Arcade Is Dead… But Not Entirely
As a longtime fan of Housemarque’s games, I was quite disheartened when the studio announced in 2017 that it would be moving on from its arcade bonafides because, despite critical acclaim, the studio’s games just weren’t selling as well as they’d hoped. One free-to-play shooter experiment aside, Housemarque returns with what feels like very much a blend of the studio’s arcade roots, married with the grander shooter work done on the unreleased Stormdivers.That marriage of the new and old is immediately clear in Returnal’s behind-the-back, third-person shooter gameplay, which, as evidenced by past trailers and my most recent look, has all the promise of past Housemarque hits like Resogun and Nex Machina. Playing as astronaut Selen crash landing on an alien planet, Returnal quickly throws players into the gauntlet of this dangerous new world. Action looks fast, frenetic, and engrossing, as the more cinematic third-person camera puts the player’s perspective more directly into the midst of battles. Enemies can take on all matters of shape and form, from tentacled nightmares to overtly Alien-inspired designs, and they can swarm the player on land and by air quite easily if you’re not smartly controlling the crowd.
But I don’t want to speculate on how its gunplay will feel too much just yet, since I haven’t gotten a chance to go hands-on with Returnal,. Everything I’ve played from the studio before gives me confidence in what’s to come, though, and the gameplay certainly looks like it’s capturing that intense, thrilling flair that has been a hallmark of Housemarque’s past work, including some epic boss battles like the first one I saw that will certainly test how well a handle you have on the gameplay so far. Instead, what interests me most is Returnal’s focus on roguelike elements, a core gameplay design that’s more in depth than any randomization we’ve seen from the studio before, while also simultaneously being the most story-focused game they’ve made yet. And while the design of a rougelike may be new for Housemarque, their design has always been about imbuing experiences with replayability.
“Returnal, just like many of our other games, is designed fundamentally for replayability,” Game Director Harry Krueger said. “So anything that is only fun once should only be experienced once. In practice, that means that we’ve adopted a somewhat hybrid approach to our procedural generation. So we have a series of different areas, such as treasure rooms, combat spaces, narrative spaces. And these of course, are handcrafted, to allow those flourishes of quality to really be dialed in, to let the narrative beats appear consistently, to let the mood and the audio and all of those elements just consistently appear, no matter what the configuration of the world is.
Returnal Game Awards Trailer Screenshots
“However, the configuration of those rooms, the order they appear in, the numbers they appear in, and whether some will appear at all, is dictated by the random generation. Even after you do familiarize yourself with some of these spaces, you will find yourself in very unfamiliar situations in them.”
He pointed to the example of a treasure room, which I saw in my hands-off demo, that could have a different configuration of rewards, or traps, with different types and numbers of enemies or victorious spoils appearing in each go.
Given that Returnal is a roguelike, though, and its DNA is wrapped up in the live-die-repeat ethos of the genre, it can often be just as important to make sure the new aspects of each run are as engrossing as what carries over throughout the entire experience.
The Connective Thread
While Housemarque is definitely keeping some of those specifics secret to let players discover them, Krueger did speak to some of the mechanical elements that remain permanent throughout Returnal.
“In the beginning, you will have a fairly limited move set. You will be teased by a lot of seemingly inaccessible areas and obstacles that you cannot overcome. But then as you reach these milestones of progress, for example, when you defeat a boss or you reach a new discovery through exploration, you will gain permanent unlocks, either as abilities or items, that will allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas, and also give you strategic advantages, both in traversal and in combat,” he explained.
Krueger also noted that this will translate to the world of Atropos as well, so opening a key bridge in one run will ensure that it is open in future runs, too. He emphasized that because Returnal is meant to encourage exploration quite heavily, players should find permanent progress in this capacity.
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“You’re opening more shortcuts and more traversal possibilities for our exploration-heavy world. And that allows each player to define their own pace and their own style. So you want to just go straight to the boss again, be my guest. But you can also feel free to have that pressure valve, where you can just explore, power-up your character and give yourself more of a fighting chance as well,” he said.
One of those areas that will see progress, as Krueger alluded to, is Returnal’s story. As glimpsed in some previous trailers and shown at length in my demo, Returnal makes time for its story by shifting the player’s perspective to Selene’s in first-person. Those quick flashes of a more terrestrial home in previous looks are no accident – as Selene’s journey continues, players will intermittently stumble upon an earthly home, her home, amidst the ominous expanse of Atropos.
“[The shift to first person] was about providing that intimacy,” Narrative Director Gregory Louden said. “The best way to see things is to be in someone’s shoes. It’s to be in the space suit, within there, and looking at these objects. It also obviously allows a closer camera You should look around the house for clues and remnants of the story for you to uncover. On first look, they may seem inconspicuous, but they have much larger ramifications once you know the full story.”While I of course only saw glimpses of that story play out in the demo, as a fan of the work Hades did in the roguelike genre of really bringing story to the forefront, it seems like Selene’s journey is a key component of Returnal’s adventure. And that extends beyond just these house sequences – as the game progresses, Selene will begin to discover her own corpse with audio logs that help to fill in more gaps in the story. And players can progressively learn more of the alien language present on Atropos to discover more about the world.
“Our main goal has been for it to be mysterious and haunting, not in a sense of horror, but haunting in a sense that it’s a story you can replay in your mind and you can rethink,” Louden said. “And when you see an image the second time, you re-contextualize, and you understand.
“It’s a roguelike, it’s a game about repetition, and it’s a game about discovery…Great stories are about loops, and it’s about a character coming back to the start and re-contextualizing, learning from, growing from information they didn’t have at the start and evolving.”
While I’ve only seen a bit of Returnal’s loop, it’s clear Housemarque is ready to learn and grow from its own loops, pushing its ethos for action-packed gameplay with replayable hooks to evolve with new ideas and a deeper interest in story than ever before.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior News Editor, host of Podcast Beyond!, and PlayStation lead. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.