Returnal Review: Super Shiny Déjà Vu

Returnal is available on PlayStation 5.

You can find a video version of this review here!

Overview

If you were to look at a list of all the games I’ve reviewed on my website since its inception, you would notice that rogue-lites make up a decent chunk of them. It’s one of my favorite genres.

You could imagine my excitement when it came to Returnal. A headliner first-party rogue-lite that’s exclusive to a next-generation console? Take my money and show me a good time daddy Sony!

There can be a lot going on in any given fight.

Unfortunately, just like any woman who has ever seen me naked, I was mostly just disappointed. Returnal is a fine game in the strictest sense of the word. But when we’re talking next-gen with a new $70 price tag, fine’s not quite good enough.

I’ve Just Been In This Place Before

Returnal follows an astronaut named Selene, who has crashed landed on an alien world and seems to be stuck in an eternal time loop. Unfortunately for Selene, her loop is much more Dean Winchester than Phill Connors. The story in Returnal is cryptic, mysterious, and solving it requires a lot of digging, interpretation, and reading various logs and data pick-ups.

I lost interest in the story aspect relatively quickly thanks to Selene’s sloppy writing. Astronauts are supposed to be smart. In the first 10 minutes of the game I watched Selene haphazardly hook foreign alien tech into her suit, and attempt to poke a “docile” parasite. She then picked up another alien artifact and literally mumbled that it seems safe less than a second before it extended into a sword. Okay then…

Killing multiple enemies without getting hit grants you boons.

I’m a gameplay first kind of gamer anyway, so that’s okay, and Returnal’s gameplay is…goodish. Once you get out of the first biome anyway. The first of six biomes is incredibly dark. The game is super pretty, but I could hardly see the enemies I was fighting. The only thing I could make out was enough tentacles that I began to question what kind of game I actually bought…

It doesn’t help that your bullets, the enemy projectiles, and all the money you pick up are shiny pulsating disco lights. There was so much blinding glitter flying at my face at any given moment I half thought I was getting a lap dance by a flatulent stripper.

The other five biomes are much more enjoyable, but Returnal is a challenging game based on a looping mechanic. You can expect to be stuck in the dark dreary forest for at least a little while. Every death sends you back to the beginning with the landscape, loot, and enemy placement shuffled up. Once you cross into the second half of the game you swap to a new starting point with three new biomes.

Can you tell what kind of monster I’m fighting? Don’t worry, neither could I!

Each biome is incredibly distinct from both a visual and enemy standpoint. I can’t really understate how great the game looks, and the core combat works really well. The game is a bullet hell through and through and this is especially highlighted in the games many fantastic boss fights.

There are two distinct layers to Returnal’s combat. Fighting mobs of enemies is all about crowd control. You can stun and stagger individual mobs to buy you time to clear out some others. Getting shot at from all sides is a fast way to die given the game’s third-person perspective. Managing enemy numbers and keeping the threats in front of you is key.

The bosses, however, can’t be stunned. They are instead a carefully crafted chorus of attack patterns that change between boss phases, but never between the sequential fight against the same boss if you fail.

Boss fights are awesome!

Both layers have their merits. But are also one of many key design choices that puts the entire game in a paradoxical situation. Returnal has no idea how to be a rogue-lite. Its mechanics are bog-standard for the genre, while also missing years of quality of life changes the genre has grown and adapted with.

The meta progression is almost non-existent. You can unlock new weapons and items that you can find in future runs, but you always start with pretty much nothing.

Every run is long while pounding you with a heavy difficulty. Failure means you lost hours, but with almost nothing to show for it to carry over to the next run. Beyond that, each run feels the same. You always start with a pistol. Each weapon is distinct and can have a random assortment of unlockable mods, and an alternate firing mode. But you only ever carry one at a time.

That really hurts any kind of strategy you could have had. You have no real ability to adapt to a situation, even though some weapons are clearly better for some enemies than others.

I repeat, boss fights are awesome!

