Here at Game Informer we have the chance to play games. A lot of games. Surprisingly, I find myself here in 2021 talking about another quality game title of the year in the roguelike genre. In fact, roguelikes have taken my GOTY slot quite regularly over the past few years, starting at Kill the arrow in Hades. While roguelikes have always featured compelling gameplay, now we’re getting story, world-building, and other narrative designs on top of the systems and mechanics the setting is known for. If the roguelikes were ever biding their time to generalize, Hades was certainly that flashpoint.
Now, Returnal is a very different experience from Hades, but it has one of the most important elements that helps make it an amazing experience, which is cohesion. Returnal’s artistic components feel like they’re pulled from the same united well, leading to a game that can sort of be super-fast arcade bullet-hell action and atmospheric, ominous horror at the same time. These disparate factors come together to create a unified experience that feels like everything has been cut from the same fabric. Art, music, gameplay, etc. are part of every game, but they rarely sing so well together.
First, check out the Returnal review, because we’re going to dive into a few minor spoilers here by discussing a few aspects of the game. We won’t go into story spoilers, but we will be discussing how Returnal connects various elements with a few examples, so be aware of that before you read on. There’s one battle in Returnal that I think captures the essence of what I’m talking about with unified elements more than anything else, and that’s the Hyperion fight at the end of Biome 4. Without going into too much detail. , the mysterious arc of Biome 4 tasks the player with determining the source of the mysterious music, an underlying haunting tone that creaks deep in your mind as you hunt down multiple ‘boss door’ keys throughout the area , a fairly standard game mechanic in Returnal.
Once you unlock the door, the player is tasked with climbing to the top of the tower as the music gets louder and louder. While an ascending melody is not the most advanced mechanic ever seen in modern games, you need to understand how it makes its way through your mind throughout the entire zone and has also been lightly inserted into your subconscious via glimmers of narrative before that. point. Not only is Biome 4’s play area designed for Hyperion combat, but it represents a culmination and a payoff. We get the song. We get the weird song-themed boss battle where an organic terror hammers a biological organ with beautiful deadly riffs that blast you from the rays of hell. Synchronization of elements. While most of Returnal’s boss fights are multi-phased encounters with rising stakes and shifting sounds, Hyperion is the best example due to its direct relationship.
As with most fights, the battle escalates over time, with more and more hypnotic projectile formations to dodge, impressive terraforming, and watching Hyperion return to the organ to utter deadly notes. Combat shoots all cylinders when you’re at it, blasting your mind with haunting hymns, working your muscle memory to dodge millions of things, and keeping you enthralled with attention as you anticipate the next mechanic or ability to come. While Returnal’s actual “story” doesn’t win any Shakespearean awards, the breadcrumb trail the game makes you nibble on fits the sci-fi horror vibe loaded with gnawing uncertainty and deliberate unease. increasing. Little bits of knowledge and weird world-building do a better job of giving the story a boost than heavy exposure. Atmospheric, it impeccably sells the ever-changing and ever-changing alien world, draws you in and never lets go.
Horror as a genre often fails to stick to a satisfying ending. Returnal’s latest biome, the Abyss, is a terror theme park that connects the most menacing mechanics with spooky and deadly new enemies who embody the deep darkness that the Abyss represents. Horrific tentacles in the dark as you sink deeper into the expanses of the unknown. The game thrives in this gruesome area and doesn’t disappoint, as the expanses are filled with hidden terrors and satisfying final combat. Returnal’s “less is more” story that is told in small esoteric slices works much better than an explicit, simplified narrative because you are constantly trying to fill in the gaps yourself, whether you know it or not, and all. goes into the fear stew that is served here. It’s not some scary kind of horror, but when it works, you feel real anxiety and dread as you go deeper into the depths.
In Returnal, it’s about the gameplay but also a lot more. Returnal, as the sum of its amazing parts, qualifies as an experience. One not to be missed.