6.0

Returnal Sticks to the Middle and Ends Up Nowhere Because of It

Games Reviews Returnal
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<i>Returnal</i> Sticks to the Middle and Ends Up Nowhere Because of It

Space. Roguelike Death Loops. Frenetic over-the-shoulder shooting from a studio known for raucous arcade mayhem. I was pretty sold when I first saw the trailer for Finnish game studio Housemarque’s PS5 debut, Returnal. This is shit I love. Bungie betrayed me with whatever the hell they were doing in Destiny 2, and the long-awaited Metroid Prime 4 is still nowhere on the horizon. Returnal, despite the terrible name, looked like it scratched a number of itches. I didn’t care so much for the game fully enmeshing with all of the features of the PS5, from 3D audio, to the more esoteric haptic feedback (which mostly just feels like a vibrator on its last ounce of battery or an overfed mouse trying to escape your hands), to its taking advantage of the ultra-fast SDDs (still far too small and non-expandable) inside the giant sci-fi boxes, but I was willing to see it out. That’s what these big launch-window titles are supposed to do: oversell all the features that the new tech can pull off before everyone abandons it for raw horsepower later in the life cycle.

But by the time I was trying to solve the mystery of a mid century farmhouse, I kind of stopped caring about the promise of the future. Because I’m fully convinced now that AAA isn’t just a more expensive-looking caliber of game, it’s a creative dead end in an industry that doesn’t even realize it’s gasping for air in a world wracked by the seismic convulsions of capitalism.

This was the game that snuffed out “arcade games” in a blog post. It put their battle royale, Stormdivers, on ice for god knows how long, for a game that wanted to be so daring that it warranted a blog post that murdered arcade games. A game so big and important that it halted a battle royale in its steps and turned Finnish studio Housemarque away from its arcade history and towards the AAA.

The second I managed a run up to the mid century farmhouse in the middle of an overgrown alien ruin, I knew I’d made a mistake. And I’d already put up with so much. I wasn’t a huge fan of Stormdivers, but putting that on hold for this? Well, it’s probably the right decision for Housemarque and Sony’s bottom line, but also, yeesh. If that’s all we’re using as a metric (and unfortunately it is), we’re already lost.

As an action shooter, it’s a competent enough game. To be honest, I expect a little more from the studio that gave me Super Stardust Delta, my personal favorite arcade experience on the unfairly neglected PlayStation Vita. The weapons are interesting if a bit underwhelming at times, though some of the alt-fire moves are truly fantastic and show off the much vaunted power of the PS5—watch as those teraflops go to work orchestrating the particle effects and physics of a dozen balls of deadly blue light bounding and ricocheting like the Mega Millions Lottery Machine bringing death to an entire arena. And the various random powers you’ll accrue can be neat; remember bunnyhopping in Quake? Returnal lets you turn every landed jump into a kinetic blast of death—the ultimate in forward momentum. I don’t like having to retrain my fingers and brain to make sense of the alt fire on the haptic feedback L2 (there’s bumpers, just let me use those), or the impossibly slow recharge time between alt-volleys. It’s the best use of the haptic triggers I’ve experienced on the PS5, but also pulling back like you would in literally every other game since the invention of controller triggers is a muscle memory that gets you killed in Returnal. The alternate fire options are sick as hell, though, and one of the few areas the Housemarque I remember peeks through.

The dodge and jump are both fine. But…the dodge hiccups between dashes. It hacks like a high school friend’s hand-me-down Dodge Shadow trying to accelerate after idling too long at a red light. And the jump (with a jetpack no less) is too short, cresting too quickly. Both of them make the bullet-hell moments of Returnal exhausting. And course correction during platforming moments is barely possible, and often won’t save you from careening off a ledge.

Of course, careening off a ledge doesn’t actually kill you. It zaps a little bit of health and puts you back more or less where you fell off, or in the same room at least. Compared to the general aesthetic of the game (and the marketing) it’s a surprising kindness. But as much as I found death to be a roadblock in this game, and as often as I found myself bounding off ledges into the vastness of nothing, I kind of wished there was a commitment to being bastards extended towards making those deaths, well, fatal.

The boss fights are definitely bastards, and cool. They’re big flashy affairs. They don’t have the scale and creative direction vitality of the bosses in the latest version of Nier, but they’re definitely showy, engaging, and lethal.