Artifacts grant you all kinds of bonuses, but they never feel meaningful. Don’t get me wrong, they do help you. But from a gameplay perspective, you almost never notice them. Your playstyle never changes. The game feels the exact same no matter what you pick up. There are no real builds in the game, it’s just whatever boons you can scrounge up. You just dodge and shoot, which is fine, but not for a game that by nature, needs to be replayed over and over again.

Some of it doesn’t matter at all. You can skip most biomes once you have completed them. The game makes sure to boost up your weapon proficiency to match the biome regardless, leaving me to wonder why that pseudo XP bar existed at all.

Most things you pick up only marginally help with boss fights. There came a point that I could beat the first one with my starter pistol just because I had grown attuned to how to dodge its attacks. I felt no weaker for not picking up any loot.

Since you can only ever carry one weapon, you almost always want to pick up the one with higher stats.

The problem is, you can’t just do that, or the biomes themselves will eat you. Enemy mob placement and attacks are far less predictable. You need some extra bonuses and cushion to survive in order to get there. Especially regarding your maximum health.

Returnal has a kind of negative snowball effect. Whenever you kill a few enemies without getting hit, your adrenaline increases. This grants you powerful boons, one of which increases the money you pick up by 50%.

Additionally, you can pick up these special health vials, and if you collect three your max health increases. If you pick up a normal health vial while you are at full health, that counts as one. The game really incentives you in multiple ways to not only stay alive but to not get hit at all.

That kind of mastery sounds neat, but in reality, it puts you on a losing path if you make a mistake and makes rebounding difficult. If you get hit, you earn less money, and it’s harder to increase your max health. I’ve restarted entire runs from a few hits early on because I didn’t feel that I’d recover from it, and I’d rather not waste the time.

The random weapon mods are neat, but nothing really changes how the game feels.

Returnal’s runs can last hours, and I couldn’t save during them. If something came up and I didn’t put the whole console into rest mode or leave it running, that was that. Look, sometimes you have an emergency poop and aren’t thinking straight, it happens.

Returnal tries to give you a choice of risk versus reward. Do you rush through to the next boss or grind out loot? But the question mostly becomes, do I want to pound my head against this wall until I’m good enough to win naked with a nerf gun. Or do I want to spend an hour building up my strength, sneeze during a fight, die, and question what I’m doing with my life?

The risk is losing a shit ton of time with very little carrying over to the next run. The reward is simply being allowed to continue the game. Something many games pull off just fine without having a Frankenstein of rogue-lite mechanics glued to it with that cheap stuff you get at the dollar tree.

Verdict

Returnal’s shooting mechanics are solid, the game is gorgeous, the enemy variety is nice, and the boss fights are stellar. So, it’s a shame that literally everything else kind of falls apart. The rogue-lite aspects are sub-par at best and outright bad at worst.

Returnal sure is pretty though!

If you’re a fan of the genre, you have already seen everything Returnal offers before, and it demands a hefty $70 price tag on top of it. There may be an argument to be made for higher game prices. But you really have to look at the rest of the market.

Games such as Risk of Rain 2 and Gunfire Reborn are fairly similar to what Returnal is offering, but for less than half the price. Is Returnal twice as good as those games? If you place graphical fidelity above everything else, maybe. If you don’t, no, not even close. Games are free to charge a premium compared to what’s available, but my expectations rise with it, and so should yours.

Pros

  • Solid skill-based combat
  • Fantastic Boss Fights
  • Gorgeous Visuals
  • Varied Environment’s and Enemies
  • Interesting world and lore

Cons

  • Rogue-lite elements are uninspired and sloppy
  • Runs feel the same and are repetitive
  • There is no gameplay variety or builds, you play the same no matter what you pick up
  • Only being allowed to carry one weapon means there is even less strategy to take advantage of
  • The system ties tons of bonus’s to not getting hit at all, leading to a downhill snowball effect if you do
  • Weapon proficiency seems pointless since it gets boosted when you enter a new biome
  • You can’t save during runs when they can last for hours.
  • Very little meta progression that mixed with long runs can make your time feel wasted when you fail
  • The main character does a lot of dumb things for being an astronaut
  • Outside of being pretty, the game does little to justify its $70 price compared to its competition