.
This does two things: First, we change weapons often and try them all , because we’re not going to get very far with a featureless grenade launcher unlocked. Second, it is where we find a greater sense of progress, despite the fact that Returnal returns us to the beginning after each death .
Through its roguelite development , Returnal also invites us to take risks: the games are characterized by constant decisions: do I risk picking up this parasite, which gives me something good but also something bad? Am I picking up this tainted health buff, even though the chances are high that it will cause annoying suit failure? Despite the fact that the gameplay is always frantic, we must take into account at all times what we carry with us and how one object can affect another, giving rise to very interesting synergies .
It is somewhat surprising that at no time was the word Metroid used to describe Returnal , because Housemarque’s game has a lot, a lot of the Nintendo saga. It is not only that the map is nailed to the 3D model of the Prime saga, or that we can scan enemies, artifacts, weapons and others to complete an extensive database: there are also objects that are permanently preserved and give us access to previously sealed areas of the levels.
Some of these objects are very obvious references to Metroid, like the hook … and some other surprises that we will not reveal. You can’t say that Returnal is exactly a metroidvania, but if you’ve been wanting to sink your teeth into a new Metroid for a long time, Housemarque’s game will likely help you fill the void (at least for a while).
And even though the scenarios change randomly in each game, exploration is greatly favored with rooms full of nooks and crannies where we can find secrets, improvements, etc. The structure of each level is always the same (each one presents a type of biome), but what is inside, the design of the rooms, is what changes. To give you an idea, it is very similar to what Dead Cells does .
Unfortunately, this is where Returnal’s problems begin . Being a 3D action game with next-gen graphics must have taken its toll, because we quickly began to see rooms with repeating designs . It cannot be denied that there are some very well designed locations (surprising, for example, to find a large structure, similar to a building, in an optional room), but in a game that bets on repetition this is a problem. Because we have come to find exactly the same room, on the same level, in the same game.
Neither does it finish working how long the games are. In roguelike / roguelite it is normal for them to be fast, one hour at most, since repetition leads to wear and tear, but in Returnal a complete game can take between an hour and a half and two hours , depending on the time we spend exploring, and without the possibility of saving in between (so if we close the game … start over). As for the total duration, it has taken us 22 hours to reach the Returnal credits , but we still have to complete the endgame to see the true ending and a lot of items, traits, etc. to be unlocked. Come on, if you want you can go to much more.
When we have a few hours of progress, another problem arises: when you die or end a game, there is little incentive to play another . That is, the gameplay is very entertaining and it is there, the story (which we will talk about in a moment) is there … and they are reasons to return, but it does not reach the level of something like the recent Hades , a game in the that after finishing each game you want to start the next one, either to test a new weapon or discover how an interaction continues. On the contrary, in Returnal, when you die or finish, you just want to take a break .
All this leads us to the conclusion that the roguelite facet does not quite work . This leaves Returnal in a somewhat strange position, because those who come looking for a roguelite are not going to leave completely satisfied, and those who come looking for action and exploration will have to deal with the changing scenarios and starting over after each death. In other words: as an action game with Metroid touches (without the “vania”) Returnal is fantastic, but as a roguelike it falls short .
And what about the story? It’s a good question … because we’re not sure either. Through a series of not very numerous playable sequences that take place in the first person, we discover the reasons that have led Selene to the planet Atropos. Everything is narrated in a deliberately confusing way and constantly resorting to symbolism. With this they have achieved an interpretive story, but in the end it leaves us with more doubts than it answers and it is difficult to draw a final conclusion from the events .
It is true that it manages to maintain the mystery and does some things that have surprised us, such as changing the way of narrating in the journal entries as the story progresses, but perhaps it would have been better to bet on a narrative a little more … traditional. Especially if we take into account the kind of game it is.
We finish , as always, evaluating the graphical section of Returnal . And from the first moment it is clear that for Housemarque it has been a priority to maintain a rate of 60 images per second. Logical, being a game that requires very good reflexes. And as we mentioned at the beginning, when a large number of enemies, effects and shots of all kinds come together on the screen, Returnal is a true spectacle .
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That does not mean that if we compare it with other PlayStation 5 exclusives, such as the Demon’s Souls remake , Returnal is one notch below. And it does not mean that it looks bad, far from it. What’s more, its artistic section is scandalously good , drawing on the style of contemporary HR Giger artists, such as Zdzisław Beksiński , to put before our eyes the darkness, oppression and terror of outer space. And many tentacles.
Finally, note the sensational use that Returnal makes of the DualSense functions , undoubtedly one of the best examples of the potential of the new command together with Astro’s Playroom . The amount of on-screen effects that have been ingeniously transferred to the haptic vibration of the controller is enormous, and since we felt the rain on our hands when we first left the ship, it never ceases to amaze us. To give you an idea, it even has playable utility: we can detect the position of an enemy thanks to the part of the controller that vibrates when it roars .
Adaptive triggers also have a role, allowing to aim (if we press to the pressure point) or use the secondary fire (if we press all the way). In our experience, although the idea is quite cool, in the heat of combat it ends up being a nuisance that is best deactivated from the options menu.
All this is complemented by an also sensational use of 3D audio (play it with headphones, do yourself a favor), making Returnal one of those games that take full advantage of the features of PlayStation 5 .