Review: Returnal (Sony PlayStation 5)

15 mins read

Review by Matt S.

“But optimism dribbles away when horror repeats.” I have no idea how good Tim Reed’s novel, Spider from the Well, is, but I came across this quote from that novel when researching Returnal, and I think it’s a perfect encapsulation of that game. Returnal is a horror-themed roguelike shooter from Housemarque, and while it’s not perfect, I would much rather see Sony backing more games like this than continuing the “safe blockbusters” rhythm it has fallen into over the last couple of years. This game shows some wonderful creative energy and has been a pleasure to experience.

As I was playing Returnal, I was reminded of a Twitter moment that blew up earlier in the month. Writer, Elle Hunt, became the Twitter character of the day when she wrote a tweet that simply said “My argument: horror cannot be set in space.” Now, naturally, people leapt on the opportunity to call Hunt an idiot and list out all their favourite sci-fi horror films. Aliens, Event Horizon, Jason X, you had the gamut as the gloating mob proved how awesome they were for having watched films.

Of course, Hunt’s point was a little broader than that and while making a provocative tweet only to follow it with the substance is the most irritating way of making a point, Hunt would eventually share her actual thesis. “Horror is predicated on the fear of the other, the unfamiliar in the world as we know it – space, we already don’t know it.” Now, this argument is much more interesting. Hunt’s not dismissing the ability for the space setting to terrify, but rather she’s saying that it’s always terrifying and therefore horror, which is about disrupting the comfortable, can’t exist in space, where discomfort is the natural order. Effectively Hunt’s saying that all things set in space are “horror”, if you want to reduce it that way.

For what it’s worth (and I’m bringing it back to Returnal soon, I promise), I don’t necessarily define horror down those lines. My own definition of horror is that it’s all about disempowerment. Horror is when the idea of fighting back is implausible, if not impossible. It doesn’t even need to be a physical threat; some of the best horror is a threat to the intellect or soul rather than the body, but when you nut down what makes horror terrifying, it’s the loss of agency and control, when, as humans, so much of our comfort and confidence rests in our ability to retain control over ourselves and our environment. My definition of horror very easily allows for horror to occur in space. None of us has meaningful control out there, after all.

One of the neat things about Returnal is that both definitions of horror apply. It might well be set in space, but it’s also a roguelike. Roguelikes are exercises in a form of repetition that takes something that you become familiar with (the settings that you explore and the enemies that you fight), and disrupts that familiarity (the enemies are placed differently in every “run,” and the levels take on a different shape). A roguelike works when applied to horror in the same way that Mark Z. Danielewski’s modern classic, House of Leaves, works as a work of horror; no matter what you do the space bends, twists, and changes to prevent you from that familiar environment ever feeling safe. That satisfies Hunt’s take on horror.

Meanwhile, to my definition of horror, Returnal just loves ripping agency away from you. Roguelikes refuse to allow you to control the space (as levels are randomised), are typically challenging to the point that you aren’t always responsible for your own success. No matter how skilled you are, you won’t complete a roguelike without dying a lot. After all, if you could complete them on the first “run” then the procedural environments stop being a feature. So the genre has always been primed for horror games, but Returnal is particularly brutal about it. A lot of people who purchase Returnal are never going to finish it, and as a creative decision that’s quite brave. This is never a game where you’ll feel like patience and persistence will get you through, so, it’s not like Dark Souls or Nioh. Returnal genuinely feels like it doesn’t care if you hit a wall that you can’t get past. Even once you’ve worked out the attack patterns and behaviours of bosses, you’re still very likely to get flattened in a matter of seconds, because these bosses are there specifically to flatten you, and that’s the perfect way to convey a setting of abject horror in my book.

And so, while Returnal has ugly monsters and alien landscapes, and I’m halfway certain that that was where Housemarque’s team thought they were delivering horror, I actually think they’ve accidentally leaned into one of the more effective horror experiences that we’ve seen in video games purely in terms of design and atmosphere. It’s not just the monsters or setting that does it. It’s that the very structure of the game delivers something that cuts to the very core of how we can think about horror as a literary genre.

