Returnal, the definitive post endgame review

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Catherine Le Nevez
@catherinelenevez
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Premise: writing a review is an act that is indissolubly linked to the experience experienced during the use of a specific work. Subjectivity and objectivity are the protagonists of an evergreen debate in which we do not want to go into, but never as in this case has the writer felt the need to put this note before the text, necessary for two reasons. The first depends on the DNA of Returnal itself, a product that makes randomness and procedurality two of its key elements, making each game session unique and unrepeatable. The second, on the other hand, we make no secret of it, originates from direct confrontation with the opinion of a large part of the press that has told a profoundly different experience from ours. For these reasons please take into consideration that this review is based on 13 hours of gameplay (divided into two runs of about 5 hours) for a total of 8 dead to reach the credits, and as many hours to unlock the "real" epilogue.



With this preamble filed, the time has come: let yourself be enveloped by the sprawling coils of Atropos and follow us in the report of our journey. 

Dionysus - Death and Rebirth

Returnal tells the story of Selene, astronaut in force at the ASTRA Corporation. With the intent to investigate the origin of an alien signal known as the "Pale Shadow", it ends up being trapped on the planet Atropos following a terrible accident that involves and kills Helios, his spaceship. In an attempt to call for help, Selene will soon discover that the nightmare she finds herself in is nothing more than one of the infinite iterations of an unchanging cycle: an eternal return that not even death can break. 


If these are the narrative premises of the last exclusive PlayStation 5, the most savvy among you, already weaned to roguelikes, might rightly ask in what doses this ingredient is present. In this case, our answer could only be a laconic qb: that is, just enough to ennoble the whole dish. If it is true that it is the gameplay that is (as always) the undisputed protagonist of the kitchen Housemarque, this time it is evident the effort to enter, not without a good dose of originality, in the tradition of the great adventures of PlayStation Studios


The original and engaging non-linear storytelling distances itself from the canon of PS Studios, but without denying it

The universe of Returnal, juggling and extricating itself between references to Greek mythology, Lovecraftian suggestions and references to the Alien saga, has a charm that we do not hesitate to define magnetic. Strong of an excellent environmental storytelling, the story unfolds and proceeds through the recovery of audio diaries, soft-horror sequences in the house of the protagonist and finds of the xenomorphic civilization that once inhabited the then hospitable Atropos. Without ever being intrusive or superfluous, these elements outline a non-linear and enigmatic story capable of intriguing even to its concluding lines. The narrative legitimation of the cycle of death and rebirth, in short, works properly, also succeeding in the difficult task of distancing oneself from the Sony canon, but without completely denying it. 

Children - Game

Housemarque has always been synonymous with adrenaline-pumping and galvanizing arcades, spirits of pure digital enjoyment to be experienced pad in hand. Returnal in this sense is certainly no exception, although it represents a historic turning point for the Finnish studio. Having abandoned the genre of twin-stick-shooters after years, the team tried their hand at one this time third person shooter with typical characteristics of bullet-hell, inserted in the frame of a roguelike with exploration Metroidvania. But let's go in order. 


To begin with, know that in Returnal you shoot a lot and have more fun, while dodging tens, hundreds, of bullets arriving from all directions. The firing system and movement mechanics intersect smoothly giving life to hyper-kinetic clashes, spectacular and addictive. We believe the keystone to support this superfine playful system is to be found in the happy intuition of the extra-large viewfinders. In fact, it is enough that even a small portion of the enemy is framed in the center of the screen for the shots to hit, allowing the player to devote his attention more to dodging attacks and dominating the environment, rather than taking aim.


The deadly dances choreographed by Selene and the inhabitants of Atropos have a disturbing charm

Thus the feeling of the classic bullet-hell with a bird's-eye view is replicated in a three-dimensional context, where the protagonist and his opponents sadistically collaborate in painting colorful choreographies of moving bullets on the screen. Not infrequently you will find yourself entranced admiring the diabolical beauty of these deadly dances, which explode in complexity and grandeur during the boss fight, a couple of these entries already right in the best-of of all time. This ultra-sensory stimulation is also amplified by the skilful use of Dualense which further enhances the very tight fights. 

