Returnal Preview: A Steady Slowburn

Returnal seems to have been compared to an endless list of games since the trailer first premiered, likely because of the way it mixes different genres and inspirations around the idea of a triple-A roguelike. Having played through the few opening sections of Returnal, some of those comparisons hold up, while others are way off the mark. So far it feels like the old ruins from Mass Effect: Andromeda mixed with Vanquish’s gunplay. As a roguelike, Hades is the obvious comparison, but I didn’t feel a lot of connection between the two. Hades is more coherent, and I don’t mean that as a criticism of Returnal. It’s just that, in Hades, you understand your goal immediately – how far you are from it and how much closer you’re getting, and you’re aware that each death is part of the same story. Returnal feels more like Edge of Tomorrow. There’s a lot more left open to interpretation – some of these things will be explained as I venture further, but I suspect others will be left more ambiguous.

As a result, it’s difficult to talk about the story of Returnal too much at this stage. Selene is a protagonist who keeps things close to her chest, and in my brief time with her so far, she’s been just as confused as I am. I don’t know why she’s even on Atropos beyond the signal White Shadow; Selene does, it seems, but the game is deliberately holding the exact reason back. I expect to be in Returnal for the long haul (especially with how often I keep dying), so I’m on board with the slow burn approach. But for now, there’s nothing to report – back to you in the studio, Jeff.

Combat-wise, there is more going on. It’s clear that there are still developments to come, but the weapons and charged shots are varied enough that I’ve already decided I’m maining the shotgun and never using the electric charge. Combat can feel hectic at times, but dodging makes you temporarily invincible – this is a default power that remains across all deaths – and it’s very clear from what I’ve played so far that Selene has only gained access to a fraction of the guns and powers available. In time, I’ll probably ditch the shotgun and laugh to myself about how I’d ever beaten the first biome with just a crappy pistol with a mini bomb attached.

The action can get a bit much though, with bullet sprays, AoE attacks, and laser beams being commonplace, and it can take a while to get used to it all – especially because you feel like you’re on the backfoot at first. While there is a lot to think about, each of the enemies has been fairly predictable; it’s just an issue of numbers. Your guns take a long time to charge up the special shot and have a limited (but rechargeable) clip, so when the mobs overwhelm you, you’ll likely find yourself running away from carnage rather than dishing it out. Likewise, the consumable power ups are few and far between and mostly seem like a bit of a distraction so far. The most useful one has been auto heal, which isn’t all that interesting, although the novelty ones are a bit more inspired – you can even have explosive jumping boots.

Each of the upgrades and features has been woven into the narrative reasonably well so far, but the big standout has been Selene’s house. On the planet, you encounter a very out of place house, the same one Selene sees flashes of in her dreams. It’s obviously intriguing, especially as the rest of the world seems like nothing especially new so far, but when you first arrive, it’s locked. There are various keys in the game for passageways and chests, and they all have suitably grand names. The house is just locked with a regular key, which again, adds to the intrigue. The problem is, you can’t open the door yet – a boss battle awaits. This is where Returnal’s constant death cycle and difficulty comes back to bite it.

When you first see the house, it’s interesting and you want to know more. By the fifth time, you’re tipping your hat as you walk past – once more unto the breach. By the tenth time, fuck that house. It’s a silly little house anyway. Think I want to know what’s inside? I don’t. Keep it locked for all I care. And then there’s the first boss. There’s three phases! Three phases for the first boss of a roguelike that ties narrative to progress? I call bullshit.

It might sound like I’m angry and frustrated with Returnal, and I am. But it’s a good frustration. It’s a fun frustration. It’s definitely a ‘just one more round’ game, and I haven’t even unlocked Selene’s full arsenal. And in fairness, most of my deaths to the bosses have come because of mistakes made beforehand sending me into the arena with low health. Three phases nonsense aside, they aren’t a huge difficulty spike, though because they move in patterns, expect to take a few turns to get used to them.

That said, Returnal is slow going at first. While the eventual rhythm becomes ‘get through these ever changing levels, fight boss’, the game initially pulls and pushes in a variety of different directions, and you’re never quite sure how much progress is being made. You go one way to find a key to permanently open a door, but then the next time, the door isn’t there. You can’t bring down a barrier in your path until you find a melee weapon, but then next time, the barrier isn’t there. Combined with the deliberately stripped back story, it can feel like you’re treading water for a while at the start – especially because no melee weapon means certain enemies are invincible and close quarters combat is needlessly difficult.

From what I’ve seen so far, I’d say Returnal has the potential to pull players in and become one of the hipster hits of the year, or to fizzle out and crash land. I’m leaning firmly towards the first, because there are some fantastic ideas being set up in the game, and the gunplay is competent with room to build upon. It does take a bit too long to get to the meat of things, and a slow burn new IP is a hard sell, so I don’t expect another Sony record smashing spectacular – but it’s clear there’s more to uncover in Returnal, and I can’t wait to crash down on Atropos again soon.

Next: How Housemarque Made Selene, Returnal’s Lone Heroine

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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