If you're not already, you should be paying attention to Housemarque. The Finnish developer has been crafting fantastic arcade games since the mid-90s, and has often partnered with Sony to bring these to PlayStation. If you've played Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, Resogun, Alienation, or Nex Machina — to name a few — you'll have first-hand experience with its brand of bombastic, satisfying arcade gameplay.
For its debut on PS5, the team is building Returnal, a rogue-lite third person shooter about a stranded explorer who's caught in a loop in which death sends her back to her crash landing. After watching lots of brand new gameplay footage — which you can read more about in our preview — we spoke with game director Harry Krueger and marketing director Mikael Haveri all about the game. If you're curious about this title's structure, how it balances story with random elements, and what Housemarque has to say about value, read on.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Push Square: Just to recap, could you give us the rundown on Returnal?
Harry Krueger: Returnal is the biggest and most ambitious title we've ever made. On the one hand, it's a bit of a departure for us, but in many ways we feel it's a natural continuation of this arcade-inspired gameplay that we've been working on for the last two console generations. We're just taking all those lessons, that creative philosophy — tight and responsive controls, the audiovisual flair, explosive and intense combat — and really cranked it up to 13, taking it to the next level with Returnal.
The result is something that could be described as a third person, bullet hell, arcade adventure. It's enriched with a lot of rogue-like elements for variation and replayability, and also has a deep and compelling narrative. So this blend of different influences is definitely something that's been unique for us as a studio, but we also feel it offers a fairly fresh take on third person action.
You play as Selene, who winds up trapped on this alien planet, Atropos. Could you tell us a bit more about her?
HK: She's a Greek-American deep space scout who, perhaps against her better judgment, answers the call of the void — this mysterious signal that's emanating from this planet called Atropos. In the first moments of the game, we see her approaching the planet to investigate the signal. She crash lands there, and very quickly succumbs to the elements. Instead of finding release upon her death, she finds herself reawakening moments before the inevitable crash landing. So, she's trapped in this endless cycle where even death is no escape.
As a character, Selene is something that we're extremely proud of. It's the first time we're telling such a layered and deep story with such a strong protagonist. There are many layers to her that we're excited to talk about, but we'd rather just show some restraint and allow players to discover that as they dive into the world of Returnal with her.
As you mentioned, the game has rogue-like aspects to it. There are lots of random elements — weapons, upgrades, enemies, map layouts, etc. How do you ensure that every combination of these variables is fun to play?
HK: With Returnal, we've taken a bit of a hybrid approach to our procedural content. What that means in practice is that all areas — you have treasure rooms, combat spaces, traversal-based connecting areas, narrative spaces — all of these have been meticulously hand-crafted. So you get the maximum quality there with asset placement, lighting, narrative beats, audio design, so there's this consistent quality to those individual areas. However, these are combined and connected very freely across multiple runs.
The content you find in these areas is also procedurally generated. That means, even if you do identify a treasure room for example, or an arena space, it will often be filled with unfamiliar content. Sometimes you will have a certain combination of enemies and varying numbers, you might have just one elite enemy there, other times you might just find a treasure chest waiting for you. These are just some really quick examples of how we're embracing this variation and making sure that each run creates memorable player stories.
The term 'rogue-like' can be one that scares people off. It's a genre that typically provides a high level of challenge, progression is usually reset, and it can feel at times that you're not making any headway. What are you doing with Returnal to tackle these concerns people might have?
Mikael Haveri: So, we have a single difficulty setting, and the rogue-like elements scale in the sense that, you as a player kind of determine your pace. More aggressive players can jump into more challenging areas by choice; more timid players can maybe learn to keep away after a couple of deaths, so there's learning from your mistakes as well. As you play the game, you do open up permanent progress items. Things that really add to your repertoire, like the melee blade, and the hookshot. These allow you to traverse into new areas, and previously unseen compartments in familiar areas.
In general, what happens when you play more and more, it opens more pathways for you to choose to take and build your strategy. So for example, after you've defeated the first boss [for the first time], the portal to the next biome opens and stays open for your next sessions. Doing that, you can always go back to the boss, gear up, get a lot of health upgrades, level up your character and proficiency and weapons. All these things add up to making the run ahead of you that bit easier.
It's sort of catering to a lot of different tastes. The rogue-like name may be intimidating, but in the end, it's a third person shooter with a lot of cool variety.
HK: We have designed Returnal around replayability. Just like our previous games, we want it to be easy to pick up and hard to master. It should be accessible, yet deep. In many ways, we want it to be a game that, the more you play it, the more it opens up to you. As Mikael said, with permanent progression, and lots of layers to discover with the story, systems, weaponry, and the character herself — there's a lot of replay value, and that creates a lot of flexibility with how players can approach each run. That relationship people have with the difficulty will not be as rigid or intimidating as it might seem initially.
If we're getting technical, the game is more of a rogue-lite than a rogue-like; as you mentioned, it features some permanent progression. You're not going to always be starting from square one. Could you go into these a bit?
