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I confess that I hadn't been keeping much of an eye on Returnal. At a glance, it's a third-person shooter with roguelike elements, plenty of enemies to kill, and weapons to pick up. Sounds great, if a little simplistic.
What a fool I was. Scratch below the surface, and it's immediately clear that Returnal has the potential to be one of the best and most original PlayStation 5 exclusives this year. For one thing, developer Housemarque is incapable of making a bad video game. The masters of the arcade shooter have taken everything they've learned over the last 26 years and woven that trademark high-score action into a sci-fi shooter with a constantly evolving narrative involving a space explorer stuck in a time loop on a mysterious alien planet.
After chatting with Housemarque's narrative director Gregory Louden and marketing director Mikael Haveri, I'm convinced that the studio's latest effort is something special. Read on, to see why Returnal is one for PlayStation 5 owners everywhere to watch.
"Returnal is a dark, deep sci-fi action thriller," Louden explains. "It's kind of inspired by all the great, dark sci-fi greats, but also has some psychological horror elements to it. It's also kind of inspired by these Lovecraftian philosophies. And on top of that, it's a little Lynchian in its soundscapes and atmospheres. Oh, and it's interwoven with a bit of Greek mythology. So it's kind of... yeah, quite an ambitious game."
There's a lot going on in that description, but all you really need to know going in is that it's taking Housemarque's iconic arcade roots, and evolving it into this whole new PlayStation 5-exclusive action experience.
"For the last 14 years, we've been growing this beautiful partnership with PlayStation," Haveri tells me of this latest team-up. "Super Stardust HD was the first PlayStation collaboration that we did. And from there on out, I think, as a partner and publisher, they really understood the core passion that we have at Housemarque.
"Once that trust had been built up and the opportunities arose, we were able to finally step in and deliver a bigger title of this scope. And now, we're very glad that it's also on a brand new console generation that we get to show it off."
It's clear that Housemarque has decided it's time to evolve, to take the concept of these easy to pick up, hard to master video games it's known for and push that arcade gameplay into new territory.
"If you've played previous Housemarque games, you can expect all of that in Returnal," Louden confirms. "But the two biggest changes? One was changing the camera. We've changed from the top-down sidescroller of past Housemarque releases, and we've moved into third-person. We've also added a compelling narrative that's really at the forefront.
"We wanted to experiment with the replayability of Housemarque games. Our titles have always been about constantly getting another go, like in Resogun and Nex Machina. But with Returnal we took it to a whole other level with this time loop and a character-driven story following Celine as she fights through Atropos. Every time she dies, Atropos shuffles in front of her, and she needs to fight through the hostile aliens she finds... but also herself as she's going forward through this world."
Housemarque games, of course, aren't exactly known for their narratives. The experience of adjusting and delivering this new kind of story-driven experience was a challenge, Louden tells me, but one the team tackled with gusto.
Step one was expanding the studio to establish a narrative team that was purely focused on storytelling. Step two was working out how to go about telling that story.
"Being the narrative director on the project, it was about creating layered story," Louden says. "When you pick up this game, you're not immediately going to know all the controls and all the things you can do. It's the same with the story. We're creating a story that's layered, that survives the death cycle that Celine goes through.
"With that in mind, we decided that we weren't going to compromise the Housemarque style. We wanted that to stay, we wanted this arcadey, explosive action, amazing-feeling weapons, and wild creatures. But we also have the story we wanted to tell. So we decided to do both, and not really compromise in any way. The story is delivered in its own way, through these audio logs and first person experiences where you kind of relive your memories and learn the story of the alien civilization in a way that doesn't disrupt gameplay."
Traditionally, rougelikes and narrative experiences don't typically go together. We've seen that start to change in recent years, with the excellent Hades an incredible example of how to blend looping gameplay with a story that keeps moving forward. Housemarque hopes to keep players invested in Celine's time loop with seamless worldbuilding and a story that's slowly pieced together in a way that rarely disrupts the gameplay.
Louden tells me one of the big questions Housemarque asked during development was the best way to tell a story that can only be told in a video game. It comes down to things like audio logs, sure, but also a slow-burn mystery that slowly reveals itself as you continue to explore Atropos.
"We wanted to create a story that doesn't leave you," says Louden. "So even when you're not playing Returnal, it sticks with you.
"And when I say haunting, I don't mean 'horror', like scary. I mean the game lingers... it stays. We have a story that doesn't give you all the answers when you first start playing. When you first start playing, you only know what Celine's immediate objective is. And you slowly discover who she is, what she's doing, what she's trying to do, and the story of this planet. Creating this layer of depth kind of allows us to survive the repetition."
