As the privileged owner of a powerful PC and the two new consoles, I tend to use each for a specific purpose. The PS5, much like the PS4 before it, is an exclusive machine. I rarely, if ever, turn it on to play anything that I can’t already play on other platforms.
The longest I’ve spent with my PS5 since I bought it hasn’t been playing Demon’s Souls, Spider-Man, Ratchet & Clank, or any of the biggest games that could immediately come to mind it was with Housemarque’s Come back. I loved it so much that it ended up being my game of the year last year.
There is a lot to be said for Returnal. His tale of living with regret and dealing with trauma presented through a sci-fi allegory of death and rebirth captivated me – not only insofar as he was married to the rogue-like nature of the game die and start over from the beginning, but because he never fully showed his hand. Even today, you’ll find most who’ve played it divided on what’s really going on in the story; which part is real science fiction and which is mind prison.
While Housemarque may have found the perfect narrative excuse for a roguelike, it’s how the studio managed to distill its knowledge with arcade games – usually played from an overhead perspective – into a third-person shooter without sacrificing the core of what makes its games satisfying to play.
Housemarque games have always been mechanically demanding. The Finnish developer has spent years creating home console heirs to the tough arcade games that have sucked so many coins out of our pockets. I loved almost all of his games, but I can’t claim that they were always surprising.
The idea of this team moving into the big-boy behind-the-back third-person shooter genre was surprising, though. I knew I could expect greatness, but I wasn’t counting on How many DNA that has defined the studio’s previous work can be translated into this new horizon. It’s kind of like how I and many others worried that FromSoftware’s desire to go open world with Elden Ring would dilute some (or much) of what made the studio-brand tight gameplay design what it is.
In many ways, I see Returnal as sci-fi souls. That’s a reductive description, sure, but despite its mixed rogue-like and arcade roots, there’s a lot in the game that picks up on the work of my favorite developer. It’s a story you’ll have to piece together with each consecutive race. Even at the very end, your interpretation of events could very well differ from mine.
As challenging as it is, Returnal’s combat is refined and precise; requiring your full attention if you intend to survive the entire race. Its bosses are a spectacle each, rivaling the best from FromSoft. The pacing is similar too, with sharp breaks in the action and a power curve that, while sometimes left to the whims of RNG, is often satisfying to navigate as your arsenal and combination abilities increase.
I love Returnal for letting me get really hired by a rogue. I played and liked a lot of them, but never really got to get into them the way I wanted. I’m easily worn out, and the rogue-like cycle often guarantees I’ll get there quickly.
In the two weeks I spent playing Returnal, I couldn’t think of any other game, even at the height of my frustration. The ascent through its biomes remains etched in my memory. At the risk of spoiling some of those moments, I’m just going to say that if you reach them, they’ll haunt you for a while.
When I played Returnal on PS5, I stopped right before a collectible to unlock the “true” ending. When the game hits PC, and it looks like it might soon, I want to dive into its mouse and keyboard hell again.
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