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Welcome to The Week in Gaming, the place where we pause each week to take a look at the video game news beats both big and small that you might be missing — while also taking a peek around the corner at what's ahead. Check in each Friday for news (and occasionally even views) on everything from sprawling RPGs to Metroidvania platformers to the latest in VR and free-to-play. We'll even throw in a good old-fashioned board game every now and then!
Returnal releases today, and developer Housemarque’s first foray into AAA gaming territory has the wind at its back as it slots into Sony’s emerging library of PlayStation-only games. It’s the PS5’s first big-name exclusive since the launch debuts of Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure last November, and it comes without the weight of expectation of previous AAA Housemarque games — because there aren’t any.
That’s not to say the Finnish studio doesn’t have an impressive track record. Though they’ve been around since the early 1990s, most fans know Housemarque by way of Resogun, the intense shoot-‘em-up adventure that gave early PS4 adopters a brief but fun sci-fi romp when the console launched back in 2013. Though Returnal brings the studio into the big time of graphically impressive, set-piece games, its bullet-hell shooter mechanics and lengthy, do-or-die murder missions on an alien planet tap into the studio’s nearly two-decade history of cranking out critically-loved — but often under-the-radar — arcade-style titles from days gone by.
Critics are certainly loving Returnal, which bolts out the gate today with an impressive 86 aggregate review score at Metacritic as of this writing, with 86 media outlets (so far) weighing in. Reviewers dig Returnal’s innovative freshening of the procedurally-generated roguelike formula, which iterates on enemies, weapons, power-ups and augments in a way that keeps the moment-by-moment combat varied while forcing players to stay on their toes. Housemarque also seems to have struck on an effective way to gradually unspool a surprisingly deep story within the roguelike framework — a feat that topples what’s historically been one of the genre’s biggest shortcomings.
The challenge is brutal, with waves of enemy salvos standing between hero Selene Vassos — who’s crashed and stranded on the hostile planet Atropos — and her ultimate goal of figuring out how to make it home. Through memory flashbacks and quick diversionary trips into her haunted past, “home” is a concept that begins to take on unexpected weight as Selene, hobbled with only fragmented memories of her own place in the story, pieces together her time-looped quandary one flashback at a time.
Touted for months in Housemarque’s marketing ahead of today’s release, death and respawning is a big part of Returnal’s formula — and a key reason why Selene’s slow circle toward the epicenter of her own personal story works. Dying and backtracking leads Selene toward journal-like artifacts, log notes left during her previous runs, that gradually clue her in on the past. More than just a storytelling device, it’s an integral part of Returnal’s structure, and a clever way of resolving one of the roguelike genre’s biggest obstacles to spinning a good story.
Each of the game’s distinct environments comes with its own grueling mission toward the next objective, and while critics love the sense of accomplishment that comes with successfully grinding out a win through epic, 2-hour journeys through enemy ground, there’s no way to break away from completing a run once you’ve started it. The inability to stop and save midway through a mission is pretty much the only criticism that repeatedly pops up among most reviewers.
It’s possible that Housemarque could patch the game in some future update to address that, but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of preference: steely-nerved players forged in the fires of the Souls series will find the challenge right in line with the hardcore-gaming purism of earning every win, while people who simply can’t carve out two or three hours of sit-down time to advance the story will probably clamor for a quality-of-life change that could make or break their ability to stick with Selene from start to finish.
It would be a shame if both camps didn’t get the chance to play Returnal while it’s got the PS5 all to itself: Housemarque has the Sony spotlight from now until next weekend, when the cross-platform Resident Evil Village will no doubt get the full attention of the larger gaming survival-verse. When the dust settles from that, though, there’s a nice month-long span before the PS5’s next pair of big-budget exclusives arrive: Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade (June 10) and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (June 11).
Returnal debuts today as a platform exclusive for the PlayStation 5.
The best of the rest
Speaking of Ratchet…
Even though it’s still weeks away, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart almost stole the spotlight from Returnal with Sony’s Insomniac-centric State of Play showcase on Thursday. Social media lit up after Insomniac’s extended look at the PS5 exclusive’s mind-blowing graphics and lightning-fast leaps between worlds, as light bulbs started going off in fans’ heads that we’ve pretty much arrived at the long-awaited era when playing a highly-polished video game isn’t so different from taking control of a Pixar-quality, CG-animated movie.
The movie comparisons aren’t hyperbole, as even a quick look at Rift Apart’s new gameplay shows. Square Enix (quite literally) bumped up against the threshold of playable-Pixar goodness with the 2019 release of Disney crossover Kingdom Hearts III (and Insomniac’s own Spider-Man: Miles Morales gave us a taste when the PlayStation 5 debuted last fall), but Ratchet’s generational leap to the PS5 appears set to move the gaming graphics goalposts in a whole new way.
