Returnal is the next stage in Housemarque's evolution. This upcoming PS5 exclusive is a challenging, restless roguelike set on an inhuman and inhospitable planet. You'll need to utilise the weapons and abilities you uncover across your journey to break free from a loop of death and gradual decay. You'll use the knowledge you acquire on this savage alien world to not only navigate a hellish hailstorm of bullets, but to piece together your fractured memories too. Returnal will invite you into a cycle of chaos that is as unending as it is unyielding, one that Housemarque believes you won't be able to turn away from.
"Returnal is our dark, deep, and beautiful sci-fi action thriller. It takes everything Housemarque has done in the past, gameplay-wise, and adds a whole new vision and style," narrative director Gregory Louden tells me. "For me, Returnal takes the best things from past Housemarque classics and respins them for the next generation of games."
Navigating the storm
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release March 19, 2021
Returnal shouldn't exist. In 2017, Housemarque CEO Ilari Kuittinen declared that "arcade is dead (opens in new tab)". He explained that "Nex Machina and Matterfall will be the last of their kind coming out of our studio", with lacklustre sales pushing the studio to reexamine its direction. Arcade coin-op inspired titles like Super Stardust Delta, Resogun, and Alienation were Housemarque's past, and multiplayer experiences focused on strong, robust communities were its future. That is, until Sony decided to insert another coin to continue playing.
"Returnal started as a dream project for us," game director Harry Krueger tells me, speaking to the origins of codename Dark Planet. "Back when we were creating the original concept over three years ago, we really didn't hold anything back. We dared to dream, and put absolutely every wild idea that we thought was cool into a single pitch and just hoped for the best. Needless to say, we were ecstatic when Sony greenlit the project and offered their support, and we all saw this as a unique opportunity for Housemarque to create something really special."
Stormdivers, Housemarque's take on the burgeoning battle royale genre, is on hold and its future uncertain. In January 2020, the studio announced that the entirety of its attention was shifting to meet Returnal's ambition – a AAA game that isn't attempting to carry the torch for arcade-inspired games forward, but keep their spirit alive in a bold new package. "This is the first time that we've been able to work on a production of this scale and ambition. We are working with our largest team ever, collaborating with world-class studios around the world, and bringing our vision to life with a fidelity we haven't experienced before," continues Krueger.
"This is also our first foray into the third-person action genre, which has introduced a new dimension of possibilities for us. It's also our first attempt at crafting a roguelike experience, and the first time we're weaving an intricate story with a memorable character and rich cinematic elements into our games. We're trying to blend a lot of new things in this package that we haven't really done before, which has kept the project feeling consistently fresh and interesting. The result is something that we feel is quite unique. Fans will definitely recognise this as an evolution of the Housemarque formula, and we hope that with our new direction and production values we can introduce our brand of explosive arcade action to a wider mainstream audience."
Given the framing of the world and story, any readers of the new literary genre New Weird – Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, and Mark Z. Danielewski's inimitable House of Leaves – will likely feel right at home here. "New Weird wise, we are definitely not your usual sci-fi game," says Louden, who served as senior narrative designer on Remedy's Control, "and we have lots of layers from Lovecraftian horror to Lynchian atmospheres."
Returnal will be the first game out of Housemarque backed by a full narrative team. While the studio's previous games have included story elements to ground the gameplay systems and frame its bullet-hell action, it has never made a large commitment to tell a story. Returnal begins with a tragedy playing on repeat: a crash, an attack, your death; a crash, an attack, your death—
"Returnal's dark sci-fi time loop setup is so exciting narratively for us because Selene, our deep space scout repeating the crash, allows us to add lots of hidden layers narratively that are uncovered through repetition," says Louden. "The cyclical nature of the narrative design means the more you push forward, the more you discover Selene. What does the cycle do to someone? What is the planet's history? Why are things beyond Selene's comprehension appearing here?"
For Housemarque, it wants to create a world that can feel alien and atmospheric, offering up the occasional moment of respite and beauty before the mystery seeps in and suffocates once again. "Our goal has been to haunt the player. It was important for us to embrace the mystery, and leave many of the secrets of the planet to players to discover themselves," says Krueger. "I feel that some of the best stories we experience are the ones we piece together in our minds through implication. In Returnal, we're conscious to share enough in our world to spark intrigue, but never too much – the more you know, the less you imagine. It's important to leave enough room for the players' minds to wander."
Selene is cursed to relive her first moments on the alien planet of Atropos every time she succumbs to its horrors. You'll examine the ancient civilisation through which you wade for answers, haunted by the echoes of its past and the fragmentation of your memory the deeper you push into a constantly evolving and decaying terrain. Krueger notes that "the shifting, procedural world is something that's also recognised by our story, and is a central element of Selene's nightmarish predicament and her slow descent into madness."
"Cosmic horror has been a strong inspiration for us, both for our world-building and many of our central philosophical themes as well. Our enemies have been largely inspired by deep-sea creatures, and strong bioluminescent highlights will contrast their otherworldly tentacle masses. There are also Lynchian influences, where we aim to blend the surreal with the unsettling – grounded, but with a dream-like ambience. This dark, bleak world is accompanied by our bright and vibrant action to create a high-contrast 'dark world, bright gameplay' aesthetic."