We come now to the formula rogue which in its strictest sense requires that in case of death the player is sent back to the beginning of the cycle without too many compliments, losing all the equipment and upgrades. You die and start all over again without interruption. That said, in reality things are not exactly like this and to smooth the angularity of a rather punitive genre, Returnal embraces its more "lite", light declinations, proposing a system of silent progression, almost invisible at first sight, but extremely precious for the less accustomed to the genre. 


Returnal embraces the lite declinations of the rogue genre, proposing a permanent progression underneath

As the hours go by, you will in fact come into possession of some fundamental tools for exploration that will not be lost in the event of a game over. This will allow you to recover more items in individual runs, thus increasing your chances of survival. At the same time, using a certain weapon consistently will unlock new ones whether, persistent and powerful enhancements that you will then find associated with the guns. Also, after defeating the boss placed in defense of each biome (the "worlds" of the game), you will not be forced to re-face it in subsequent runs. 


Speaking of biomes, the dictates of the rogues also dictate that the generation of the maps is procedural that is, that it happens randomly, and so it happens in Returnal too. This means that the way the rooms are assembled, arranged and filled is left to chance. The final result conveys a pleasant sensation of novelty for the first runs, which however fades fairly quickly, until it disappears once all the existing chambers are discovered. 

As far as map exploration is concerned, Returnal relies on typical formulas and systems Metroidvania. Therefore, as we mentioned, some areas will be closed to you until the discovery of particular objects that depend on the progression in the adventure. Others, however, can only be opened using keys that can be recovered during the single run, requiring a bit of backtracking to explore the available paths. In terms of gameplay, Returnal is certainly not renouncing and, on the contrary, it offers many other micro and macro-mechanics that, however, we do not think we need to deepen now. Just know that there is still a lot of meat on the fire, but we leave you the pleasure of tasting it for the first time. 

Injustice - Error 

Unfortunately, net of the many good, if not excellent, elements we have discussed so far, Returnal is not free from defects. Let's start with the most obvious one that monopolized the debate in the days following the launch: the lack of rescue. Clearly the controversy, at least the sensible one, does not revolve around the possibility of saving the game to restart from a point X in the event of death, since this would distort the whole experience. What is required of Housemarque is instead to introduce a so-called savestate. This is an image of the progress that allows you to turn off the console and resume the game at a later time, without having to lose all progress. For our part, we can only fully embrace the cause, especially by virtue of the fact that the runs in Returnal last so long. Too. And here, alas, we cannot fail to talk about what, in our opinion, is the fundamental problem of the whole production. 

Returnal works well in the first run, but collapses in on itself just when its cyclic, replayable structure should emerge

Returnal is a title that, at least in our experience, works well "only" until the end credits. Which is certainly an anomaly, if we think about the importance of the factor replayability typical of rogues. Returnal is an intelligent product, capable of hiding and hybridizing a linear adventure in a multifaceted structure, but failing precisely in its desire to propose itself as a roguelike. This last inspiration, in particular, serves more than anything else to reinterpret the concept of game over and to merge it coherently with the narrative intentions, rather than to hinge the game within a cyclic, potentially infinite system. Mind you, for the first run everything works wonderfully, but once the epilogue is reached, the scaffolding inexorably crumbles.

The problems we have encountered in this sense are many, we mention the most important: first of all, the impossibility of replaying the game from head to tail in a single solution (we do not go into details to avoid spoilers, but at some point of the path you will forcibly lose all your progress, even after finishing the adventure). On an equal footing in terms of "seriousness" we point out the lunghezza of the runs. Completing half of the biomes requires, to be good, at least a couple of hours since the exploratory phases are essential for progress. And although very tasty at the beginning, over time these tend to become rather tedious, diluting too much the action phases that remain the flagship of the production. In these days we have seen several times that the average time per run is around thirty minutes. Needless to reiterate, net of what has just been written, that we strongly disagree with this impression. Thirty minutes can take to complete a biome and die soon after, but not to complete an entire act, we're sure of that. 