When they weren’t gawking at eye-popping particle effects and bodacious bounces across a rift-torn Omniverse, everyone who tuned in to this week’s State of Play was keying in on Rivet, a Rift Apart newcomer who ups the Lombax factor by stepping, according to Sony, into a full-on protagonist’s role — which neither Ratchet nor his robo-pal seem to mind at all. “Rivet is a Lombax resistance fighter from another dimension, where the evil Emperor Nefarious hunts all those who oppose him,” Sony teases at the PlayStation Blog in a post that also touts the game’s bespoke musical backdrop — a creation from the fertile mind of Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh (Thor: Ragnarok, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
We’re still a ways off from Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart’s June 11 release, so at least there’s plenty of time to bask in the pre-glow of what’s shaping up to be one of the year’s biggest games. For PlayStation fans, it could be all anyone wants to talk about until Kena: Bridge of Spirits debuts Ember Lab’s all-new Sony gaming IP in August.
Pokémon Snaps back
Returnal isn’t the only new item of the gaming menu this week, as Nintendo assembles nostalgic pieces of the catch ‘em all past with today’s debut of New Pokémon Snap. If the casual vibes of Animal Crossing: New Horizons gently rocked the bells for chilled-out gaming that doesn’t tax your nerves, Snap is cut from similar cloth, taking players on a mostly-relaxed photo safari through a colorful Pokémon character menagerie.
Impressing your professor is the name of the game as you collect shots of Pokémon in a series of on-rails tours, your camera serving as the “weapon” of choice to preserve creatures both classic and rare on celluloid — for academic research, of course. Filling out your Photodex album will turn you into an amateur photojournalist in no time: there’s extra points to be had for zoomed-in shots and catching your quarry in the midst of an interesting, in-the-wild activity (like scarfing down fruit when they think no one’s looking). In all, each Pokémon has four photo categories that you’ll have to fill out if you want Professor Mirror to award a coveted 4-star rating.
New Pokémon Snap is the Switch followup to the Nintendo 64’s Pokémon Snap, which casual fans may have missed — either because it wasn’t a proper Pokémon battle game or they were still in diapers — when it debuted on the old-school system back in 1999. The new version refines the original idea with the gameplay finesse that Nintendo’s all but perfected in the ensuing two decades (seriously, we still shake our heads at how compelling ACNH managed to make the mundane task of paying the mortgage), plus, of course, lots more Pokémon. Grab your zoom lens and a safari hat: New Pokémon Snap clicks onto the Nintendo Switch beginning today.
- A few weeks back, video footage emerged from SEGA’s canceled late-1990s Dreamcast game Castlevania: Resurrection, featuring a shared adventure between Victor and Sonia Belmont. Now, a prototype of the game has landed at the SEGA Dreamcast Info Preservation Games website, and it’s playable via emulation software on PCs — mid-build glitches and all.
- EA is bringing the Force into the new console generation with the debut of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which is bound for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S this summer. A firm release date hasn’t been revealed, but EA says (via the official Star Wars site) that the upgrade will bring “a number of technical improvements” to what’s already a pretty fantastic Star Wars adventure.
- Let’s run some numbers: Even though it’s only been out in the wild for a month, Capcom’s Monster Hunter Rise has reportedly already sold more than 6 million copies, via VG24/7. To keep things fresh for the Switch exclusive, Capcom this week announced the rollout of a Version 2.0 update that’ll raise the Hunter rank cap, bring new monsters (Chameleos, Teostra, and Kushhala Daora) into the mix, and add new Apex monster quests. Check out Rise’s update landing page for all the details.
- Sony and Microsoft aren’t hurting in the numbers department, either: Via VGC, the PlayStation 5 has managed to outsell its PS4 predecessor during its first two post-launch quarters, moving 7.8 million units compared with the PS4’s 7.5 million sales through the same post-launch window. Microsoft, meanwhile, also reported a huge leap in overall revenues for its Xbox gaming division this week, with quarterly revenues up by 50 percent (again via VGC) versus last year...and we thought there was a next-gen console shortage.
- Five Nights at Freddy’s: Security Breach has been delayed until sometime later this year, according to game creator Scott Cawthon, who took to Reddit this week with the news. It’s not all bad, though: Cawthon extended a consolation prize in the form of Security Breach: Fury’s Rage, a completely free Five Nights brawler that’s ready to download now for PC.
- PlayStation Plus members, get ready for a trio of free games to come crashing into Sony’s online rotation next month. Beginning May 4, the new PS Plus lineup will feature Battlefield V, Stranded Deep, and Wreckfest: Drive Hard. Die Last. That’s another way of saying you only have from now until May 3 to take advantage of April’s outgoing lineup: Oddworld: Soulstorm, Days Gone, and Zombie Army 4: Dead War. Get moving!