Video Game Reviews

Returnal: Bullet Purgatory

Returnal is one of the first big Playstation exclusives to be launched on the PS5. Developed by Housemarque and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, it is a Roguelike third-person-shooter that falls squarely into the bullet-hell category.

The game takes place on the planet Atropos where Selene, a planetary scout for the ASTRA corporation, crash lands while searching for a mysterious alien signal. As she stumbles from the crash site, she discovers the body of another ASTRA scout. When she tries to confirm the scout’s identity, she is horrified to discover that the body belongs to her. 

It’s not too much later that an alien creature kills Selene, only for her to wake up in her ship, which is already mid-crash. As she tries to make sense of what’s going on, she starts to realize that she is stuck in a never-ending loop that always begins and ends with her death. 

It’s basically Live, Die, Repeat, but with less Tom Cruise.

I, personally, was looking forward to this game for a few reasons:

  • I thought the graphics looked great.
  • I wanted to see if it made full use of the PS5’s haptic feedback & adaptive triggers
  • I thought the story looked interesting, if somewhat cryptic.
  • I was ready for something more fast-paced than what I’ve been playing recently

It did most, if not all, of those things, and now that I’ve beaten it I can share my knowledge.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Death in Returnal is almost mandatory. I’m not sure if someone could beat it the first time through, but even if they did, I think that would be missing the point.

When Selene dies, a number of things happen:

  • You lose all the currency you’ve accumulated
  • You lose the weapon & items you were carrying
  • You hurl obscenities at the screen because it was “some bullshit” that got you killed

The most important thing that happens, however, is that the game’s map changes. Nothing will be exactly as it was before. Sure, you might run into some similar rooms, but the overall layout will have changed. 

While this is typical of a roguelike game, what makes this feel so different from other roguelikes is how Selene herself reacts to the changes. You can almost feel her losing her grip on reality as she traverses areas that are both familiar and alien.

It was an interesting lens through which to view the death of an in-game character. You get to see the psychological toll that it takes on the being that you are ostensibly in control of. I would posit that Mario probably feels the same way as Selene once he’s died a dozen or so times.

Baby Steps

There is a level of progression that you do get to keep between loops (or cycles, as the game calls them).

You retain a specific type of currency that can give you some major advantages on future cycles. You also get to keep some suite upgrades which let you explore different areas, much like a standard metroidvania. And you can upgrade weapons through repeated use.

The weapon upgrades were the cornerstone of my ability to make it further with each consecutive cycle. As you progress through a cycle, your proficiency level increases, allowing you to find guns of higher quality (but only during that particular cycle).

The higher the level of a gun, the higher the stats will be. This is useful for the current cycle.

However, there are persistent upgrades that you can unlock for specific weapon types, which can impact future cycles. 

This is not an empty threat.

Take the carbine rifle, for example. It starts off as a basic assault rifle. However, you can find versions that will allow you to unlock such upgrades as:

  • High Caliber: exchanges fire rate for more damage
  • Rising Pitch: fires faster the longer you hold the trigger
  • Hardened: grants increased protection from damage
  • Leech Rounds: gives a chance on hit to restore some health

Every time you unlock one of these upgrades, it becomes a possible feature of any future guns of that type. This means you might find one that has Hardened and High Caliber, or one that gives you Rising Pitch and Leech Rounds.

This makes it vitally important to unlock every single upgrade as soon as possible, so that any future weapons you pick up have more potential benefits.

Risk vs. Reward

Almost every decision you make in Returnal is about assessing a risk against a possible reward. You see, almost every item in the game has a second version that is considered “Malignant,” meaning that it is infected with purple bad stuff. This purple bad stuff has the potential to cause your suit to malfunction. 

Malfunctions are basically penalties applied to your current cycle. They can be anything from enabling fall damage to screwing up your map to decreasing your ability to heal. Though they can be fixed by completing specific requirements unique to each malfunction, it is often harder than it should be to get rid of them. 

This makes any interaction with a malignant item a potential risk. But if you’re super low on health, a malignant healing item might seem worth it at the time. 

Just remember what might happen next.

This is also true with one of the game’s other mechanics: parasites. These are essentially items that give you a boon but also come with a cost. You could find one that allows you to heal 25% more effectively, but that could come at the steep price of being damaged every time you pick up an item.

Parasites aren’t easily removed, either, so you need to be certain you need one before you let it attach itself to you. 

The whole game is filled with these decisions, and it was actually one of my favorite design elements. It made each cycle unique and allowed me to try and build a version of Selene that I thought could make it further than any other, despite the handicaps I had to place on myself. 

Xeno-Cartography

The map in Returnal was not a disappointment. It was, in a lot of ways, one of the best maps I’d seen in a while. I don’t think there was a single cycle where I got lost (except the one where a malfunction made my map all scrambled). It was clear, easy to read, and every point of interest was visible.

My favorite aspect of Returnal’s map was the way it marked doors. There was one symbol for a door that lead along the main path (meaning that you would eventually find the key or mechanism to continue the story), and another for doors that lead to side paths. 

This meant that if I wanted to explore, I could exhaust all the side options before returning to the door that would take me to my next objective.

The map even grayed out doors that I’d already been through, so it was easy to see where I might have missed something.

So, for someone like me, who really needs to make sure I didn’t miss anything, this was a tour de force. It made my playthrough of each cycle smooth and about as thorough as I could ever want. 

It’s the most helpful map since this guy.

All that being said, there was one thing that the map did not do that it really should have: it did not distinguish between malignant items and regular ones.

This means that every chest shows up on the map, but it will not tell you if the chest is malignant or not. It also means that you might see four healing items in an area, but only use one of them because the rest might cause your suit to malfunction.

This just seemed ridiculous given that the map would already tell you if a door or chest was locked or unlocked. They could have just made the malignant items purple on the map, or at least marked them as malignant once you got close to them. There was nothing more infuriating than seeing a chest I’d missed and running back through an area, only to find out that it was a malignant chest. 

All the Bullets

Overall, Returnal was fun to play. The play action is smooth, responsive, and ultimately fair, which is essential to any bullet hell. The gameplay loop—pun intended—was satisfying and gave you just enough to progress further each cycle without letting you steamroll your way through the game. And the levels were varied enough to keep things interesting. 

The story was… all right? I guess? It was incredibly hard to decipher, and sort of seemed irrelevant overall. But that never had a direct impact on my ability to enjoy playing. I often found myself shrugging after a cutscene, only to immediately forget my confusion while trying to dodge hundreds of onscreen bullets.

I’m giving Returnal a respectable 7.5/10. It was not the blockbuster I was expecting, and the story was literally ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, but it was some frenetic fun that got my adrenaline pumping and gave me a sense of accomplishment any time I survived a boss encounter.

Also, Returnal is one of the first big Playstation exclusives to be launched on the PS5. Developed by Housemarque and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, it is a Roguelike third-person-shooter that… falls squarely…. into the bullet-hell…

…anyone else getting some serious déjà vu? 

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