Returnal – Review

Returnal for the PS5 is a run based, rogue-like, third-person shooter from Housemarque. If you don’t know, they’re the developers that did games like Dead Nation and Resogun, which are both awesome. Returnal came out earlier this year on April 30 and I just picked it up a week ago. If you’d like to know why I waited let’s talk about the price.

Price

This was one of those Sony first-party super special sauce game where they felt like it should be a 70 USD experience, I felt differently. I’m a huge fan of Housemarque and I think their games are a blast to play, they focus on gameplay first and it really shows. I also don’t think they’ve ever created a product that I would consider paying 60-70 USD for. It’s just not what they do, all their games feel more like arcade experiences to me. Listen, if you paid full price I have no issue with you or your purchase. The only way Sony is going to learn anything is if people speak with their wallets. I found the game at my local store for 30 brand new and that’s when I bought it. I would have bought it on launch if it was going for 40, so I had to jump at it for 30. And after beating the game, that’s exactly what it is. Don’t be fooled by whatever anyone else may say. I’ll try not to harp on the whole cost analysis of this title, it’s not worth 70, they shouldn’t have priced it at that, and it felt really shitty that they did.

The Game

So what do you do in Returnal? You run around semi-random environements exploring and shooting monsters while you try to figure out what the fuck is happening to you. I say semi-random because while the next room in the map may be random, the layout of that room is predetermined. They’re just slotting in rooms in different ways and adding new ones in to make it seem interesting. Those monsters that you kill drop obelites that you can spend to buy items, power-ups, or equipment that will make your “run” potentially easier. If you die, you start back at your spaceship with none of the progression you earned from your last run, except for specific things which I won’t spoil.

When you finally do get to the end of a level, you then have to face a boss. Beat that boss and you gain an ability and get to move on to the next world. There are 6 levels in total. Enemies get stronger as you go, but so do you and your weapons. That is literally all the game is until you finish the last boss, the endgame mixes up the formula just a bit, but we’ll get to that shortly.

The game itself feels really good to play. They really have the feeling of third-person shooting spot on and you have to commend the developers for that. Running around, jumping, and aiming all feel perfect. The amount of control you have of your character in mid-air when jumping, along with the dash move you have gives you confidence in every move you make. Sometimes you have to make a long jump and dash at the end to reach the ledge, but I had no doubts in any of the jumps I attempted. It just all works and feels good. What that all means is that when you die, you probably did something wrong. The game gives you all the tools you need to survive, it just depends on your skill level.

You might get to the first boss or a tough enemy and feel like all the beams coming at you are unfair and you have no recourse to deal with any of it, but that’s just because you need more time with the game. Put in a few more hours and you’ll be dodging through beams, jumping over rings of energy, all while keeping a steady stream of bullets firing at your enemies weak point.

A big part of the game are the multitude of weapons that you unlock, but if you’re like me you’ll quickly find the few that you want. I don’t think I even fired the shotgun weapon at an enemy the whole time I played. Their were only about 2 or 3 guns that I really felt good with and wanted each time. I would end up not picking up any guns unless they were one of those. The weapons you pick up get different types of augments that change the way the they handle and even augment their special attack, all of which you’ll get used to, but you’ll definitely start to prefer some over others. I feel like that works for this type of game. As you go through this groundhog day you’re bound to find things that work for you and feel right.

This all just gets me to how confusing a lot of this game is. When you start playing you’re unlocking things, picking up purple and red items. Some things are malignant and you just have no clue what in the hell is going on. You’re leveling up adrenaline, collecting ether, gaining proficiency, and collecting all these obolites. When you die you really don’t know what carried over from your last game so you open your inventory to try and figure it out and still have no clue. I guess the developers just want you to keep playing until you figure it out. Just like the story.

