Before today’s State of Play, I got an in-depth 20-minute look at Returnal and had the chance to speak to Gregory Louden, Narrative Director (an Aussie who has worked on games such as Control and his very own Koala detective game, Stone) and Mikael Haveri, who is Marketing Director for the game.
Returnal is a procedurally generated roguelike in which the main character Selene is dropped onto an alien planet and stuck in an infinite time loop. Every time she dies, she restarts back at her ship, with her goal being to make it to the next area, whilst trying to find alien upgrades and solving the mystery.
PERMANENT ABILITIES HELP YOU MOVE TO NEW AREAS
Whilst you’ll be dying a lot in Returnal and starting fresh with the majority of your arsenals, you will get permanent upgrades that will allow you to access biomes that don’t reset each time you die. Alien life forms will also attach to Selene and provide positive and negative attributes.
“The only thing that’s human is Selene’s ship, herself and her pistol, so everything else is alien. So to survive, she needs to graft alien technology onto herself and this will allow her to go to places she couldn’t access before. In the video there’s a Citadel, and she can’t access that at the start of the game, so it’s clearly on the path every time you play, and it shuffles every time you play, but until she gets the right alien technology she can’t get there” said Loudens.
FIRST-PERSON GAMEPLAY SEQUENCES
One of the most surprising thing to me is that there are parts of the game that are in first-person for narrative purposes. Every time you’re on your ship, you’ll be in first-person and your perspective will switch to third-person as soon as you leave the ship.
For certain flashbacks, you’ll also be in first-person. One, in particular, took place in a house and tonally, felt like something out of Resident Evil or the P.T demo. This scene, in particular, made me really excited to see how the rest of the story plays out.
“So when you explore Helios, your ship, we wanted to create an even more intimate experience where you could be inside the spacesuit with Selene and experiencing her memories, so for us, it was about building that intimacy and even more of a connection with her”.
There’s an abundance of audio logs and text logs throughout the game, which marks a bit of a departure from other Housemarque games that have relied more heavily on action-orientated gameplay.
“The other way that the story is told is that on top of Selene looping, she also finds corpses of herself and on these corpses are audio logs, that aren’t just regular audio logs, they’re from the past and from the future. So there’s other versions of Selena that are providing clues, and trying to help, and also not trying to help, and that’s us trying to create a layered story” said Louden.
HOUSEMARQUE’S FIRST DIP INTO THE AAA SPACE
Housemarque releasing games exclusively for PlayStation consoles isn’t new by any stretch, with games such as Super Stardust, Dead Nation, Resogun and Alienation among the prominent titles in PlayStation’s catalogue. Their previous titles, however, have all been digital games and Returnal will be Housemarque’s first endeavour outside of the indie realm. The game will cost $125 upon release, is expected to be much longer than previous titles and has all the qualities of a AAA game.
“This is the biggest game we’ve ever made and we’re just trying to see where we land with it and how it makes an impact. In the end, we’re not really worried about it. We’re just worried about bringing the best experience possible and let’s hope things fall into place” said Haveri in response to the next-gen price hike.
“It’s definitely allowed us to innovate in terms of our art, in terms of our sound design, our gameplay and storytelling. It’s definitely a huge opportunity. Combined with PS5 and all the extra abilities of the hardware, it’s been amazing. For instance, the house scene without haptics isn’t as powerful.” added Louden.
No two playthroughs of Returnal will be the same thanks in part to the fact that it’s procedurally generated. In addition, the guns that you encounter, enemies that you face and the upgrades that you come across will change from run to run.
“We’re using procedural generation for how we’ve generated so many spaces for you to explore. The way that it’s connected is that it’s randomised so that way you go from gate to gate does change. On top of that, enemies change and we have different elements that can appear, as well as different items drops as well as storytelling that only unlocks if you do certain actions.” said Louden.
At the end of each biome, a boss battle will be waiting for you, before you can move on to the next area (which are then permanently unlocked). The boss battles require precise timing in order to overcome. This one in particular was larger than other enemies in the game, with more attacks at its arsenal.
“The enemies in the game are crazy. Everything in the game is alien and every biome has new enemies for you to meet as well as familiar faces that you may have seen but have evolved in future biomes. We’ve really used our amazing Housemarque particles effects to extreme. We’ve got really different bosses that are extreme in terms of different varieties.” said Louden
“We also have elite versions of regular enemies that are stronger and more difficult. A lot of our enemies use volatile range attacks, so there are a great variety of short-range and long-range attacks and the player moment is just as big a part as the shooting and aiming part,” added Haveri.
CHALLENGES AND POST-LAUNCH SUPPORT
Just like other Housemarque games, Returnal will have challenges to complete and leaderboards for you to compete against friends.
“So there will be ghosts and other players, but we’ll be announcing more of this closer to launch,” said Haveri.
“There’s also a daily challenge system, that will give you a resource. Using some of these additional resources can give you a bit of an advantage as you play through, so the daily challenge is another way for you to come back and compete on the leaderboard and see how you stack up with other players” said Louden.
ON THE GAME BEING A PS5 EXCLUSIVE
“The PS5 was the key focus from the beginning. As we’ve done launch titles before, it’s fun finding the right way to do things, pushing the barriers and inventing new things,” said Haveri.
“Technologically and visually, I think Resogun is a good example of something that pushed Voxel technology. We’re doing a lot of things behind the scenes, to push performance but 3D Audio is a big one. You don’t just have to rely on your visual senses as much. Now you can hear something behind you and instantly react to that enemy.” continued Haveri.
“Also the SSD. For a game that’s about dying and restarting really quickly, the SSD creates a really high-quality experience allowing you to load back in really quickly” added Louden.
All-in-all, I’m really excited to see how Returnal comes together after seeing more of it and hearing from some of the team. The mechanics are much more fleshed out than what I knew previously, and the game’s compelling narrative has me intrigued.
Returnal launches on April 30th exclusively on PS5.