Unfortunately for Celine, as she's exploring Atropos, she can actually find her own corpses lying around from previous cycles, which themselves can contain clues and lore that drives the narrative forward. Some of these corpses, I'm told, could be from a Celine that's died thousands of deaths on Atropos.
"We get to explore what happens to someone who's trapped in a loop like that," Louden explains. "What happens to them? And how do they explore the world? These questions really push the psychological horror elements of the game, and hopefully provide an engaging central mystery for the player to solve."
Haveri adds that there's "a good, stark contrast", to see that you're getting into your third loop, and you're hearing "comments from Celine from loop number... somewhere out there".
In terms of hardware, it's not exactly a secret there haven't been many games released yet that are specifically for PlayStation 5. Haveri tells me that the DualSense was a revelation during development, once again vindicating Sony's decision to go big with the next-gen controller and allowing developers to experiment in all sorts of ways.
"It really brings a lot," he says of the DualSense. "We have these really immersive haptics, but also the adaptive trigger. With the L2 button, you usually aim down, you can aim better on your weapon. Now, there's also a little click there in the middle, that if you take it all the way back, you activate the alternate fire of your given weapon.
"We're kind of utilising that adaptive trigger to give you, if you will, two guns in one. And the controller itself, because it's so robust and kind of sexy, when in combination with 3D audio, it really gives you such immersion while exploring Atropos. For a game like this, where you need to be aware of your surroundings, it adds a lot."
Louden adds that being among the first to know all about the PlayStation 5 and its features was hugely exciting for the team, heaping further praise on the DualSense, but also the SSD and the ultra fast load times - an obvious boon for a game where death occurs so frequently.
"When you crash on Atropos, you can actually feel the rain pattering on the DualSense as you walk up in first person as the rain comes down," Louden says. "And as Mikael said, you can hear things like bullets flying by during combat sequences thanks to the 3D audio. And last but not least, the SSD. Getting the ability to load so quickly in a game that's all about dying and coming back, it creates this really easy way for you to jump back into the cycle and keep fighting forward with Celine she tries to uncover the mystery of the game."
Louden adds that the DualSense's haptic feedback feels more like a "texture" than a traditional rumble. Having played the likes of Demon's Souls and Astro's Playroom, I totally get what he means. I'm also super excited to see how, exactly, Housemarque uses this impressive tech to draw us further into the world of Returnal.
"Things like the opening in the rain, as well as the 3D audio being above you? What if you could feel it?" asks Louden. "Also, as it's Housemarque, how are we going to make the weapons feel amazing? How are we going to bring that new texture, a new sense to it? I think it all came from the game and all came from wanting to put you in this flow state."
"I would add that the haptics and themselves are now clearly part of the development landscape and some in a way that it wasn't before," Haveri adds. "They're very much tied into the audio production side of things. The importance of quote unquote, 'audio', is huge now, too. You can do so much with the segment that I think has been underutilised in the past. So I think that's the biggest learning, invest in your audio team. And they will shine with this platform."
Finally, I ask Louden and Haveri what they'd say to potential players who might never have been particularly interested in the roguelike genre. Their answers very much indicate Returnal is an entirely different beast, one that will most likely have gamers who like to place video games nearly into one category or genre arguing for years to come.
"I would say that the gameplay, the shooting, dodging those immersive alien beings with their quite intimidating tentacles... that's fun, every time you play," Haveri answers.
"No matter if it's just two aliens sneaking up on you, or a whole onslaught. That's a lot of fun. Trying out different weapons in those situations can be frustrating when you're learning new things. But that's what you play for" You really play for that adrenaline-inducing fun that you can only get from a third person shooter."
Louden adds that dying - and learning from those deaths - is all part of the experience and should be embraced. "It's actually how you get more story," he says. "It's how you see more of the game.
"If anything, if you do die, it's a chance for you to know what to do next time. And it's also a way for you to kind of get closer to the story. The story is built in layers and it's not intended for you just to get it and move on. It's intended to brew and sit with you, so I think it is just part of the experience. One of the things we say is that death is just the beginning. It is! It's part of the game you just kind of embrace it like Celine and use it as a tool to learn and continue to fight."
There we are then. Great Housemarque action gameplay that pairs nicely with a deep and mysterious story. Returnal hits PlayStation 5 on April 30, and is most certainly one to watch.
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