Exaggerated length of runs and the absence of endgame content undermine the rogue component in the foundations

The possibility of skipping boss fights follows closely: although it is certainly a clever trick to facilitate less experienced players and facilitate their progression (net, however, of a difficulties which we consider badly calibrated and too steep in the early stages), this solution makes those who want to try their hand at a new run after the credits lose their reference points. What is the path to follow in this case is not clear. Just as it is not clear what the challenge should be in re-completing the game, since the knowledge and progress accumulated over time will make it much easier to go back to the cycle.

In short, a whole series of collateral activities and options are missing that would have been appropriate both by virtue of the genre of belonging and to further enhance the excellent gameplay. In this sense, the hasty act endgame and daily missions they are not enough to incentivize staying on Atropos. All this, combined with a fairly subdued second half of the game on the artistic side and with some important lack in playful terms, lead us to believe that Returnal has suffered cuts in the last stages of development. Such a pity. 

To tell the truth, we also believe that small interventions would be enough to improve the situation we have described to you, but the future of the game is all in the hands of Housemarque who for the moment has not yet indicated that he wants to intervene on this front. Conversely, the developers proved to be very responsive and efficient in solving the annoying bugs that plagued early players. In fact, at the time of writing, these should all have been resolved by now. 

Εὐφήμη - Praise 

Definitely Returnal is a brave product which demonstrates the willingness of PlayStation Studios to diversify their production, considered by many to be stale and uni-focused. Housemarque's latest effort is a concentrate of the team's experience, transposed into the new generation with a budget worthy of their ambitions behind it. An adventure arcade explosive in the mechanics, solid in the technical sector, compelling in the story, and damn fun to play. The Selene cycle is a genetic hybridization of the most disparate genres that in 2021 finally manages to clear some mechanics and make them attractive to the general public with a worthy title triple A

Explosive in mechanics, solid in technique, compelling in storytelling and damn fun to play

Sorry to have to note, however, some problems that clip the wings of the game, just where we would have expected it would have instead flown very high, especially in reference to its rogue component. Perhaps the victim of some ingenuity resulting from inexperience and some probable cut in its contents, Returnal does not fully convince. And if it is true, as it often happens, that a product is worth more than the sum of its parts, this time we must see that the opposite is also true. The individual components of the game in fact all border on excellence, but it is on the whole that they do not fit together perfectly. Net of these considerations, however, Returnal remains an experience that as players we needed to live. A good first, which we hope will usher in a new chapter in PlayStation history, written with the same courage to dare and the same desire to experiment.

Review by Giacomo Bornino
Graphics

The scenic impact of Returnal cannot leave us indifferent. Seeing this complexity and quantity of models and effects spinning at 60 granite frames is a joy for the eyes, as well as an excellent proof of the potential of the hardware, even though we are still only in the first year of the generation. The artistic inspiration with suggestions ranging between the extended universe of Alien and Lovecraft is also very valid. Too bad for a marked qualitative decline in the second half of the game, where art design becomes flat, banal and at times incoherent. The 4K upscaling algorithm is not the most efficient among those seen in the PS Studios range.

85
SOUNDTRACK AND DOUBLE ROOM

Ray-tracing applied to the propagation of sound waves returns a sound design with very few equals in today's market. The 3D audio is exceptional and becomes a full-fledged element of gameplay. The soundtrack is discreet, but it explodes with power during some boss fights. Finally, an honorable mention for the excellent dubbing of Selene who, with a few lines of dialogue, gives us a much more complex and fascinating character than might have been expected.

90
GAMEPLAY

The shooting is simply fantastic, a worthy 3D transposition of the adrenaline and fun typical of Housemarque. The more exploratory metroidvania component works well in the first run, but gets boring in the long run. The rogue structure serves almost only to decline the concept of game-over, but the cyclical setting typical of the genre is marred by too many ingenuity and game design choices that undermine its foundations.

80
Total Rating scale
80
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