Title: Returnal – [ Reviewed on PS5 with a digital copy provided by SIE ]
Developer: Housemarque | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Release: 30th Apr. 2021
It is fair to say that I am a big fan of Housemarque games, and that goes back a little further than you might expect. While Resogun remains amongst my favourite titles on PS4, and I have spent just as many hours with Super Stardust HD on PS3, it is that game's much earlier predecessor that first got me hooked.
Not that I knew it at the time, but the Stardust tunnel section that I played to death almost 30 years ago on this very demo disk from Amiga Power magazine was actually the genesis of the studio. The "Finnish coding whizz-kids" behind the game at Bloodhouse soon merged with fellow studio Terramarque to become Housemarque as we still know them today.
- STARDUST // BLOODHOUSE -
Since then, Housemarque have become masters of the arcade shooter, right up until their fast-paced collaboration with genre-legend Eugene Jarvis on Nex Machina, and so it came as something of a disappointment when the studio announced that it was leaving arcade games behind due to lack of interest from modern battle royale-fed audiences.
Plans to join that particular crowd were thankfully abandoned as Stormdivers was shelved and attention instead turned to the more ambitious project of Returnal. A PS5 exclusive third-person shooter that is a relentless sci-fi roguelike with a healthy dose of bullet-hell mechanics that go right back to Housemarque's arcade roots.
- RETURNAL // HOUSEMARQUE -
Much like previous games from the studio, Returnal is a challenging experience that can be punishing while learning the early mechanics and slowly accessing better equipment, but it also manages to overcome one of the problems I find with the roguelike genre. While other games of this type can sometimes struggle to give me the urge to keep playing after the loss of progress that comes with each cycle reset, Returnal absolutely nails the desire to go again.
Partly that is thanks to some excellent third-person gun play and mobility mechanics that do a great job of transferring the feel of a frenetic top-down shooter into a lush 3D environment, and partly the fact that the game looks great and builds an engrossing atmosphere as you progress through each unique biome with cleverly paced gear evolution, but there is definitely something more. A genuinely intriguing story brings everything together with a constant trickle of information that is teased out with each cycle and adds a real sense of progression that overcomes the short-term loss of being thrown right back to the beginning.
- BACK AGAIN // HELIOS -
With the arrival of the recent v2.0 update, there is now even more reason to jump back in thanks to the addition of a photo mode. Given that Housemarque had explored the feature with Resogun a full generation earlier, it was actually a bit of a surprise that the game launched without one, but that has all changed now. Along with a suspend & resume function that makes things much more considerate of people's available time, a well-featured set of virtual photography tools are ready and waiting to be taken advantage of, if you can survive long enough to use them that is.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Free camera with DoF control
Character spot lighting
Novel creative effects
Controls & Implementation:
Getting into the Returnal photo mode couldn't be simpler, with a default shortcut found on D-Pad Up that can be exchanged with any other input with a custom button mapping to ensure that it is conveniently at hand once the tentacles and bullets start flying around. There is are also some handy sensitivity options for the X & Y axes which are obviously intended for gameplay, but work well to fine tune the photo mode camera speed too for a bit of extra precision.
A pretty fool proof approach that quickly yields good looking results...
Camera controls themselves are good with a standard combination of lateral truck / dolly and full range pan / tilt on the LS and RS respectively, vertical craning on the L2 / R2 triggers, and 360° centre-axis roll found in the UI menu. Movement range is limited by a moderate bounding sphere but all in all, there is plenty of scope to explore many different types of composition.
Much like the camera movement, Returnal's yellow-themed photo mode UI is also familiar and uses a typical tabbed layout that is easily navigated. Separate visibility toggles allow the settings box, a thirds grid and the control legend to be hidden with the only real criticism being that the settings cannot be adjusted while the menu is hidden for a totally unobstructed view of the changes being made.
- PHOTO MODE UI // RETURNAL -
Thought has at least been given to the workflow around producing the final capture as the menu leads users through lens setup, lighting adjustments and basic image processing before getting into some more creative elements. Along with the aforementioned camera roll, the lens tab houses a useful field of view that covers a range of 100 - 25° (approx. equivalent to 20 - 85 mm lens focal lengths) for wide angles and tighter crops from a distance, while depth of field is handled with no complication.
The first of two sliders used to create this effect simply determines how much defocus is applied to the foreground and background either side of the point of focus, and a second adjusts the distance at which that sharp focus is set. With a shallower DoF also being correctly rendered at narrow fields of view, it is a pretty fool proof approach that quickly yields good looking results with plenty of bokeh at certain settings, albeit a little rough at times.
- BOKEH // RETURNAL -
Given the often dark setting, the inclusion of a few lighting tweaks is very welcome, and while there is indeed the ability to shift the intensity and direction of the global / environmental lighting, this is heavily dependent on location. A simple consequence of the type of surroundings and how they are lit in the game, these settings can be barely perceptible at times but do work as intended, just don't expecting to transform a scene by turning night into day.
When it comes to casting a little extra light onto Selene however, the spotlight options are more powerful and can capably illuminate her figure in the darkness. The drawback is that, although it is possible to choose from 1, 2 or 3 light sources and to adjust their orbital rotation around the character, they cannot be positioned individually and only cast light onto the character model (plus certain volumetric smoke effects) regardless of how close they are to dark surroundings.