HK: After you defeat a boss, you gain access to a key that opens a passage to [the next biome]. Of course, we have a wide variety of biomes to explore. All of these milestones, they will persist across multiple sessions. That means you can carve out your own way to play over multiple runs; you can choose to take the shortcut to the next biome, or spend more time upgrading your character. You won't have a very rigid relationship with the game's challenge — it will allow you to approach it in any way you like. Combined with the variation each run provides, we feel it's going to be a world of different possibilities in every run for players.
On the flip side, what are some random elements players can get excited about?
HK: So for example, the Parasites are one aspect. These are intended to give you both a positive and negative modifier, so these might lead to a lot of tricky decisions for players, especially as the stakes get higher. Do you want to take that gamble? Sometimes it won't pay off, other times it will.
All of these [upgrades and equipment] are tracked in a central databank, and the more time you spend playing Returnal, the more it will open up to you. A lot of these elusive weapons, items, artefacts, permanent upgrades — once you get them, they'll be available to you from the beginning of the next run, enriching the variation as you spend more time with the game.
MH: To the extent that — for example the weapons, you always start with a level zero pistol, but when you move to the next areas, the unlockables there are now a bigger pool of the things you've uncovered in your previous runs.
From what we've seen so far, the game has Housemarque's fingerprints all over it. Fast-paced action, fluid movement, big visual effects — but it's also a third person shooter, which is new territory for you. What has it been like taking your brand of arcade action to this new perspective?
HK: At the heart of [our games], we always have really tight responsive controls. Players have a sacred bond with the controller that demands reverence, and we designed the controls to be really responsive and immediate from the get-go. Honestly, we nailed those within the first few months of prototyping; after that we haven't really touched them. So it's just keeping them as immediate and direct as possible so that, when a new player picks up Returnal, they identify it as a Housemarque game.
The controls and the visual flair you touched upon, those were somewhat straightforward to transfer to a third person perspective. But then of course we have all the enemies, the bullet hell elements, and the challenges that introduce a new dimension of possibilities with our verticality — new opportunities and challenges to solve there as well. So that means we have a wide range of different enemies, each with a unique role, a lot of different bullet patterns and projectile attacks. These have all been meticulously designed, tuned, and balanced to find that sweet spot where the game is always challenging, but not so much that it spirals out of control and becomes incomprehensible.
In the end, the game is the boss. We try something out, we playtest it, and if the game tells us this isn't working, we tune it further. And there's a lot of layers that come into this tuning, in terms of enemy attacks, timing, pacing, and spatial awareness. Even just notifying players where attacks are coming from — that's something that the 3D audio is helping us with. It gives this more crystallised positionality to certain attacks, and you can see that, oh, there's an enemy that's just spawned behind and to the right of me. It helps create this more intimate feedback loop for the core gameplay.
It looks really frantic to play, in the best way, and that's best shown off with a boss battle. Can you talk about the boss encounters?
HK: Most of our biomes will culminate with these climactic boss battles. These will really put your skills to the test, and have a lot of over-the-top bullet hell, and varied, unique challenges to provide. They just have really epic and memorable set-pieces individually as well.
You've seen the first boss, for the Overgrown Ruins, that shows that audiovisual flair, and the bullet hell that we're after. [The bosses] will also serve a role in the story and the player's permanent progression. There are lots of enemies in the game, some elite encounters as well, culminating with these boss fights. It's one of those things I'm really eager to read player's reactions when they first encounter these in the game.
With Returnal, you're putting a big focus on story, which is not something you've really done before. Can you talk about combining your strengths in gameplay with this narrative aspect?
MH: We do have a narrative team now, expanding the expertise internally has been a big part of it. Creating this from the beginning, Harry had a clear vision on how a rogue-like should play, and the story elements were always very much a part of that. So when you do enter the planet, you crash land with Selene, she's reacting to the world. You may pick up audio logs from previous corpses of Selene, which is kinda creepy, but those are the things that, you keep playing, and the audio's getting into your head, and you're maybe thinking about it, maybe not, but around the fourth audio log you start realising that Selene is just descending into this madness. This constant death is starting to have a huge impact on her, and that's how we start understanding her as a character, transforming with the planet.
We have layers of the alien civilisation being brought up; there's these old Xeno archives that have these cool particle projections that you can find, there's these stone tablets to decipher, you collect information and the alien language... Overall, this type of stuff compounds into layers that — you need to die and relive that to be able to unlock a lot of these narrative beats. Harry can go into the house sequences, which is a big part of this.
HK: From the get-go, we envisioned Returnal as a game where the gameplay and the story are inseparable. So, we have the rogue-like nature of the game, we're embracing that from every perspective to strengthen the narrative and not combat against it. Even after the first time you die, Selene will immediately start commenting that, the world wasn't like this before. That already is the narrative recognising the game's structure and vice versa. It's a central element of Selene's descent into madness and her emotional journey.