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Despite the most apt comparison being Remnant: From The Ashes, a flashy but substance-less death-loop shooter that was on fire for a week and then disappeared from discussion, comparisons to Hades are bound to happen. Memories are short and it’s the most recent spiritual relative. You can see them cropping up in the preview coverage of Returnal already. Yes, Returnal is a roguelike. It’s run-based. You live, you die, you start over. You keep some specific things, lose most of the other stuff, and the world reconfigures itself. That’s the essence of what most people think of when they think of Rogue and the games inspired by it. You could also say the same thing about Pathologic 2, but this game really isn’t either of them. It’s not even really like them. Because as committed as it is to having a narrative (which makes it not an arcade game, which makes it AAA, apparently), it’s not committed to that narrative actually being modified by the countless deaths you rack up. Runs and their eventual deaths in Hades change and deepen character relationships. Death in Pathologic 2 sets the player on a completely different narrative trajectory that fractures and fragments the gameworld, poking holes at its realities in cheeky and dramatic ways.

Here, death is just a new start, with less of your cool shit, and a reconfiguration of rooms. And it doesn’t even have the decency to be quick about starting you back up. But it tries to be cinematic by replaying a frantic prestige television montage of the moments before you awaken again having crashed on the mysterious alien world of Atropos.

Atropos would actually be pretty cool if it wasn’t the same collection of rooms that shuffled around every time you died. As impressive as the procedural map generation is (they’re good arrangements) the rooms themselves will begin to feel extremely repetitive. And once the repetition sets in, any desire to explore and investigate drains away.

I realized about 10 hours into my playthrough that Metroid Prime actually makes a lousy roguelike (and that I’d much rather be playing Metroid Prime). Sustained movement through a space that persists and is immovable, a megalithic puzzle of the past suddenly thrust into the present: that’s what drives Metroid Prime. Colossal intentionality, not clever randomization. It’s not a fast-paced game at all, really. In fact, I’m not sure the cycle and speed that roguelikes require is well suited to the kind of thoughtful adventure game with moderate platforming and action that Prime gave us. If anything the comparison falls apart here quite quickly, because the exploratory and investigation aspects of Returnal are much more inline with modern Tomb Raider. There’s an emphasis on stumbling across alien linguistic primers, scattered about on random walls. Collect enough and you can begin to decipher texts found throughout the six biomes of the game. As you uncover more the texts will add progressive translations, unfolding as lore bits, much like Nier Automata’s weapon stories or Destiny’s grimoire entries. But as I sped through the game, I started to care less and less. I didn’t want to spend time in the world, I wanted to master it. Atropos was boring; progressing through biomes became a blur of asset changes and memorizations, and I stopped to collect audio logs from other runs. And slowly (excruciatingly slowly) the narrative revealed itself, but by the time I set the controller down and started writing this review, I didn’t care. Selene isn’t interesting, and if I don’t care about this generic white space lady, I’m sure not going to care about White Shadow, which you’re tasked with pursuing relentlessly for hours with no explanation of what it even is or why.

The game reveals almost immediately that we’re in the loop before the game begins, but takes forever to get around to the shape of what drives Selene. It’s very backwards, but the idea being we’re supposed to be driven by the awe and majesty and weirdness of this alien world.

Returnal is really hype to keep talking about how alien everything is. The Xeno prefix abounds, and it’s a little uncomfortable in a world where even the Democratic party has shown us they’re just as xenophobic as the Republicans they promised us they were better than.

But for as excited as Returnal is to hammer home the weirdness of the world and situation Selene has found herself in…It’s not. The loops and paucity of rooms per biome end up feeling all too familiar, especially when they’re unable to escape their inspirations. And in a game that’s trying to be about exploration and investigation (as well as shooty mayhem roguelike stuff), once you start recognizing every block it’s only a few more loops before you see the entire spreadsheet underlying the expensive visuals.

I said expensive, not pretty. Or interesting. Because they’re never particularly either. In the overgrown ruin biome in which Returnal begins, there’s a hope that at some point the game will break into Takehito Miyatake-like inspiration, as xeno-botanical examples dance and erupt with unknown lights. Instead the world never rises above the aesthetics of Alien: Covenant. This is a game with a moodboard littered with things that have long since left cultural consciousness.