The Story

Since I don’t really want to spoil Returnal maybe I’ll be a little vague on the story, or does that even matter? I mean, sure…from here on out there will be SPOILERS for this game. I personally didn’t care for the story that much, it’s not really something that kept me coming back to the game. So I think the game was a little flat on that portion.

You start out as an astronaut that crash lands on an alien planet. Your ship is destroyed and you wake up and have to explore this environement to try and find a way off the planet. The story is told through a lot of audio logs that you find in the environment along with some glyphs that you have to uncover. Every once in a while you’ll find an old house in the map that you can enter and go into first-person to get some pointless story exposition.

I’ll be honest with you, as I was playing this game the last thing I was thinking about was the story. It’s a part of why this game doesn’t feel like a big-budget thing. The story elements are all on the periphery. It’s hinted at in audio logs and these weird flashbacks you have. You get a little nugget of it and then have to run around an alien world for a few hours. It was never motivation enough for me to continue.

Endgame

Let’s just get right into the meat of this game. Again, SPOILERS.

To get to the end of the first part of the game you have to beat 5 bosses and clear 6 worlds. That took me about 10 hours to do. When that’s over, you have to start from the first world and go through each of the six biomes again searching for 6 sunface fragments, one in each world. Once you find all six, beat the last boss again and you’ll open up the last scene and finish the third and final act of the game. That wasn’t really too hard to do.

Thinking back on a lot of the social discourse of this game, a lot of podcast personalities complained about spending multiple hours on a run and then dying. They felt like all of their forward progression was lost and felt it hard to pick up and go on another four hour run to just die at a boss or something. That’s not really how this game plays. You can skip most of the levels fairly easily if you’re so inclined. You only have to beat bosses once to finish the game. It’s a lot more forgiving. You also shouldn’t be spending that many hours per run after your first one or two good ones.

I thought about getting the platinum trophy for this game and saw online how random some of these collectibles are and how much of a grind it is to get them. So I didn’t really want to do that and was kind of worried about it. I stuck with it, just getting the next trophy for getting the 3rd act ending. I decided to keep going and started doing runs of the first three levels and pretty soon got a trophy for getting all the collectibles in one of the biomes. A strategy was starting to form in my head.

I was watching the PS5 Trophies YouTube channel to see what he was saying about how he was going to get his last trophies, some random collectibles had eluded him so he was just running it over and over. What he would do is level up on the first biome and get his character build set so that he could survive the next two biomes. I decided to do something different.

I would blaze through the first world and go right to the portal I needed, either the one for biome 2 or 3. I’d avoid all the enemies and chests, wouldn’t even upgrade my gun or health. When I got to one of those biomes I’d pick up the proficiency bonus and then start looking for a gun in the level and getting upgrades. I would skip fights if possible, they don’t matter, all you’re looking for at that point are the little arrows on your map. You just need to find them and see if they are one of your missing collectibles. If it’s a map tile you’ve already seen a bunch it’s more than likely to not have anything for you. This started really helping my collectible runs in a major way. It’s not like you’re all of a sudden going to get every collectible in one run, sometimes I’d only get one item from each run, which really sucked. Sometimes the game would crash and you’d lose all your progress, which happened to me twice.

I did get that platinum though and I must say I loved almost every minute of it. This game was a blast to play. I actually got the last few trophies, netting me the platinum, faster than I wanted to. When the platinum trophy popped I was a little disappointed that it was over. It was just a fun game with a good amount of challenge that kept me wanting to come back to it.

Final Score – 8.6

I must say that I really did enjoy my time with Returnal. If I didn’t have a thing about picking up a game I already platinumed, I’d want to jump back into it again. All that’s left are daily challenges which I don’t care about. This is a great third-person shooter that actually feels good to play. Combat is fast and challenging, forcing you to keep your wits about you to survive. Pick it up on a sale and it’ll treat you right. Perhaps the story could have been a bit more engaging but that would mean it’d get more in the way of the gameplay, which would suck.

All of my juicy end-game stats.

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