Returnal Marks An Evolution in Roguelikes

Returnal Marks An Evolution in Roguelikes

Returnal Marks An Evolution in Roguelikes

Posted by Lawrence Rennie

26 Jul, 2021


The Roguelike has been undergoing something of an intensive revival/surge in popularity over the last few years. That climactic peak for the cyclical death-based genre might as well have been marked by Supergiant Games’ Hades last year in all of its adoration and wide success, but Housemarque’s next gen exclusive, Returnal, may very well have charted a course for what the next evolution of the roguelike could be. 

Returnal is a champion of what the true next gen experience should be, and as for its place as a roguelike it is taking this typically smaller budget genre and pulling it forward and out into an experience worthy of the AAA, next gen tag. With high-end graphics, an ambitious world, an intense story, and forward thinking, ingenious game design Returnal may well be the next step for the roguelike becoming a high-end genre too as well as a fertile ground for the indie dev industry. 

From the Depths of Hades to the High Heavens of Space 

The roguelike is hitting a stride quite like never before. Supergiant Games’ Hades was a blowout success (and one in which we have covered numerous times on this site) with further ports now coming to the major consoles along with its Switch and PC release. You might argue that Hades has helped to bring the genre to the mainstream, with many that enjoyed it having it as their first ever roguelike experience. Its excellent story coupled well with the typical gameplay elements of roguelikes proved to be a high selling point, and one that is no doubt a grand invitation to search into more of the genre for new players. 

The roguelike, typically at least, has tended to be a genre reserved for the PC and smaller dev budgets. Its very nature of being makes it prime ground for those studios with less resources. With roguelikes you are usually plundering similar levels and fighting the same enemies over again, so less dev time and resource is needed for mapping out multiple levels. You can get a lot of mileage as a smaller studio out of the procedural generation and cyclical play that roguelikes usually enjoy, allowing more time and energy to be spent showing off your story skill, or artistic flourishes, gameplay tightness etc. Hades pushed on above most others of its ilk precisely because it managed to hit the top marks on all of these aspects. 

For Returnal, then, to be a launch PS5 exclusive with AAA backing—and one of the few launch titles to exist as a next-gen only title for the new gen console—is certainly something to be noted. The big boys might finally be opening up the table for the roguelike to come take a seat, and it’s got a few points to prove.

The Revolutionary Experience of Returnal

With Returnal, Housemarque have taken a mode of game and given it the high-end polish that the genre normally doesn’t see too often. Returnal is a remarkable technical achievement. Its graphics show off much of the power of the new PS5’s capabilities—light and colour shine in abundance; moving settings and vivid worlds alive with alien tendrils, creeping fauna and bestial figures scatter themselves through this nightmare cycle; hundreds of moving particles fly around the screen at once without the game skipping a beat. Being in an alien planet/dimension has never felt this otherworldly. 

Returnal also effectively showcases the controller upgrades that the PS5 boasts. The haptic feedback of the triggers and handles pull you into the game’s world with deft ease. Every alien creak and living piece of environment is felt in every rumble and audio cue from the controller. The slithering, vivid alien environment comes through to the player so effectively. It is a huge plus for one of the console’s newest selling points.

It does so well to port the player into the shoes of Selene, our protagonist. When we talk of films and games we often refer to the “window”—that barrier between audience and medium that keeps us understanding that what we’re seeing is not reality. With the haptic feedback of the controller Returnal begins to strip away that window and bring more of that nightmare world on the other side seeping out to you. Now those slithering tendrils you see on one side of the screen begin to feel like they’re wrapping themselves around your hands on the controller too. It is an incredible step beyond what we’re used to thus far in gaming. 

And this drawing in of player to world is key to what makes Returnal work. For other roguelikes you’re in a constant state of playing, dying, restarting, and running through again, but often there is a bit of disconnect between the cycles. Returnal by its very story has these deaths written into Selene’s nightmare, and we have to understand that through every cycle she is losing her mind with further resigned frustration. Since we’re allowed to present with Selene through the game’s immersiveness, we spiral downward into frustration, too. Every death is a gut-punch—one for knowing that you’ll have to re-tread your steps again in another maddening cycle, two for knowing that once again you are stuck here with Selene, doomed to this hellish purgatory. 