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And really, it feels doomed to be jettisoned just like Alien: Covenant once its charm as an unlikely PS5 marquee title wears off and we get the next Santa Monica or Naughty Dog title—or even just the next game Sony put some money behind. Unable to unstick itself from this horrible loop that Housemarque has found itself in, and also from the death trajectory of being a AAA game. (And unlike Alien: Covenant, it doesn’t have the good sense to include Danny McBride.).

This is a game that feels like something planned in 2018 to be a Big Game, from the inspired-by Alien: Covenant art direction to the limpid Rogue-like hook. It has God of War, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, even a little Destiny 2 DNA. In all fairness, it was probably a wise business decision. This game is going to sell. And for the most part all signs from the preview coverage seem to point to it being critically well-received. But I’ll come right out and say not only was it a mistake, it points to a serious misunderstanding and cynicism that’s not just prevalent in this industry, but deepening.

Returnal had a chance to be a game that I deeply loved. It could have been a fantastic, flashy arcade shooter. They could have shown From Software everything that went wrong with Chalice Dungeons while putting Bungie to shame with their space shooting and breakneck platforming. But in the end, Housemarque decided to choose a path that split their focus, and delivered us an expensive looking game that plays well enough at times, but never gels together with the story that’s undeserving of the attention it’s being given despite never being given enough attention to make it interesting. When the game slows down, it slams into the atmosphere like a derelict rocket on a bad trajectory. And it slows down with every death, with every narrative beat, and any attempt at providing an excuse or depth to why we’re here shooting aliens. Where Stardust repeatedly let me blow things up in my funky little spaceship and feel awesome, this game forces a will upon me to slow down and play tomb raider for ancient aliens, to figure out how Selene has become stuck in this Space Groundhog Day with psychoanalytic undertones creeping in from the edges in the form of remnants of human life intruding into this alien space. But it also can’t stop being relentless in its need to push me through big gun battle encounters and epic boss fights. And in the end it’s just so exhaustingly too much. The countless hours of gameplay coupled with the unbelievably pricey banality of it all: Is this the future of gaming we wanted? Probably not, but it’s the future of gaming that millions of people will sign up and pay for because the spectacle of particle effects and the mind-numbing chill of Prestige Television on the ability to evaluate a good narrative from one of endless and unmoored questions and overly withheld answers is what we’re buying. And perhaps Housemarque is correct, that to stay open a studio like them has to pivot away from what they do best, to morph into the next big Sony first-party purchase. It’s hard to imagine them not getting gobbled up (eagerly) if Returnal launches well (and by all rights it will, this review doesn’t matter). I still have no idea what pivoting to AAA really means. There are hallmarks here from the strained pseudo-cinematic soundtrack to the twisty story held too close to the chest, and the very expensive set piece design to everything. But it’s not a genre. I’m not even sure it’s a thing other than a collection of attributes that somehow you have to abandon “arcade” to achieve.

Returnal isn’t Housemarque’s first attempt at this. Previously the studio had “killed” arcade gameplay after disappointing sales of Nex Machina, an enjoyable if not particularly memorable twin-stick romp. They pivoted to Battle Royale with Stormdivers, and then put that on indefinite hold to make this. Will the industry pivot back to arcade games when it realizes this is a dead end? Or will it just go on, and on? And where’s Housemarque’s place in that? How long until Sony or someone else gobbles them up and then obliterates the studio to fund the next God of War or Last of Us? Will it be the PS6 or will they survive until PS7?

This is a cynical line of thought, to be sure, but it’s cynicism that has delivered the games industry to this state, where innovation, creativity, and history are abandoned outright. Where genre gets flattened into a meaningless smear of technically marvelous, exasperatingly long, hundred-million-dollar Play-Doh, and millions of copies are sold, because that’s what’s being marketed. I’m cynical because the assumption that Housemarque has made here is that AAA games are a genre unto themselves, one whose form is based on cinematic regurgitation, excess, and the speed of disposability. And what sucks is they’re slowly being proven right. Prestige television came early to this console generation, and I’m sure for many it will happily pass the time and then it will pass away into memory because memories are short, and there’s always a next big thing, and then a bigger next big thing.


Returnal was developed by Housemarque and published by Sony. It’s available for the PlayStation 5.

Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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