We’re not too far out from the PS5’s first major exclusive since launch by way of Housemarque
’s Groundhog Day
roguelike mashup, Returnal
. The studio is known for its arcade-heavy game design which plays heavily in Returnal, though it’s tied more cleverly to a skill-based movement and environment management system that relies heavily on modular level construction, cycle to cycle. ‘Cycles’ are runs through the game’s ever-shifting maze of levels that serve up randomised encounters with hostiles, as well as randomly-served buffs, weapons, items and more.
"This serves up the mind-bending concept of a Hogception Multiverse, as we’re calling it, and layered amidst the decaying husks of Selenes-gone-bye-bye is a story, of sorts, that plays to Lovecraft-inspired psychology...”
Riddled throughout each cycle are ‘echoes’ of attempts from before, and these even include failed runs from other players. This serves up the mind-bending concept of a Hogception Multiverse
, as we’re calling it, and layered amidst the decaying husks of Selenes-gone-bye-bye is a story, of sorts, that plays to Lovecraft-inspired psychology where unfathomable forces direct your movements, motivations and sanity.
In short, this is a dungeon crawler set in space on an LV-223-inspired planet full of Lovecraftian aliens and faunae. Every time you die, you reset at your crashed ship and retread (mis)steps of Selenes past, and gather what you can for that run specifically, while trying to find items that seem to exist outside the space time continuum, because you get to keep them on a permanent basis even upon death. Other gaming and tech journos can look at this as keepers versus loan units. And like so many deliveries of reviewable items we get in the real-world, what gets served to you level-to-level in Returnal is a crapshoot and doesn’t really seem to follow any truly directed path of progress.
And so, the grind now rears its ugly head.
Roughly three hours into repetition of the game’s setup, runs began to come together better and I was definitely gaining ground to more goalage. The problem with these types of games is that that
gameplay loop tests your patience. It’s easy to see here what Housemarque has attempted, as far as its narrative hook in keeping you grinding away through the early-game slog, is concerned. But it feels like early on this will test players.
If it’s not the narrative that white rabbits you though, the game’s visuals and movement system will. It’s an utterly stunning game, with a world entirely alive; equal parts inviting and terrifying. This is also amplified by some of the best ambient and dynamic audio we’ve encountered in a long while. It’s also simple in its design. Alien worlds don’t need to be complicated, and you’ll understand that pretty quickly -- its rules are tangible and readable. It’s still alien, but you’ll know how to move through it, what to avoid, what to engage, and where to look for secrets and buried mystery.
There’s a lot to unpack, from weapons and the game’s alien material economy, to earlier-mentioned buffs (that come with debuffs); risk and reward character build design and exploration versus progression. How logs and story beats are tied to all of this and how you manage delivery and cohesion of all of that, and more. But naturally, with just the short amount of time under my belt, and a review window not far off, I’d be silly to try and unravel what is an investment, clearly, in understanding what all of this means.
"Eventually you discover the body of yourself a ways into your first (tutorial) jaunt and the game’s narrative setup is on full display. It’s also here, however, that you grab your sidearm...”
I’ll leave you with this nugget, though -- the opening sequence of the game sees you crash and then proceed to explore the planet on-foot. You’re unarmed here. Eventually you discover the body of yourself a ways into your first (tutorial) jaunt and the game’s narrative setup is on full display. It’s also here, however, that you grab your sidearm. This dead Selene’s sidearm. But you crashed and left your ship without a sidearm. Every other time after this you have a sidearm, but wake only on your ship or just outside of it… so, how can your initial crash have been your first visit to the planet, if your discovery of yourself, was with a sidearm, but you don’t have one?
Think about it…
Our full review will be with you when embargo lifts April 30 in the early AM, AEST so stay tuned