While an increased focus on narrative design and world-building work to showcase the studio's rising ambition, the gameplay is still king. Returnal is a third-person roguelike, albeit one that is infused with the sensibilities of Housemarque's beloved top-down, bullet-hell shooters. Krueger tells me that while Returnal looks worlds apart from anything the team has delivered in the past, the beating heart of Housemarque is still there at its core. "In all our games, we've always adhered to our core arcade philosophy, which is the relentless pursuit to create unlimited replay value. Returnal is no exception in that regard, and our central pillar for the vision has also been to 'design for replayability'. Everything we put in the game goes through the same scrutiny: how will this survive repetition? Anything that is only fun once should only be experienced once."
With that in mind, Returnal is being built to constantly surprise. While Krueger isn't certain of how many permutations of its world and action exist, he believes it could well be in the thousands. Every time Selene dies, she'll experience the crash and a new variant of the subsequent attack, with waves of monsters attempting to halt her exploration of the planet and acquisition of its knowledge every time. "The roguelike formula in some ways felt like a natural continuation of our creative philosophy," he continues. "Our levels are generated procedurally in Returnal, and our goal is to ensure that every run feels unique and offers rich variation for gameplay and combat scenarios."
The planet isn't the only element of the game that changes with every cycle, as you'll also need to contend with a shifting arsenal of weapons and items. Housemarque is heavily invested in the switch to third-person action, highlighting the verticality in its level design and an expanded move set as key elements of the experience. This includes the ability to utilise a grappling hook to quickly navigate areas, vault ledges while under fire, and traverse the environments with bursts of kinetic energy. "There is a plethora of weapons, items, systems and strange alien technology to discover and experiment with. We have a lot of exploration and traversal gameplay as well, and we want to constantly encourage – and reward – players' curiosity," says Krueger.
While the roguelike does inherently introduce a degree of randomness to play, Krueger assures me that Returnal is still carrying the spirit of arcade games. Which is to say, Returnal has structure and predictability in its underlying systems; it's an experience that you can learn from and get better at over time, even as the world (and the composition of enemies that inhabit it) change. He says that you should "expect to find tight and responsive controls, a rewarding gameplay loop to keep you coming back for more, a combo system that ups the stakes and rewards skilful play, and lots of rich audiovisual feedback to make everything feel consistently satisfying."
That's all great to hear because it sounds as if the aforementioned attack is going to be a nightmare to deal with. Bullet hell-fuelled combat and visceral twists and turns through stark environments is the baseline level of expectation for each run through the game. While you'll get more proficient at navigating pathways through projectiles and dispatching enemies over time, that knowledge and experience aren't going to come easily. "Weaving through waves of projectiles is one of the purest forms of enjoyment one can find in our medium. Traditionally this has been explored more in 2D games, where the player has more control and awareness of the incoming threats."
"Bringing this avoidance gameplay to a 3D playfield with lots of verticality has been a new challenge for us to get it feeling right, and we feel the result is a fairly unique take on the formula that feels rewarding and can often look spectacular," says Krueger, who notes that "we're also pushing our VFX tech to a new level here, so expect to see many showcase particle effects that will make our alien world, enemies, and gameplay really come to life."
Death will greet you frequently in Returnal. This cycle has implications on everything in the game. From the way the narrative unfurls to your growing expertise at navigating environments as they bleed bullets, and how you progress and push deeper into Atropos. "Our goal has been to create an expansive world, and a progression system that the more you play, the more the game opens up to you," Krueger explains. "We've worked hard to find a balance between the high-stakes permadeath gameplay of good roguelikes (and arcade games) where you feel a strong commitment in your run, while also providing a satisfying feeling of progression to reward you for your time investment."
Housemarque is still trying to strike that perfect balance now, as it continues tweaking ahead of Returnal's release on March 19, 2021. Louden says that, narratively, there are a number of ways that the repetition cycle of the roguelike will progress. "Even in death on Atropos, Selene learns, evolves, and changes. Atropos is also filled with the remnants of an extinct alien civilisation she can scavenge and utilise; fortunately, she can also keep some of this xeno-tech she discovers," he says, teasing that this will unlock "shortcuts, gameplay advantages, and the means to fight further and harder with every cycle."
You'll keep hold of your logs and language samples upon rebirth, and your ship's database will continue defragmenting over time as you push for progression, "so the more you cycle, the more layers to be found here too," Louden teases. What of mission-critical items and equipment to help you survive the horror of the planet? Krueger says that by exploring and experimenting you'll begin to unlock permanent upgrades and new abilities, all of which will not only let you push deeper into the maw of death, but uncover new layers to environments you've already explored.
"You'll gain access to previously inaccessible areas, discover new items and secrets, piece together new parts for our story, and gain new advantages in combat. Multiple weapons and items will also become unlocked as you discover them in the world," he says. "Ultimately, though, the biggest resource that will carry over between sessions is the player's skill. Mastering our systems and techniques and learning the secrets of Atropos will give you an advantage in subsequent runs. The random nature of the game means that some things will always be dictated by luck, but there will always be room to improve and overcome the challenges of Returnal through player skill alone."
The wait is almost over
Housemarque has always had a special connection with the PlayStation platform. Where Resogun defined the launch day experience for PS4 owners back in 2013, many are now looking to Returnal as the linchpin of the PS5 launch window in 2021. Sony invested in Housemarque's most ambitious and stimulating creative endeavour yet, pulling the studio back from the brink of supporting a battle royale long into the future. And, in just a few short months, we'll be able to explore Returnal's blend of challenging action, mystifying narrative threads, and tantalising progression cycle for ourselves.
And for what it's worth, Louden promises it'll be worth the wait. "Returnal is bold, brave, and new – exactly what I want myself from next-gen games. It's been such an exciting project to be a part of because there aren't any other games like it. It still surprises me after years of playing; how it can play out with every cycle, and the surprises we have set up."
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