That does at least simplify the usage and I tend to find that the best results are had with 1 and sometimes 2 lights rotated to the side or just behind Selene to create an edge light and to cast more dynamic facial shadows for interesting portraits.
The final lighting adjustment is an overall brightness setting that can be found alongside very useful saturation and contrast options, plus a range of interesting colour filters, all of which can be combined to really alter the look and feel of the image. Experimenting with these will soon offer up pleasing ways to achieve vivid colour contrast, matte blacks or subtly muted tones that dramatically change the scene, especially when control over the global fog density is factored in to transform any space into something more mysterious.
Taking things a little further with optional imperfections, chromatic aberration distorts the alignment of the RGB colour channels, a straightforward vignette darkens the edges of the frame, and a particularly satisfying bloom lets the highlights of weapon fire and bioluminescent flora spread and glow more brightly. Film grain is available too, and is implemented in an interesting way that is actually more technical than the percentile scales used elsewhere in the photo mode.
With a selection of three film grain types that relate to the size of different film formats, this first option determines the relative size of the grain to the image as it is overlaid on the screen, with the grain appearing larger on the smaller formats. Meanwhile, a second film grain intensity slider does exactly as you may expect and makes it simple to dial in how much grain is included overall. It is an effective approach that can be used to recreate low-light imperfections that are well suited to the often dimply lit biomes.
In addition to the photographic affectations above, the Effects tab houses exactly that in the form of some quite novel overlay and rendering styles. As well as various old school pixelations and screen-type filters, there are also several unique animated glitches and even a couple of ASCII-art modes that render the image in text characters. There is even a whole tab dedicated to adding a two-tone gradient as a coloured overlay for extra tonal tweaks of the underlying image. With variable opacity and independent control of the colours and angle, this feature can be pretty useful to create an opposing feeling across a combat scene or even just to alter the sky colour, it would just have been nice to be able to shift the centreline as well as rotate it.
Perhaps analogous to the way you progress in the game itself, this is definitely a photo mode that starts off with the essentials then steadily introduces more interest. By the time you get to the point of choosing whether of not to add a frame or include one of the 6 available logo styles – each of which can be freely scaled and positioned, though not rotated – it is likely that it will have helped to achieve a look that is both authentic in its photographic or cinematic style, and significantly distinct from the scene you started with.
In a game designed to be challenging for its players, the photo mode tools are effortlessly user friendly and, while not going as deep as they could in some areas, the features and tools cover almost every element with a refreshing baseline of creativity.
With its sci-fi setting and atmospheric alien worlds, Returnal brings plenty of thematic inspiration to go along with its impressive PS5 visuals, although it is perhaps worth noting though that photo mode access is disabled during any first-person sequences as well as a few otherwise interesting opportunities like the short-range teleports for example. Detailed reflections are also lacking and Selene is not exactly the most emotive character, but there is enough here to set this game apart from others in terms of what can appear in front of the virtual camera.
Being a roguelike game, it is natural that Housemarque's latest release doesn't necessarily make things easy or convenient from a photographer's perspective. Given the ever present threat of death and the resultant loss of progress, there is always that moment of conflict around whether it is worth the risk of getting into position for a great action shot with a dangerous enemy or if the distraction of photo mode is simply leading to an inevitable demise.
Bring a vivid brightness to the foreboding land with a hail of energy bullets...
You could of course just choose to stick to pulling out the camera tools during the quieter moments of exploration where it is perfectly safe to concentrate on the character or environment as subject material. Despite that lack of facial expression and the unfortunate fact that the vibrant dash trail disappears upon entering the photo mode, Selene is an interesting character to explore through photography.
Stranded alone on Atropos, her plight is an excellent chance to capture a sense of isolation or abandonment, or even to play with the paradoxical scenario of encountering the deceased body of her former self!
- CRIMSON GATEWAY // RETURNAL -
Atropos itself is equally appealing as the procedural layouts ensure that you never quite know what environmental details you are going to find while making your way through its series of distinct biomes that include overgrown forests, parched deserts, and crumbling remains of an ancient civilisation, but it is the encounters with the planet's less-than-friendly residents that really make the difference.
Whether it is towering xeno-type aliens, corrupted mechanoids, or the many tentacles of Cthulhu-inspired fauna, every battle brings a vivid brightness to the foreboding land with a hail of energy bullets that light up the skies like a deadly fireworks display. In fact the only thing more dangerous are the considerable biome bosses, so it may just be a matter of accepting that life won't be easy, or perhaps just that death will. But still, that does at least make the shots all the more rewarding when you do manage to shoot them and get out alive.
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In blending a roguelike shooter with arcade-style action, Housemarque have used all of their expertise to create a unique experience amongst the PS5 game catalogue. Deliberately difficult and challenging, Returnal is not always going to afford users the luxury of time to find the perfect photographic moment, but even that can put an interesting emphasis on being more reactive in your work.
The newly added capture tools do a great job in covering the essentials and making it quick and easy to produce creative results and, although they may lack depth and refinement in certain areas, there is more than enough here to make you want to return, if not quite eternally.
Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: D-pad Up (customisable)
Camera Movement: Free-cam
Horizontal Pan: 360°
Vertical Tilt: 180°
Roll: ± 360°
Roll: 0 to 360° (± 1°)
Field of View: 25 - 100° (± 1°)
Depth of Field Intensity: 0 - 100% (± 5%)