When Housemarque, the studio behind Nex Machina, said it was abandoning 2D arcade games, the main argument they made was that despite the good reviews, they had not reached the sales figures they expected. Returnal, the new exclusive to PlayStation 5, was born to reverse that trend, but the developer has been true to her style, with all that that entails. It is said, perhaps too often, that certain games are not for everyone. That definition fits perfectly with this work.
I admit, I have not completed Returnal and it may never do. It has nothing to do with its quality, but with the playable proposal it raises. Not surprisingly, it is a brilliant title in almost all its aspects, but it requires time and patience that I do not have today. It is not that I have not tried, I have done it and I have tried, but there has been no way. It’s just not for me, and that doesn’t detract from the quality one iota.
The new Housemarque embraces science fiction to put on screen a narrative that is gradually uncovered through the protagonist’s interactions with the world. Selene, a veteran space explorer, makes an emergency landing on the planet Atropos. Her ship crashes and she comes out of the accident unscathed. Armed with a pistol, the woman makes her way outside and discovers that the place is hostile, that the planet was the home of an ancient civilization, but is now infested with monsters and dangers.
Death is just the beginning. Selene dies and is revived over and over again, in a never-ending loop that always leads to the moment of the accident. Conceived as a third person shooter game, Returnal it is partly a roguelike. It is designed so that the player repeats the cycles and progresses little by little. From this genre he rescues that aspect and also the randomness, which does not mean that the scenarios are generated procedurally. The studio has designed each of the rooms by hand, with the particularity that the order of the sections changes in all cycles.
Returnal It’s not my thing because it requires absolute concentration. One mistake and you’re dead; a mistake and goodbye. I am seduced by how good the shots at the controls feel, its impressive audiovisual display, the electrifying speed with which Selene moves when dodging and shooting. I also enjoy its metroidvania touch, that is, that the game invites you to explore, find new objects and go back.
The essence of Housemarque video games is still intact in this new production, with the difference that they have transferred all that experience to a big budget title. Graphically it draws attention to the moment, but it is a title that is not kind in its first contact. It introduces numerous mechanics and systems from minute one of the game. And yes, they provide video explanations (they are seen separately), but I think it would have been more appropriate to implement all this little by little and as you play.
In addition, cycles tend to drag on for hours, which points directly to another of their problems: there is no automatic save system that allows you to resume the game in case of need. The only solution is to put the console in sleep mode, but this option is not good because if an update is installed you lose the game and the loop restarts. Let it be clear that I am not asking for save points that give you the ability to load the game if you are killed, as that would break the game and the intention with which it was designed.
Returnal It frustrates me, asks for more than I can offer right now, takes time to master their systems, and puts multiple objects on stage, which you don’t always have to pick up. As I am one of those who wants to add everything to the bag, I find it difficult to manage what I keep and what I leave behind, what I take now or collect later. Always with the help of the map, exploring all the rooms is key to reaching the boss with the appropriate weapons and levels. Only by defeating them is it possible to advance and taste (or suffer) the next biome, the new face of Atropos, more challenges, more death, more discovery. Most progression is lost on death (weapons, levels, items, etc.), although permanent outfit upgrades and some key items remain.
I would not like to leave out the magnificent use of the functionality of the DualSense controller. It is impressive how the sensory elements have been transferred to the different vibrations of the controller. You feel the raindrops falling, everything that happens around you. Somehow, Atropos is alive in your hands too. Adaptive triggers, on the other hand, provide an additional type of trigger if you press L2 all the way. Without a doubt, the PS5 game that best employs these features along with Astro’s Playroom.
Despite all its virtues, Returnal It is not for me and surely it is not for many other players. But in the same way that a book, a movie or a play does not have to be made for all audiences, the Housemarque title has been designed in this way and it is correct that it be so. It’s not for me, so what? Nothing happens.