The Game Cycles

Returnal is difficult, truth be told, and can be frustrating. Death stings hard and at times it can feel like you’ve thrown away a bunch of hours after a particularly annoying death. Unlike other roguelikes progress is a little more hidden. You’re never explicitly upgrading yourself between runs like in Hades, but there are subtle ways in which Returnal bolsters you just that bit more with every few runs. 

The accumulation of “ether” allows you to unlock new “artifacts” or “items” that might just help you further along the line, so you are always building up your library of items to draw on, as well as your knowledge of enemies and weapons. Using guns throughout a run increases your proficiencies with them, helping to unlock new perks and variations. This again is fairly subtle at first, which might draw some frustration since there is not the easy catharsis of directly upgrading yourself after death as in other roguelikes. 

But all this is intentional to the endurance test of Returnal. Selene is in a nightmare cycle, so you’re going to have to suffer through as best you can with her. The game does also provide some handy shortcuts once you hit certain checkpoints to the story. Beating a boss once means you can skip that encounter in future, or, if you like, head in again anyway for the potential of some extra loot to aid you onwards. By certain points you can more or less skip whole worlds to jump right to where you just were, again. 

This is the catharsis, then, that is missed elsewhere. Beating a boss or world is a tough task, but like any “Soulsborne” boss the eventual victory is all the sweeter for it. Then there is the tantalizing carrot of getting more of Selene’s story with each run too. Above chasing new upgrades you’ll find yourself just wanting another story break to help unravel the mystery that little bit more—although more often than not those story breaks will leave you even more confused. 

The gameplay itself is excellent. Returnal takes the bullet storm of others in its genre and puts a tightness and polish to it that makes for one hell of a good experience. It makes full use of the power of the PS5 and its new control scheme as an abundance of enemies rain out hundreds of attacks at you. Jumping and dashing your way through wave after wave of laser beams and colourful projectiles rarely ceases to be fun. A roguelike more or less has to live or die on its recursive gameplay, and Returnal is certainly one that keeps on living again, and again, and again. 

Selene’s Story 

Returnal takes the experience of your typical roguelike and weaves into a tale of purgatory-like madness as one woman struggles to come to grips with a tragic event. Selene finds herself trapped on an alien world after crash landing there inexplicably. As she traverses this land, she finds other versions of herself, dead and holding audio logs describing their time here. If your Selene dies herself then she wakes up right after the crash again with the world changed ever so slightly around her. Quite whether anything in Returnal is supposed to be taken at face value is difficult to know, but this only adds to the well-made mystique. 

Returnal is going for a lot with its story, and again it’s something we haven’t seen too much from roguelikes before—at least not in the way that Returnal has chosen to tell it. Hades scattered little bits of story throughout the game, allowing for small character interactions and little text dialogues between runs to inform us of Zagreus’ story. It was there if you wanted to dive further into it, but it was otherwise a nice set dressing to fun gameplay. Returnal on the other hand exists because of its story. 

The roguelike mechanic is intrinsic to Selene’s story. Every new cycle exists because of what she is going through, and the only way out is to finish her story. But what that story quite is exists as a mystery broken into a hundred pieces and only very loosely given to us in vague vignettes. What you make of Returnal and Selene’s story is up to you. 

Returnal concerns itself with the mythos of old Greek gods and legend. Selene herself is named after the Greek Goddess of the Moon and sister to Helios, the name of her broken down ship too to which she appears to have a particular affinity with. How far the god metaphors and mythos are supposed to be taken is, again, up to you, but for me it adds a nice texturing to a game that is already so layered with interpretable nuance. Is Selene’s story real, or is she punishing herself for a tragic past mistake, creating this alien world in her head as a means to parse through emotion? Is the spacesuit a haunting visage of herself or someone else? You can make a hundred runs through Returnal and still be quivering over your final answers.

For some that might be a turn-off, for me it is everything to adore about the game. It is rich with texture across the board—from story to gameplay to design. Returnal is a fundamental step toward a new revolution for roguelikes—one which will see the genre escalate toward being a heavy hitter in AAA industry. Especially with Returnal being one of the first to successfully open that barrier.


About Author

Lawrence Rennie

Lawrence is a Scottish-born writer with a love of games and films that he fortunately turned into a career grumbling about online. When not firing away the hours buried in a game or film he also co-writes 'Mechastopheles', an original comic series published by the UK’s leading comic magazine 2000AD as a naturally born-grumpy Scot; however, he asks that you don’t ask him too much about it though! Lawrence’s other musings include podcasts, fitness, his cat, and one day developing his own screenplay.

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