Before we get started, let me explain my title. I’m not writing this “review” to tell any of you whether or not you should purchase Returnal. If that’s why you clicked, I’ll save you some time. To be very clear, I love the game. I’m very glad I purchased it, and I’m having a blast playing it. Failures and all. I can’t say I would blindly recommend it to anyone, because there are some things about it that may turn some gamers off. But I would strongly recommend anyone who is intrigued do a bit of homework at the very least. I will also refrain from really explaining too much about the game. There are many real reviews out there that contain all the info you will ever need, as well as massive amounts of game footage. With that said, I am here to do two things. First, I want to explain why I feel this game is brilliant. Because it IS. I also want to share why I feel it is a shining example of “next-gen gaming.” Because it IS. To me anyway.
Let’s start with the brilliance of Housemarque. If you don’t know their history, they have specialized in twin stick shooters for YEARS now. You may have heard of some of their games. Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, Alienation, Resogun, Nex Machina…..they have given us a wealth of great gaming experiences over the past decade plus. When news broke that Sony was giving them a shot at a AAA title, excited does not accurately describe how I felt. I imagined they would make a game in the same vein as their others, just bigger and flashier due to the bigger budget. What we got was FAR more impactful in my humble opinion. Housemarque not only effectively built a game around their trademark brand of shooting, but they shoehorned it into a completely different genre SEAMLESSLY. We’ve seen genre merging before, but a company who was previously known for a specific brand of gaming using their biggest opportunity to try something so bold is inspiring. It feels a bit like Horizon: Zero Dawn in that sense. Guerilla Games stepped away from what they were known for and created something so fresh, despite being very familiar in a lot of ways. Returnal does the same. You recognize the foundation immediately upon playing. A dash of MetroidVania here, a splash of bullet hell here, sprinkle in a smidgen of rogue lite (or like, I get them confused), and viola! But the gumbo doesn’t taste like any other gumbo on the market, and I feel like they deserve their flowers for not taking the easy way out. Resogun Ultimate would have been great! Returnal is much better.
When I hear the phrase “next-gen gaming” I cringe. I love video games, and I love NEW ones even more. So that phrase should get me going honestly. It’s meaningless though. A lot of times, all it means is “prettier current gen gaming.” Most devs enter new gaming cycles thinking prettier and flashier, instead of pushing things forward conceptually, or using the new power to reimagine current styles of gaming. This is where I feel Returnal actually nailed it in terms of feeling like something that wasn’t possible before. Actually, it probably WAS possible. Someone just needed to try it. Housemarque basically TRICKED some gamers into trying something they normally don’t. Rogue lite (or like lol) games aren’t normally adopted by the masses, regardless of quality. Even the most known ones feel underappreciated by gamers at large. Hades is a shining example. It won multiple GOTY awards, yet it still feels criminally underrated. The genre just feels very niche, and most of that is due to how the games look. They are beautiful in their own right, but they don’t look life-like or photo realistic. Dead Cells is a good looking game, until The Last of Us 2 pulls up. Feel me? And if we’re being honest, that’s how a lot of gamers are hooked in. The visuals have to blow them away, or they feel like it’s too old-school or not impressive. Housemarque effectively cracked that code with Returnal. Early videos of the game looked fantastic and caught everyone’s attention. Beautiful yet eerie third person shooter with bright colors and AAA polish! Let’s go! It didn’t LOOK like an old-school experience, but boy oh boy is it ever. It’s a perfect merging of the old and new, and I feel like this is where gaming should be going. Streets of Rage 4 was awesome, but imagine how many more people would have played it if it was marinated in that AAA sauce. A lot of gamers feel like gameplay is sacrificed in the quest for graphics, and in many instances they’re right. But Returnal is a clear example that proves you can have both. I’ve long been an indie game champion, and I likely will be forever. They tend to focus on creative gameplay experiences, while eschewing the mind melting visuals of the blockbusters. With that said, there’s no real reason Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft shouldn’t continue to fund bigger projects for these talented teams and see what they can do with more resources. There’s a middle ground in gaming that is BEGGING to be explored, and I personally feel like Returnal is showing how tantalizing it could be. Here’s hoping others follow their lead.