We've all been waiting for Sony to give us a little more information about Returnal, the upcoming shooter from Housemarque. From what little has been publicly shown, it has the studio's signature style, but there's clearly more going on here. The team has arcade action down pat, and that's very much present, but it's mixing things up with randomly generated elements and a much bigger focus on narrative. We were very fortunate to watch a new gameplay presentation from Housemarque, and what struck us most is that this game isn't all combat all the time — it pumps the brakes every now and then, too.
While we didn't play the game ourselves, this was our best look yet at Returnal. The video started with Selene climbing out of the wreckage of her ship, Helios; though not stated explicitly, the crash site appears to be a safe spot where you can prepare for your next, procedurally generated run. The game's first biome, Overgrown Ruins, is the one we've seen the most up to now. As the name implies, it's a dark place full of alien foliage and mysterious buildings and structures. It's also where you'll first run into the planet's hostile, tentacled inhabitants. In the opening areas of a run, you'll encounter basic enemies to get to grips with your weapon and start building Adrenaline. Your Adrenaline meter is essentially a combo counter for killing enemies; each time you scale up your Adrenaline level, you'll gain various benefits and buffs, but taking damage resets this to zero.
Combat looks as fast and fluid as ever; baddies fire bullet hell patterns, forcing you to jump and dash about the space as you rain down your own neon death. This is where Housemarque is most comfortable, and it looks really engaging. What's clear is that when you're in the thick of it, you'll need to give the game your full attention. You can only carry one weapon at a time, but different guns may appear during runs, and you can unlock various alternate fire modes, so you'll usually have a couple of offensive options to hand.
However, the presentation doesn't focus too heavily on the action itself. Instead, it tends to draw attention to the game's story aspects. One method of storytelling is audio logs, with the delightfully disturbing context of finding them on Selene's old corpses from previous escape attempts. As with many other elements, finding these will be down to the procedural generation — sometimes you'll stumble on these to provide small pockets of story in between the action. Audio logs are obviously a tried and tested thing in games, but they're far from Returnal's only narrative tool.
Remember the brief clips from early trailers that look like P.T.? From time to time, you may happen across a mysterious house, embedded in the alien scenery. It's so juxtaposed and unusual that it practically begs to be explored. As you approach the house, which is clearly tied to Selene in one way or another, the camera swaps from third to first person. From this more personal perspective, you can wander around the building, interacting with various objects inside. It's like a different game altogether, slowing the pace right down and giving you brief glimpses into Selene's past — and of course, teasing further mysteries. It's not clear how often these segments will crop up, but they're a very intriguing break from what is otherwise a fast-paced game.
There's further variety in a run's potential locations. In addition to combat spaces and these narrative moments, you may encounter traversal-based rooms, interiors with treasure chests or Fabricators — shops, basically — and seemingly impassable areas, like a huge door you'll be able to unlock later. With all these blended together in random maps, the aim appears to be that each run has its peaks and troughs in terms of pacing, and you'll find a wide variety of weapons and equipment to keep things fresh. That includes Parasites, which are small lifeforms that attach to Selene and give her both a positive and negative stat change.
If you're worried about the rogue-like nature of the game, you'll be pleased to know it does feature some permanent progression. One example of a persistent upgrade shown in the video is the ability to use Translocators, essentially portals you can jump between to reach new areas.
By the sound of it, at least some of these permanent upgrades are unlocked via boss battles. We've now seen the first boss, and when you beat it for the first time, it'll allow you to get to the second biome in the game. More than that, the new location will be unlocked for subsequent runs, meaning you can start from this new area if you don't want to go through the first part again. The boss itself looks like a real test of skill, with screen-filling projectiles pushing you to manoeuvre and shoot effectively.
We also got a look at the game's menus, which looks to contain lots of useful information. The Status page shows your overall stats and anything affecting Selene's suit; Equipment gives you a breakdown on all the weapons and items you're currently carrying; Databank holds intel on everything you've discovered; and a 3D map shows your progress through the environment. It'll also highlight where to go for your current objective, and it's clear that there will be lots of different paths to take if you want to explore fully.
Overall, the game is looking really strong. It's yet to be seen if Housemarque has the writing chops to pull off the story, but what's most interesting is how the studio will blend a narrative with the random nature of the game's core structure. We can't wait to try it first hand, but what we've seen is encouraging.
If you want to learn even more about Returnal, read our interview with game director Harry Krueger and marketing director Mikael Haveri. Are you excited for this upcoming PlayStation 5 exclusive? Have your say in the comments section below.