Returnal – Short Review: PC Version

  • Returnal – Short Review
  • Third person timeloop shooty shooter game. Hazzah. 
  • Developer:  Housemarque
  • Publisher:  Sony

Goturnal: Time to Dance 2. In the Streets. In Space.

Perfect gameplay. Compelling time loop intrigue. Looks amazing.

Everything about what you’ve heard about this game is true. This is one hell of a game.

It’s incorporated the very best elements from a whole host of games like Netriod, Mier: Nutomata, Mades and of course the classic NmnNn.

But guess what?

Outside of the supreme gameplay, it was designed by a bit of a git.

Every time I enter a new area it invokes excitement and wonder. Arcade immediacy. Shades of bullet hell. It feels like a fresh take on the third person shooter formula. I mean, it’s probably not, but when you’re playing it, it does!

Damn this game is good.

Obligatory action dash shot.

It took me a while to understand just why I wasn’t loving Returnal as much as I should. Something was off. I’m not sure if the following observations are epic nitpicks which dampened my own personal sense of enjoyment, or more universal truths that might have someone agreeing with me, bearded chin in hand. So, imagine the situation:

I bested a red boss-like bastard. Nice. He dropped a pretty snazzy level 4 pistol and my Weapon Proficiency was level 3.

Yes. With each attempt there is a bar that levels up after you kill so many enemies. That provides weapons at that level. If I’m at level 3, the game will tend to drop level 3 weapons. Oh the joy. Who doesn’t love a little bar that expands?  

Why, it’s a tad dark in here.

Somehow by quirk of the level generation and good luck I now had four chests in a row to open.

Out of interest I opened each chest one after another like a lunatic. Yep. Every weapon was confirmed to be junk. No better than the last. Experiment complete.

Maybe next time I’ll wait until the silly little bar is at the correct volume? Maybe backtrack to open the chest later? Ignore it and move on? Man, that’s a weird feeling.

Don’t open the chest, don’t have fun.

Oh dear. A red stomping lad.

Yes it’s a very pretty game but more importantly is slick. The snappiness of control, the thrill, the anticipation and challenge of battle. The core game loop is hard to put down and you’ll want to fly. Fly through the whole game without blinking.

Damn this game is good.

Which is what I wanted to do. I was blasting through the levels having an amazing time. Hey, no point picking up the health when you have full health. Let’s leave it for a rainy low health day. The game’s smart enough not to forget I’d left it on the disgusting gooey floor.

Leave that health, don’t have fun.

Damn, I just got battered by a tough room and my health is in the red. I best get back to get that tasty floor health. Hmm, the teleporter’s pretty far away. The levels randomly generated a few teleporters on top of one another. Anyway, no bother, I finally get to a room showing health.

Ouch and Ouch.

Oh, it’s on an upper layer of the room that I can’t get to. Hah, haven’t unlocked that power. Fine, fine.

Let’s check out the next room. Appreciate that the map does a good job of keeping track of these abandoned health packs. Hmm, it’s naughty health. Best not pick that up as I know I left some nice clean health around here… Somewhere.

Naughty items are purple (malignant) wanker items that might punish you for picking them up. For example, now your attack’s weaker unless you’re moving. Lil’ bit of risk and reward mechanics.

Wow. That was some backtracking. Chuckle. I’m no longer in the red, let’s get back to the fun!

The next room was tough and I died instantly when a giant red gentleman decided to jump on my head. That will teach me.

Don’t waste health, don’t have fun.

Careful now.

The enemies are satisfying to battle. A good run puts you in the zone. You’ll jump around like death incarnate but the systems surrounding the actual gameplay feel compromised, maybe even bodged. My instincts say the game would have been better served without the randomly generated chunks of levels. The same chunks you’ll see over and over again with each run.

Maybe the game was inherently too easy, so artificial barriers were put into place?

The weapon proficiency is to stop you from being overly powered at an early level. Not being able to pick up health is to stop you from hoarding it all, diminishing the exciting boss encounters. Damn, maybe this game needed a little curation, a little less random generation. Or maybe Returnal needed to loosen the reins a little. Embrace the random to curse our misfortune or let us be overpowered. Sod it, it’s meant to be fun. Isn’t it?

The game is begging to be played with reckless abandon.

Just stay in space bed.

Don’t open the chest, don’t have fun. Ignoring chests just feels bad.

Don’t take risks, don’t have fun. I want to risk it all.

Don’t waste that health, don’t have fun. You’re ruining your own fun by running all the way back. Who told you to do that? Just move on and die. Tackle the boss and don’t take a hit you idiot. What are you? A coward?

I’m pretty sure by next week I’ll be curb stomping the enemies and slapping my knee as the final boss melts into the ground wailing “nooooo” or maybe “NooOooooo”. That immediate feeling that something’s not quite right just wont shake. You shouldn’t need to unlock whatever’s needed to get the fun going. How far in the game do I have to get before they gift you that fucking zip-tool you know you’re going to get?

I love it. I feel cheated and elated with each run. Am I in a bad mood? I love it.


It’s frustrating because it’s so close. So damn close to being one of my favourite games of the era.

Let’s check back in a weeks time. Time might change this score and you’ll have a whole extra paragraph of thoughts!

Additional thoughts for those that want more.

I’ve little story that I think gets at the heart of this nagging feeling that grows with each playthrough.

I’m in the second Biome and with excellent progress I make it to the first mini-boss, lets call him “Dave”. I just about scrapped to victory against the mighty Dave and I’d really found the fun again. New areas, beautiful vistas and 2 more mini-boss battles. I was on a knifes edge all the way. I’d finally gotten deep into this new area where I met Dave again. And another Dave. 2 Daves? Bloody hell. They beat the hell outta me from both sides and I really didn’t get much from it.

It felt closer to the opening monster that kills you. The one that teaches you that death is part of the game.

I didn’t want to try again. The thought of working my way back to the two Daves immediately felt like a slog. Why? I was going to see the same ol’ level chunks. Feel the mystery fade with each try as I attempt to learn the boss patterns. That’s a time-sink of at least a couple of more goes. No. I’ll come back to the game later. Much later. That’s not the right feeling. What’s wrong here?

Is it the lack of variety? Is the game fundamentally basic compared to the random potential of similar games? What a cruel thought. With the Binding of Isaac or a Hades you’d get different bosses and rooms with each go. Returnal is an achievement of technical ability and vision but the trade-off is a lack of malleability. It must be an epic undertaking with building this many detailed chunks of level whilst keeping the levels coherent.

Its fundamentally unfair to feel like you need more from a game when it has given as much as it can give within its budgets and constraints. But here we are. Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.