The narrative itself has been designed around haunting the player. We want questions to be lingering inside your mind, hopefully even after the credits roll, where you'll be wondering certain things, and interpreting them in different ways. It's definitely a game designed around mystery.
The house sequences are one thing Mikael touched upon. We have these first person sequences. The idea is that we shift away from this third person perspective to allow players to be in Selene's shoes and, from a first person perspective, have a much more intimate exploration of her mysterious past. It's also a great opportunity for haptic feedback and audio design to shine through.
As the game has so many procedurally generated aspects, I was wondering how you ensure the story carries forward at a good pace. Say for example a player is 10 hours in, and has done dozens of runs — will these house segments and other story elements still show up? How is it structured?
MH: There's a lot of layers. So of course, when you begin the game, you'll get small cutscenes, more of a tutorial aspect where you're learning with Selene. The further you go and the more things you unlock, the content changes as well. So the types of things you'll encounter are maybe a bit more complex, they might be there [to haunt you], there may be things that are purely there to stop the pacing and push elements that are so off-beat that it makes you stop and take a look. There's a lot of layered elements that add to this, but what's constant is that they're always in unison with player control.
The only part where we take a different pacing aspect is when you go into these first person sequences. Everything else is added on top of you always playing the game and having different types of story elements made available to you.
HK: To add to that, at any given moment you should have a fairly clear goal as a player. There should be something that's teasing you, haunting you, whether it's like a ledge you can't access or a chasm that seems impassable. There will always be clear goals for the player.
From a narrative perspective, there are as Mikael said lots of layers, and these will be woven into the experience at multiple steps along the way. So during small cinematic sequences, or maybe you find a device that recharges your health or gives you some other upgrade — interacting with that might give you flashbacks, or glimpses into the particular aspect of the story you should be focusing on at that point. So it's not just a very linear progress that's cut off after a certain point, it's an ever-present part of the game experience.
Let's talk about the PS5. This is your first game for the new console — how does it make use of PS5's hardware and features?
HK: We've been at the forefront of the last three PlayStation launches; on PlayStation 3 with Super Stardust HD, Resogun on PS4, and now another unique opportunity to be here with Returnal on PS5. It's always been exciting for us to dive into new tech possibilities with new hardware.
We touched upon the 3D audio briefly, that's one key aspect. Another one is the controller. The haptic feedback we have this time around has a new layer of fidelity and expression possibilities. It's taking that audiovisual feedback that we have, and just reinforcing it through the controller. That creates this extra dimension of tactility for a lot of our interactions. This can be for our narrative sequences where you're in first person, picking up items and feeling those nuances coming through the controller, or during combat or interacting with various devices.
In our core gameplay, we make use of the adaptive triggers as well. The way that it works is, if you press L2 half-way, you get traditional focus aim, and after that it actually clicks into place and activates the alt fire mode. This dual functionality on one button allows very intuitive access to these different aspects of the core moveset. It's very intuitive, it's a great addition to the core gameplay.
We have of course the SSD. The fast loading, in a game that's all about dying and respawning, and streaming a lot of highly varied content, it's proven invaluable in improving the overall quality of the experience. It minimises downtime and ensures players spend as much time as possible engaged in the action.
MH: To add to that, the planet itself may seem dark and dead at first, but in the end we have lots of flora there that not only reacts to Selene, but you have your guns and the fog — all these are dynamic elements that are catering to creating this sort of fluid environment. You also have the enemies with a lot of tentacles; that's one of our technologies that informs the player of when they're attacking, they have lots of tentacles that tell you when an enemy's gonna bounce at you.
These are all technical things that may not be apparent at first, but there's so much intricate movement, and even some destructible parts of the environment. These things add up and create a unique and living world that's really only possible on PS5.
Obviously we've been covering the game since it was announced last June. One concern we've noticed among our readers is with regards to value. It seems there's a disconnect between what people expect from Returnal — or from a Housemarque game — and its price point. Are you able to speak to that at all?
MH: We're able to speak to that to the extent that, clearly, this is a much larger endeavour than our previous portfolio. We're aware of this jump into the bigger space as well. So from our side, we're making [Housemarque's] biggest game ever, we're adding all these platform features — the 3D audio, the haptics. Everything really caters to a new type of experience that will let any player experience gaming in a fresh light. It's quite a new thing overall. So we're trying to fulfil the part of the value proposition that allows us to give the best, most replayable, and most engrossing experience to everybody out there.
Now, it is of course a new console generation and a next-gen title, so there's things that come along with that, but as long as we're fulfilling our part of it and making the best game possible, then we're doing our half of the value proposition in that regard.
Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up?
MH: It's a deep, dark, beautiful, sci-fi rogue-like [with a] very interesting character and world. Hopefully you enjoy it! We postponed it to 30th April, but really excited to get it out soon.
Mikael said it — Returnal releases exclusively on PS5 at the end of April. A huge thank you to Harry and Mikael for taking the time to speak to us about Housemarque's latest title, and to Sony for making the interview possible. Are you looking forward to this one? Crash land in the comments section below.