Backing Returnal up is a competency with the PlayStation 5 hardware that makes me think that the game should have launched the console. As difficult as it is, no death will be due to the game itself, because this runs at a silken framerate at all times, despite being absolutely gorgeously detailed with the art and visual effects. But that in itself is almost secondary to the game’s use of the controller, which is truly inspired. The haptic rumble effect is used to brilliant effect to subtly support the aesthetics and atmosphere of the environment. Rain has a new resonance when playing Returnal because you’re going to feel it. Meanwhile, the resistive triggers are used in the exact right way for that technology. Guns have dual functions, and when you press a trigger, for the first half of the press the gun will behave one way. Then you’ll hit resistance, so if that was the function you wanted to use, you’ll be able to continue firing that way. Or you can push through the resistance and engage the second function.

This effectively gives you two buttons mapped to the trigger, with enough tactile feedback that, even in the heat of battle with one of those bosses, you’ll have no confusion with what you’re doing. I’ve played plenty of games that try and do too much with analogue triggers in the past, and it has been a fiddly nightmare in action. As far as I can recall, this is the first time I’ve ever played a game where I’m comfortable with entirely different functions being mapped to the one shoulder trigger, and where I wasn’t sold on those shoulder triggers when I first started playing with the PS5, now I’m sold on their value and the tech behind them.

For all that I admire about Returnal – and on balance, this is a game that very much speaks to me, there are issues. Beyond the effective structuring of the horror atmosphere, it’s not like this game is telling a story worth following, for a start. You play as an intrepid explorer that has crashed her space ship on a planet and discovered that she’s stuck in a time loop. She dies, she’s “reborn”, and the only way to break this loop and escape seems to be to kill stuff. We eventually find out why all this stuff is happening, but it doesn’t exactly have the layers of the Japanese novel that it directly copies the concept from (All You Need Is Kill) and that’s a light novel itself (i.e. it’s youth fiction and hardly Shakespeare itself).

Furthermore, I must re-emphasise that this game makes a feature out of cruelty. Runs tend to be fairly lengthy, with plenty of opportunities for things to go very wrong, and there are going to be very, very few people that can beat bosses without multiple replays. In other words, there is a lot of “backtracking” in this game. I also ran into more than a few instances where I felt like I was being arbitrarily ground into the dirt – one of the unfortunate consequences of procedural generation is that there is always the potential for the dice to roll in such a way that makes you lose everything, and there’s simply nothing you can do about it. Finally, while the game controls nicely and your character is mobile enough for most shooters, it does go full-on bullet-hell SHMUP at times (especially in those boss battles), and while I fully acknowledge that the SHMUP is not my genre, when I do play a game of that particular type, I want much more twitch-level control than I had with Returnal.

Also, I mention this in the interest of thoroughness, but it won’t affect my score, as I’m assuming patches are incoming: I had a few crashes while playing, which you can imagine would be particularly frustrating on those occasions where I thought I was making pretty good progress. Once my save data even corrupted entirely and I had to start from the top of the game again. I’m sure you can imagine the choice words I uttered when that happened.

I do admire Returnal. From aesthetics and atmosphere, through to its structure, this is a game that is confident, and even brave in the “blockbuster” space that it will be playing in. You can see that the team at Housemarque had a creative vision and were prepared to lose players over it, in return for delivering a purity of that vision. And as a result, this is the first original PlayStation 5 title that I’ve found compelling, given that Demon’s Souls was a remake. When I look at why I find it compelling, it’s for the effectiveness of the horror and the slick vision for action games that it offers. Scratch beneath that surface and the game doesn’t say much to justify its existence, and it is going to be far too challenging for a lot of players, but within its fairly narrow scope, for the audience that it was made for, Returnal is going to be a vividly entertaining ride.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

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