Returnal Impressions

The Dark Souls of 3rd-Person Shooter Bullet-Hell Roguelikes
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Published on May 5, 2021

I've spent some time playing Returnal over the weekend, here are my thoughts.

Before I get to the actual game, let me just say: they were not lying with its "next-gen" marketing. The game basically has no loading, looks fantastic, and the utilization of the rumble feature (it mimics the feeling of being hit by raindrops, which is amazing) are all there. I haven't had a chance to test out the 3D audio just yet. It's also $70.

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At its core, Returnal is a third-person shooter bullet-hell roguelike. There is a lot of emphasis on:

  • Tradeoffs
  • Movement, and usage of cooldowns
  • Not getting hit, which players are rewarded with by increased "adrenaline" levels, which provides buffs.

Let's talk about each one.

Tradeoffs. The core of any roguelite game, and Returnal does it fine.

You start at your crashed ship, with only a pistol. The goal is to get to the boss of each biome to progress the story, where the enemies progressively get stronger. You'll also get stronger, with upgrades to your health, weapons, and abilities.

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As with most other roguelikes, there is also the notion of tradeoffs: some items are malignant, which have a chance to activate a malfunction (a negative trait) on pick up. These malfunctions will continue to be active until a specific challenge is met. An example is that you'll take damage every time you pick up an item until you use a key to open a box.

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Weapons are another vector where randomness comes into play. Aside from different types of guns, there are also random stats for a gun, and secondary fire effects. A shotgun will allow you to do heavy damage at close-range, but require you to be in their faces. But if that gun is coupled with a long-range secondary fire, you may be able to have different options.

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My only gripes about the item and upgrade system (and I haven't made it too far yet) are that:

  • None of the items or weapons are a "run-winner", aka I have yet to get an overpowered combination. The game relies heavily on skill, and less on luck.
  • The descriptions for some of the items are... non-present. Sometimes you need to die to even understand what some of the items do. In a game where death means starting from the beginning, that seems costly.

And where does the skill come from? Mostly from movement. Returnal is a game that heavily emphasizes the importance of properly moving around the world, and understanding your cooldowns.

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(As with most other bullet hell shooters, aiming really is secondary: if you can live longer, you'll be able to shoot longer)

Your movement boils down to running and dashing, and understanding how to juggle your cooldown of consumables, secondary firing, and reloading. More importantly, knowing how to manipulate the movement of your enemies and understanding their attack patterns will be essential to a perfect fight.

And fights are tough in this game. It's not uncommon to be in a room with multiple mini-bosses, some of which will be charging you down, while others are shooting you from the other side of the room. Understanding where the safe spots are, the sequence of how you want to take down the enemies, and executing it properly is the core combat of Returnal.

Wanted to note that the game is still fair. Akin to Dark Souls or Monster Hunter, the enemies and bosses have a distinct and long tell for each of their attacks and I've never felt I died to the "game being unfair". It was me being bad. 🙂

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So what happens when you're not bad at the game? Aside from not dying and making progress, the adrenaline system is a way for the game to reward players that are able to kill enemies without getting hit. There are 5 levels of adrenaline that provide small boosts such as making active reload easier, seeing enemies through walls, and increased currency collection. This may not be much, but it does add up on long runs.

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Speaking of long runs, touching on the point of the 2-hour Returnal runs (and no mid-game saves, etc). Here are my opinions. I see this is a tradeoff between skill and luck as well. When you unlock a new biome, you are granted a shortcut to the new biome without having to go through the bosses again (you could though if you want to farm ether). The game grants you a weapon proficiency upgrade (which determines the level of the weapons that drop), however, you do not get the currency and items/abilities from the previous biome. This could mean a weaker HP pool, weapon damage, and other things.

The game does let you skip the parts you've beaten, but at the end of the day, it's up to the player to determine if they want to buff their load out against having a longer run. How I model the success rate of a Returnal run is: Loadout + Skill. If you have enough skill to be comfortable with a weaker loadout, that's a choice the player can make.

(Imagine if there were no shortcuts. That would be awful)

At the end of the day, Returnal is a challenging 3rd person shooter roguelike that rewards skill over luck. It utilizes the PS5 features well (including the $70 price tag), and is a lot of fun when you get into the rhythm. Welcome to the Dark Souls of 3rd-Person Shooter Bullet-Hell Roguelikes.

Categories: Previews

Tristan Jung

You’ll often find Tristan wasting his life away at League of Legends if he’s not busy bugging the other two members about writing reviews. He’s in charge of the website and editing the podcasts, so if anything looks or sounds out of place, please yell at him.