Despite making some truly great games through its twenty-five years, Housemarque has yet to become a household name. It would seem that the team itself felt the arcade genre had some of the blame when we were told it was leaving games like that behind. Returnal is Housemarque's first game since then, and with all due respect to Super Stardust, Dead Nation, Resogun and the other great games on the Finnish studio's portfolio: just throw the arcade genre in the trash! This is hands down its best game yet. Hell, It's the best game of 2021 so far.
Because almost everything about Returnal is amazing, if not near perfect. We've known this team is top-class in terms of gameplay for more than a decade, but I can understand why the narrative has received so much of the spotlight leading up to launch. This mysterious and intriguing world grabbed me from the very first second and didn't even let go after the credits. A weird thing to say when pretty much all of the story is told through environmental details, voice recordings and item descriptions, but all of these tell just enough to give you a better understanding of what might be going on while at the same time staying vague enough to make you question all of your theories. Top that with some really mind-bending, thought-provoking and chilling sequences, and it's clear that Housemarque can deliver top-tier stories as well.
This new focus on story hasn't come at the cost of near flawless gameplay. You won't even have to move an inch before two of the reasons for this become clear. Returnal is without a doubt the best showcase for the DualSense and 3D Tempest audio alongside Astro's Playroom. This is true immersion. Hearing the rain hit the ground and leaves all around you while feeling every drop in your hands is simply sensational. Having the game run at a silky smooth 60 frames per second as Selene sprints at an incredible speed through highly detailed forests, deserts and other cool biomes I won't spoil here doesn't exactly hurt either. Especially when it manages to still look as good when your screen is filled with hordes of enemies, hundreds of projectiles of different colours and destructible environments being blown to pieces.
Oh. Did I forget to mention that this isn't a walking-simulator where you can just stare and listen to these hauntingly atmospheric places without a care in the world? Housemarque might have left arcade games behind, but that doesn't mean some of the same fundamentals aren't here. You'll still be fighting your way through very challenging foes who want to see if it's possible to have more lethal projectiles than air on the screen. Almost all of them with tentacles are a weird mix of beautiful and scary, but that's about the only similarity between them. The amount of diversity between the dozens of different enemies is extremely impressive, and how they work together is icing on the cake. Where you might have three or four wolf-like creatures shooting a row of white balls across the ground at you, what's basically a giant squid shoots a never-ending spiral of green arrows through the air while a turret spits out ice cubes that can freeze both the ground and you. Some would say this sounds like a nightmare, but doing all of this along with great music that enhances the experience makes it more like a wet dream.
The flawless controls and great variety of weapons and abilities can take a large part of the credit for this. Seeing Selene run, jump, dash and grapple hook her way away from, between or through the different colours and shapes is so awe-inspiring that you'd think it was near impossible to do. Far from it. Every command you make is instantaneous and fluid on the screen. Thank Cthulhu for that when you barely escape the hail of rockets by sprinting behind a wall, then grapple your way up to the bloody turret and destroy it with a single slice of your sword, use the dash to pass unharmed through the red bubbles flying through the hallway before jumping down while charging up the newly acquired Tachyomatic Carbine's alternative fire mode Doombringer and letting the giant explosive ball loose on the handful of enemies waiting, before timing your reload in a very "Active Reload"-inspired way and taking advantage of the improved attributes added by doing it right to slaughter the giant bats swooping towards you is a thrill. Screenshots don't do this game justice, as the amount of action happening at once will lead to thousands of Gifs being shared in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Many have questioned Returnal's price tag, but I'm telling you now: it's worth it both in terms of quality and quantity. I've spent a bit more than thirty hours with it and still haven't managed to find or see everything. Returnal keeps on evolving and changing every time you die and start back at your ship. Take the weapons and abilities for example. While it might start simple with fairly ordinary pistols, assault rifles and shotguns, more otherworldly weapons and modifications get added to the loot-pool as you increase proficiency by using your favourite weapons or find new stuff hidden throughout the game by using new abilities to explore new areas. This includes augmentations to your suit and other perks. That's how Returnal's already astounding replay value obliterates the bar.
As if each weapon having a whole load of different unlockable traits (like adding homing missiles, faster fire-rate and poison that will be randomly assigned each time you find a new one) isn't enough, there are also extra powerful alternative fire modes on a cooldown for each. These can be anything from a laser beam to the previously mentioned Doombringer that is an explosive electrified bubble. Every one of these feel different thanks to the DualSense's haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, something you just have to experience.
Then we have the stuff affecting your suit. The simplest ones are called artifacts and will only be beneficial to use. Shortening the cooldown of your alternative fire, making your weapon 10% stronger when having a malfunction and saving you from starting over when dying by resurrecting you are part of a plethora of different perks. Notice that malfunction part? Your suit can't handle all aspects of the planet Atropos. Some chests and items are covered in a mysterious substance that has a chance of turning the suit against you. The higher potential reward, the higher the chance of being affected. The side effects include stuff like slower cooldown, doing less damage when stationary and not being able to pick up a better weapon, so you might be in for a rough time. Fortunately, these can be fixed by doing challenges such as killing a certain amount of enemies, using a consumable or fabricating something, so there's always a chance it was worth the risk because you brushed off the cons quickly.
This risk and reward philosophy also applies to the so-called parasites. These are basically artifacts that also have a downside to them. Where you might regenerate health when it's dangerously low, enemies might also get to spawn revenge-style projectiles every time they're hit. The wide variety of both pros and cons that can be combined are impressive, so you might get lucky and find some that have a great benefit and a con that doesn't affect your playstyle in one round before finding some that can just be walked past in the other. Using your resources to buy artifacts and consumables (healing, extra damage for a few seconds etc) might be a better option then, but you won't get an overwhelming amount of these even if you explore the multitude of side-areas and take on optional challenges in each biome, so don't waste them on something you might not use when a better option might be waiting in the next area or biome. This system is usually very well balanced and makes every round extra exhilarating by trying to find stuff with synergy. Usually...
Some aspects aren't as polished or interesting as I'd hoped. While most of the weapons and traits are fascinating and fun, a few really aren't for me. Take the single shot Coilspine Shredder as an example. Having to reload after every shot when most encounters demand you stay on the move while being chased by an army doesn't feel right. Sure, it has become a bit better as I've increased my proficiency with it, but I really dislike the "it gets good after ten hours" argument.
Then we have the environments and loot-system. While they're incredibly well designed 95% of the time, the procedural nature of it has led to a couple of hours of me cursing at the TV when most of the side-paths require something I don't have yet (mostly in the early parts of the game of course).
Finally, we have an aspect that is sure to split both reviewers and regular players: the difficulty. Returnal is most definitely not a walk in the park, and losing most of your progress when dying (you'll only get to keep the resource that can be used to cleanse objects affected by the mysterious substance, new gear you've found for your suit, and information gathered) will always be infuriating for some. Yours truly has been a fan of rogue-likes and rogue-lites for a long time, however, and Returnal is far friendlier to new players with quite good tutorials and extremely short load times. Just be warned that those of you known for "letting the controllers fly free" might want to get some padding.
Needless to say: Returnal is an easy Game of the Year contender, and my favourite of 2021 thus far. The story is captivating and leaves a lot of room for interpretation, while the presentation is best in class with jaw-dropping visuals, goosebump inducing sound and a use of the DualSense's functions deserving of a standing ovation. All of this wrapped around near perfectly tuned gameplay with intense fighting and fun exploring that had me telling myself "just one more round" for several hours the last few days and will continue to do so for a very long time. There are a few tiny missteps, but these shouldn't be enough to stop you from buying the game that will make Housemarque a household name if there's any justice in the world.