Roguelikes, they are a terrifying genre. To me at least. What they can induce in their players is something quite exceptional. There are many of them out there now and each of them is trying to keep the genre from becoming stagnant. After all, the premise of all these games is dying and learning from it. So when a new title emerges, for example, Returnal, I think audiences always have that question in the back of their mind: Will this one be the straw that breaks the camels back?
Emerging from the sun falling into darkness
In my honest opinion, Returnal is another homerun for the genre that continues to kick our asses and revel in our collective failures. When Astra scout Selene Vassos crash lands on a mysterious alien planet she is in for the journey of many, many lifetimes as she flees from malfunctioning automatons, traverse derelict citadels and face off against ancient Xeno gods, all in a bid to answer one question: What is the “White Shadow”?
I think what allows the genre to continue in its success is that each game has its own personality. With Hades, there is the art style and charming characters, games like DOOM work due to their intense action and terrifying world. With Returnal players have a haunting psychological battle with the past and future as you learn from your mistakes moving forward.
Tools of the trade
Along your journey, you will pick up many weapons that will assist you. There is the simple pistol but your weapons from that point on are of the Xeno variety. Every time you die you restart from your crashed ship, with all but a few scant permanent upgrades available to you.
The weapons are one of the temporary fixtures in Selene’s arsenal. Each time you restart you randomly pick up weapons from the planet. These include a type of shotgun, a poison semi-automatic and my personal favourite the Hollow Seeker. This weapon is a kind of Xeno sniper rifle with tracing capabilities and it’s quite deadly. Especially when you factor in that you can pick up weapons of increasing levels with varying sub-weaponry attached. These sub-weapons include a homing shot, a laser that breaks through enemy defences and so much more.
You then have access to Xeno parasites which act in a symbiotic relationship with you. They give the player benefits but also stick malfunction on Selene’s suit. You have to find the perfect balance to come out on top.
The children of Atropos
What makes this such a memorable experience are the denizens of Atropos. The many, many creatures of this horrifying planet are something out of a Lovecraftian novel. These Eldritch horrors have oodles of capabilities. They can teleport, fly and when need be utilise the very forces of nature against you. They haunt you, stalk you and nothing but oblivion can stop them.
What helps build the atmospheric nature of this game is the new features built into the PS5. The DualSense on the controller is phenomenal and, pardon the pun, otherworldly. Couple this with a headset, which I cannot recommend enough, and it is a recipe for nightmares.
Now the planet and its denizens may be against you but its long-dead people have left fabricators that ease your quest into hell. With Obolites, a Xeno currency, you can build artefacts that enhance your speed, weapon damage and if you’ve enough Obolite even allow you to cheat a cycle of death.
There is also an online feature where you can avenge other Astra scouts who have died. It’s a risk/reward system. You can either grave rob them for salvage or if you’re feeling generous avenge them and earn various goodies. I will warn you though, even then the planet has some more tricks up its sleeve to keep you on your toes.
The definition of madness
Returnal in my opinion is an exploration of madness and perhaps the genre itself. As I was playing the game I couldn’t help think of Albert Einstein and his belief in insanity:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
When a game can get me thinking of such heady topics, I know I’m onto a winner. Returnal is something spectacular and as one of the first titles for the PlayStation 5, it will cement the console as a must-have.
If there are any issues it would be that I have noticed people have been turned off by the price of Returnal. Checking in at €79.99, Returnal will turn away many potential buyers. However in my personal opinion this game, this story, this experience is well worth the cost.