By Kimari Rennis
Remember those ambiguous, “brain-rotting,” shooter video games that moms in films swore corrupted their sons? Those games were addictive and controlled the minds of young teenagers throughout the night. Housemarque’s Returnal is one of those games come to life, and it is out of this world. As a PlayStation 5 exclusive, Returnal feels fresh and seamless with enhanced graphics and the vibration utilization of the adaptive controller. It’s a single-player, 3rd-personoffering set on the mysterious planet of Atropos, the AAA quality roguelike that I’ve been waiting for a long while. As I play, it feels like a gift to watch a game development studio that began with the Super Stardust series, step forward, and honor a sub-genre of the game that has been humbly dominated by the indie scene. If you needed a change of perspective, atmosphere, and story from the roguelikes out there, look no further than Returnal.
Returnal is about living a psychological horror story. So, what does it mean to live in a nightmare? Well, it can be anything, even encountering a room full of your fears. But here, it’s about crash-landing on an alien planet and no matter how many times you physically die, you always return to your crashed ship. What if, eerily enough, you notice all of the decayed and defeated corpses of people in space suits scattered around every area you explored. Next to one of the corpses is an audio log and upon playing it you hear your voice: and you have no recollection at all of recording it. Each log displays your voice more confused and deeper in insanity than the last. These corpses are yours and you are stuck in a time loop on this planet. Such is the malevolence that protagonist Selene is experiencing – without end.
Roguelikes must have these basic components: passive items, consumables, health, currency, and a mobility option. In Returnal that is exactly what you have, the way you use those tools and your attempt to master them is what sets one run apart from the other. A ‘run’ is the attempt of your character’s entire life in the game. Runs can be long if I play well, or short with the right combination of silly mistakes that results in my death. In Returnal, runs are fragile and precious; if you don’t use everything at your disposal thoughtfully, you will always return to the ship.
One of the enjoyable aspects of this genre is discovering new items and what they do for you. When you exist solely on an alien planet with no escape, even in death, everything is new. The vibrant green material known as “Silphium” can be used to recover your health. “Silphium Resin,” when collected in trios, can increase your maximum health. Your currency, with the appearance of tiny golden orbs with an amazing glow, is called “obolites.” With obolites, you can buy items from the fabricators spread across the map to enhance your abilities and make yourself stronger during your run.
Returnal heavily emphasizes risk and reward. Introducing Malignancy. Malignancy is a property that can be in chests, resin, and silphium. If you interact with a Malignant object, you risk the chance a suit malfunction.
In addition to the risk of malignant interactions, there are parasites in the game that you can latch onto your body. Parasites give you one benefit at the expense of another and it is up to you to decide whether that parasite is worth bringing along or not. For example, a parasite may allow you to regenerate health when you are about to die, but at the expense of a potential malfunction from malignant items. Everything ties together, and a series of good choices and an excellent turnout from risks is what may make your run successful.
Returnal is hard and unforgiving. Every ounce of health that you have is precious. Every item that you use in that instance or save for later is precious. When you gamble with malignant items, playing with the fire that is malfunctions and loss of health, you gamble the success of your run. I’ve learned the hard way that this is not a run-and-gun game, you have to think and plan what you want to do compared to what you can do. In Returnal, you need to prepare for both the present and the future. When you walk into a room, you immediately need to gauge the situation. How many enemies are there? How do they attack? How do they move? Who do I take out first? What can I scavenge in the room afterward? From what I scavenged, what can I use in the next room and the next world?
The deepest pit in your stomach will show up when you are frantically searching the world fruitlessly for health when the last room left is the boss fight, indicated by a massive, creepy barren arena. The moment you lose due to the cumulative errors in your run, you hate both Selene and yourself. Then the cycle begins again.
A game where you work hard to get far and death lands you straight at the beginning with nothing to show for your progression sounds like a game many people wouldn’t want to play because it doesn’t value the person’s playtime. Thankfully, Returnal isn’t that viciously heartless; progression in the game is noted by the acquisition of permanent items and gear that stay with you no matter how many times you die. The gear lets you traverse previously inaccessible areas, landing you new items that make this hell a little more tolerable. Permanent items such as keys, or sets of keys obtained from previously defeated bosses mean you don’t even have to fight them again and simply move onto the next world. The bosses will always be present in each cycle, but now they are completely optional. Still tough as nails, but optional.
I remember having the best run I’ve ever had in Returnal. My gameplay was near flawless and I stayed level-headed. You see, the goal of my journey was to defeat the three bosses in a frozen region and collect the Hadal Keys behind the vaults they guarded. With three of those keys, I would be able to open the massive, icy gate in that region and finally see what was behind it. The problem was that the frozen region ramped up in difficulty with unpredictable bosses and swarms of drones that shot homing missiles that would eviscerate my health.
I knew my run would go smoothly when I got my hands on the Spitmaw Blaster, a xeno-type shotgun, that had the power to take out many foes in one shot, even the robots that embarrassed me in the wintry area. With my world filled with malignancy, I took my chances and all my risks turn and amazing profit. By the end of the first region of the world, I had doubled my maximum health, had three medkits, two turret disablers, the most beneficial parasites clinging to my body, and artifacts that made me an unrelenting force. When I stepped through the portal to the ice region, I cleaned out every room with an undying grudge and it was glorious. Then came the three bosses, I saved them for the end as they were my deciding factor for progressing past the cold confines of that alien dungeon. I took a deep breath at the entrance of the first area, Spitmaw Blaster in hand, and jumped in.
The first boss was dealt with in 30 seconds and I was unscathed. My confidence rose high as I entered their vault and grabbed the first Hadal key. The second boss got a few good hits boasting its immense strength I emerged so victoriously that I wished the Darkest Dungeon narrator commentated over my pure skill and will to keep moving forward. Key acquired. One room left.
“Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer” is what would describe my predicament heading into the next fight — the fight that has always ended my runs. I played well, jumping, dodging, and grappling out of danger. My hands were on autopilot as I used my peripherals to find a path through all the projectiles and keep shooting. But I faltered. Every hit would force me to use one of my medkits, and when I ran dry things became bleak. Just when the boss was about to die, I failed once again. Watching Selene’s lifeless body slide across the icy pavement and wake up at the ship after such a good run filled me with so much anger.
“I’m about to destroy my PS5…”
But it’s more than dying. It’s about life. Returnal, on occasion, has made me bring up the age-old question: “Are aliens real?” More specifically, “Is there life on a different habitable intelligent enough to surpass humans?” While I played, my friends and I talked about evolution, the fact that every star can be a sun to a planet, and of course, how human thought has impacted the planet.
Returnal has reawakened my love for rogue-likes and iconic “die and retry” games. When I was audibly devastated when my best run ended my friend asked, “Why do you keep playing that game if makes you upset?” I play Returnal non-stop because it is so satisfying to triumph over the waves of alien fauna and automatons that wish me dead. It feels amazing when I flow with the game, using my peripheral vision to avoid a bullet-hell barrage from a boss and watch them finally fall. The rush that comes from gambling with malignancy and what items I can and cannot get is overwhelming. The story, the audio logs that draw me deeper into the story is what keeps me going. My immersion is as if Selene and I are living in the same hell; it’s gut-wrenching, agonizing, and aggravating to lose and go back to the same ship, but we must keep moving forward.
Kimari Rennis is a senior NYVGCC intern who attends NYU’s Game Center.