I was lucky enough to score a PlayStation 5 a month ago after telling myself I would wait a little while before throwing down hard-earned cash on a new console. It had been 9 months since the PS5 was first released, and I had assumed I would buy one(try to, at least) within the first year, before games like Horizon: Forbidden West and the next God of War game were to be released. On my short list of games I wanted to play first on the new PS5 was Returnal – a roguelite, bullet-hell, third-person shooter developed by Housemarque. I had loved the studio’s previous releases, such as Super Stardust HD or Zombie Nation as Housemarque had become known for making primarily arcade-style games. Returnal had been billed as the first “true, next-gen release” for the PS5 and had a fair amount of hype around it as it was advertised as a AAA roguelite shooter. Prior to its release, the discussion quickly shifted towards the game’s steep difficulty curve.
Returnal also came as a recommendation from a friend as “very much my type of game” knowing how much I loved Hades last year….they were absolutely correct. I don’t believe I’ve played a game quite like Returnal, certainly not within the AAA-game space. I also don’t recall being quite this hooked on a game in a long time. It only took 15 days for me to go from my first minutes with the game to beating the game and collecting every trophy. It was over the course of the many many hours devoted to the game that I had something of a revelation – Returnal contains everything that I love about Metroid games.
I first fell in love with Metroid as a series playing Super Metroid as a kid. Super Metroid, Prime, and Fusion are among my all-time favorite games and my time with Returnal over the past couple weeks has brought out some of the same feelings I have with playing Metroid games.
ASTRA pilot Selene Vassos crash lands on the planet of Atropos after defying orders not to investigate the swirling anomaly she dubs the “White Shadow”. She emerges from the wrecked ship and proceeds to explore the mysterious, ever-changing alien world. She discovers she is caught in a loop of living and dying over and over again unless she is able to break the cycle and discover the cause of this phenomenon.
One of the things I’ve always found interesting about Metroid games is the sense of isolation. You’re all alone, on an alien world, vastly outnumbered by hostile lifeforms, but you’re determined to make it out alive. Maybe it’s just my antisocial, loner tendencies here, but I’ve always been intrigued by the way games like this can amplify one’s own feeling of insignificance and helplessness. This has been a feeling used in many sci-fi movies and games for decades – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien being notable examples. In Returnal, Selene crash lands on the planet, Atropos after choosing to investigate the distress signal coming from the “White Shadow”. Similar to Samus, there is no backup and she has only herself to rely on, along with her determination to persevere many, many attempts at escape in order to break the cycle and find her way off the planet. There’s also a sense of isolation as you are contrasted against giant, sprawling environments, such as Death Stranding or even Red Dead Redemption 2. Some of my fondest memories from DS or RDR2 are simple moments quiet solitude while taking in the otherworldly sights of a post-extinction event America or the expansive mountains and plains of the Old West. Perhaps I’m just particular to playing the “lone wanderer” in video games…
Mystery & Danger
After landing on Zebes, Samus begins her investigation the planet, starting with the area surrounding her ship to reach deeper into the world’s multiple environments. At first there’s a sense of trepidation, as you’re unsure just what matter of lifeforms lie beyond the next area. That feeling of mystery and danger is something I immediately recognized while playing Returnal. Each of the game’s 6 biomes have a set of randomly-generated rooms; you don’t know which room is on the other side of the doorway until you pass through. This deviates a bit from Metroid games, where the world has a set map layout, but once you’ve…ahem…failed enough attempts, you begin to pick up on what to look out for in specific rooms. The first time you come across a room, you are quickly overwhelmed by a dozen enemies waiting to attack and the next, there could be no enemies at all. This means you are constantly on your toes because you never truly know which enemies(if any) lie beyond the doorway in front of you, resulting(possibly) in a very abrupt end to your current run. I honestly don’t know how many times I ran afoul of the RNG gods and came face to face with a horde of enemies or mini-boss(es) merely a couple rooms from the starting point in a biome. “Well…shit. I guess I’m starting this over” was a common phrase muttered over my many hours in Returnal.
Weapons & Abilities
Another one of my favorite moments in a Metroid game usually occurs late in the game. You’ve survived wave after wave of enemies and gigantic boss encounters, slowly building your arsenal of weaponry. There’s a turning point where you no longer feel afraid of this imposing planet and its violent inhabitants – you’ve gone from FEARFUL to FEARLESS. By the time you get the Screw Attack upgrade, specifically in Super Metroid, you merely laugh as you annihilate the grunt enemies blocking your path to the final area of the game. Bloodborne is another good example of this, you begin the game feeling underpowered and running past the foul beasts of Yharnam before you begin to truly feel like an accomplished hunter. In Returnal, there’s a similar feeling of transformation as you progress through the game. It differs slightly from the above games as any weapons upgrades only last your current run, the same as any artifacts or parasites you acquire. Due to the roguelite nature of the game, any feeling of power in Returnal comes almost entirely from studying and understanding the attack patterns of your enemies – you’ll be seeing them a lot so perception is critical to success here…
I wouldn’t say Returnal borrows much from Metroid gameplay-wise, as there isn’t a lot that would be typically considered “Metroidvania territory”. The game is first and foremost, a roguelite game. One that incorporates elements of bullet-hell shooters, but set to a third-person perspective. This makes it feel very reminiscent of the shootouts in Control(strange coincidence, as both Housemarque and Remedy Entertainment were founded in Finland). It does however hit a lot of the same notes in atmosphere and mood that I’ve always loved since first playing Super Metroid as a kid…
Returnal feels every bit as addicting as Hades was just a year ago(and then some). There’s a layer of atmospere and mystique that I love, which gives way to an absolutely satisfying(and brutally difficult) gameplay loop. The sense of accomplishment in getting the platinum trophy(or simply beating the game) makes this an unforgettable experience. I feel like the past few consecutive games I’ve played through will all be on my list of favorite games from 2021 when the year is over, but I’m even more confident Returnal will sit among the top spots on that list.
Thanks for reading!
Here’s a video of one of the boss fights I uploaded recently…