The hero of Returnal standing in front of a blue laser beam.

Return Review

need to know

what is it? A roguelike third-person shooter with a strong bullet hell pedigree.

Expect to pay: £50 / $60

Developer: brand

Publisher: game console computer

commented on: 64-bit Windows 10, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080, AMD Ryzen 9 5900X, 32GB RAM

multiplayer game: co-op only

Association: Steam Page(opens in a new tab)

In 1996, Housemarque released Super Stardust (opens in new tab) and spent 20 years honing the top-down arcade shooter. In 2017, it announced that “ARCADE is dead”(opens in new tab) — there’s no money left in it, and developers will “pivot to new genres.” Returnal was a big-budget roguelike that ushered in a new era for the studio. distortion? It’s… basically an arcade shooter.

Well, that’s a little unfair. It’s strictly a third-person roguelike shooter–the camera sits snugly on your shoulder, not high above, and lets you progress through an ever-changing alien world rather than chasing high-score chances. But the more you play, the more it feels like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, using some popular modern-type trappings to smuggle in the gameplay Housemarque is better known for. It’s a game with one foot in the studio’s past and the other in its future–for all the game’s strengths, it’s not always a comfortable position to be in.

(Image credit: Housemarque)(opens in a new tab)

The story begins when astronaut Selene crash-lands on the alien planet Atropos. After some worrying encounters with hostile wildlife, she finds herself trapped in a time loop – if she dies, she only wakes up again at the crash site. Not only that, but she’s been trapped for far longer than she can remember, a chilling fact that she often finds the dead body of her past, along with audio logs filled with the insane gibberish of her previous life. It’s the perfect narrative setup for a roguelike that sees you repeatedly traversing the perilous levels of Atropos as part of a continuous story – similar to Deathloop (opens in new tab) or especially Hades (opens in new tab).

Each run consists of a series of rooms–some contain loot, secrets, and traps, but most are filled with angry enemies. Combat is fast, frantic, and deadly, a frantic, jumping dance of aliens and projectiles. Survival means moving, sprinting, and sprinting all the time, doing everything you can to avoid getting hit at all costs so you can maintain that vital adrenaline rush–this stacking buff disappears if you lose any health.

It’s exhilarating stuff, chaotic enough to keep your pulse racing, yet precise enough to demand mastery. Not only does it showcase Housemarque’s strengths as a studio with a long history of skill-based games, it also specifically evokes arcade shooters. The projectiles are large and slow-moving, but often fill the screen–as you zip between shots, it feels like a third-person bullet hell. The gun’s alternate fire modes feel like arcade power-ups, firing off waves of shots or fiery beams.

Even the visuals are reminiscent of a meeting of two worlds. The alien landscape is beautiful and desolate and eerie, an ominous realm whose techno-organic creatures and machines draw clear inspiration from alien films and the art of HR Giger. But against that quiet, eerie backdrop, the fight is an explosion of noise and light, a barrage of neon bullets and explosions shot straight out of superstardust. Even though it’s been two years since Returnal originally released on PS5, the combination is still visually stunning and, importantly, runs as smooth as butter. No matter how busy things are on the screen — and trust me, they get pretty busy — I was always able to hit a solid 60FPS, even on max settings. This game focused on fast, precise action is exactly what you’re looking for.

(Image credit: Housemarque)(opens in a new tab)

Unfortunately, games struggle to find a similar balance elsewhere. Despite the roguelike structure, there’s a clear reluctance to let the genre’s traditional RPG elements have much of an impact on the very skill-based combat. There is little sustained improvement, and even in running, you often get little benefit. Add to that a long run, and the result is likely to die after a 40-minute race with no progress toward your overall goal. It often feels like the best strategy is to dash towards your objective as quickly as possible, rather than spending time exploring and finding loot.

Running is full of risk/reward decisions – should you open this box knowing it might give you a debuff? Should you enter this challenge room and try to fight hard for extra rewards? Should you brave this dangerous trap to get the health boost inside? The problem is, with a focus on skill rather than RPG progression, the rewards are often meager, and the risks are often too harsh. Combat is so tough and punishing that no matter how far away you are, a wrong debuff or too much damage taken before an encounter makes for an easy escape. For a slight increase to your health (in a game that requires you to never get shot), one of the many progressively better guns, or an artifact buff, due to their specificity I’ve found they usually don’t come into play at all.

(Image credit: Housemarque)(opens in a new tab)

It’s especially jarring once you get to one of the game’s bosses. Each one is a glorious bullet hell mania dream, and defeating them requires learning their attacks and practicing proper dodges and counters, often requiring a lot of trial and error. It’s a blast to try, but the roguelike structure means it can take hours between attempts, try to keep your health high enough to get a chance as you fight your way to their rooms, Stock up on the consumables you’ll need, find a decent weapon…after all, you can still die in a few hits and be right back to square one.

I must stress–at the moment, it looks and feels great as you bounce between platforms, blow up aliens, and dash through their attacks. This is one of the best and most engaging action games you’ll find on PC. But it felt like the need to present it as something other than a pure twitch reflex test led to it being placed in the completely wrong structure. There’s a real sense that while the developer fully understands how to make a fight, it really doesn’t get what people love about roguelikes – and certainly never figured out how to incorporate what people love about arcade shooters.

(Image credit: Housemarque)(opens in a new tab)

The result is a game that, while often fun and very satisfying to conquer, also requires more patience than is truly fair. Even the story, despite its promising start and some very thick horror vibes, ends up being a frustratingly vague tapestry that feels more aimed at the creator of a 20-minute YouTube commentator than the average player. Certain dedicated gaming masochists will revel in Returnal’s long, determined challenges, but I suspect most will either wish for a more meaningful RPG progression, or just a series of scoring attack levels without all the roguelike filler in between.

Ironically, post-launch DLC was bundled with the PC port for free, giving us a glimpse of what could have been. The Tower of Sisyphus is an endless survival challenge that simply sends you in short, frantic battles from room to room. Rewards come fast and plentiful, the high score system gives you new reasons to hone your skills, and running is fast and satisfying. It embodies exactly what the game is good at, and I found myself wanting it to be the template for the entire game, not just a sideshow.

(Image credit: Housemarque)(opens in a new tab)

For better or worse, this is a game defined by Housemarque’s struggles with his own identity. On the one hand, it’s a frantic shooter that brings decades of arcade experience into an incredibly satisfying and often beautiful experience. On the other hand, it’s a half-hearted grab for the more popular genre, failing to understand what makes its roguelikes so good. If this really is a new era for Housemarque, I can only hope its next project has a clearer vision for the future.

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Bart Thompson
Bart is's List Writer . He is from Houston, Texas, and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in creative writing, majoring in non-fiction writing. He likes to play The Elder Scrolls Online and learn everything about The Elder Scrolls series.