Returnal Ascension review

Returnal was one of 2021’s best games and Sony made the surprise announcement of Returnal DLC earlier in March. Today I’m going to be checking out Returnal Ascension including all the reasons to jump back into the chilling alien adventures with Selene.

Returnal ended up towards the top of many games of the year lists in 2021, with Housemarque having a great year with their first big 3D shooter becoming a huge success, then later in the year Sony acquired them to bring them into the PlayStation Studios family. Returnal remains one of the hardest games on the PS5, and if you have made your way through the game then the reasons to come back time and time again may be limited unless you are trying to speedrun or challenge yourself or perhaps find all the lore secrets.

Returnal Ascension attempts to provide reasons for fans to come back to the game. In update 3.0 we have a couple of new game modes, plus new lore to find which is welcome after the ending of the main story campaign.

The first component of the update is the campaign’s two-player co-op mode. Housemarque has done a great job, considering this was a tailored, single-player experience before. The team have done a great job in terms of the technicalities and UI for joining up with a friend, it’s easy to kick off and play with each other. It’s good fun playing through with a friend, previous areas which may have given you trouble now are made a little easier with a friend, given they have the ability to revive you. Warning though, the game still is definitely not a walk in the park and you’ll need your wits about you more than ever. One drawback of the co-op mode is that loot isn’t shared, so you’ll have to politely agree amongst yourselves who picks up the loot, hopefully without arguing too much.

Housemarque took to the Sony blog to talk more about the co-op mode in Returnal Ascension. Trent Polack, Lead Game Designer spoke to PlayStation’s blog and they said.

When we talked about adding online co-op to Returnal at Housemarque, the biggest question we had was: how can we support co-op play in an experience that’s intentionally surreal, isolating, and finely balanced to challenge a single player’s ability to survive?

It starts just by setting the mood: how do we get another player into Returnal? Well, through Chronosis of course. Players with a PlayStation Plus subscription interact with a Chronosis and, suddenly, another ASTRA Scout enters their cycle, staring down and analyzing Selene as she emerges. It feels very surreal and uncomfortable — which makes it absolutely perfect for Returnal.

Beyond that, we really built the multiplayer experience around the idea that players can get help to progress through the game. A hosting player invites another player to join their session to help them overcome their current challenge. The host keeps this progress, whereas the joining player increases their Scout Rank, Weapon Traits, and Databank. At first, we had Chronosis in multiple places in each of our biomes, but we ultimately realized it was unintentionally resulting in players just engaging in Co-Op before major boss battles. Now, Chronosis are at the beginning of each Biome, so players are encouraged to explore and see how the game plays and evolves with a partner and how divvying up resource scarcity is immediately a new dynamic.

Of course, we wanted to preserve the challenge, drama, and intensity that Returnal is known for so some of our new co-op mechanics went through a lot of iteration to ensure those crucial elements of the game were maintained.

Our most brutal example was our initial approach to handling a “downed” player; so long as one player is standing, a downed player can be revived and brought back into the fray. Reviving a downed player initially required the living player to sacrifice some of their health to revive their teammate.

Turns out: this was mean. Five minutes into a new cycle, both players would be down to bare minimum health and stuck in a vicious cycle of one-hit kills.

While playtesting one day, we realized that, really, reviving a downed player already had required a very valuable resource: time. Reviving your teammate mid-combat, especially against an Elite or a Boss where every millisecond matters, is all it really takes to maintain difficulty while ensuring both players can stay active in the game at once.

Another element of the game that we changed for the co-op experience is the House and Ship sections which are experienced from Selene’s first-person perspective. We ended up removing these sections while playing Multiplayer so we could keep the speed and intensity of the multiplayer sessions high throughout the experience.

Finally, Returnal has also been rebalanced specifically for co-op play so Atropos remains the perilous planet brimming with deadly monsters that we all know and love — just now with some room for a friend.

Integrating multiplayer logic into Returnal was not the simplest endeavour and is, largely, a significant technical engineering challenge and as we prepared for the ship we certainly encountered more than a few “issues” along the way. Such as a Titanops that became quite attached to its prey and the occasional “Other” Scout that’s been through one too many cycles.

Beyond just the technical complications, we also talked and worked through a host of Design and UI/UX considerations to integrate another player into a host’s world as smoothly as possible. One of the first accessibility issues we ran into was simply being able to see the other player in a scene filled with fast-moving enemies and bullets everywhere. We didn’t want to go too over-the-top with this solution, so we integrated a subtle ASTRA-Green outline shader whenever your teammate moved beyond a certain distance. We also created a slick suit variation to complement the visual differentiation between Selene and the “Other” Scout.

We also iterated on our core HUD for co-op by providing additional information for tracking where your teammate is, how far they’re getting from you, and, most significantly, the “Scout Rank” mechanic to reward players who join other games to assist their fellow ASTRA Scouts. This rank is prominently displayed for both players in a session and provides additional Ether for the visiting player on every rank-up.

The other part of the update is called The Tower of Sisyphus, and this is an endless mode where you get to experience new rooms and new weapons and there’s also a new first-person section. This new tower is accessible from the start of a new run, and you take Selene through this gauntlet, taking on ever-more-powerful enemies. It reminds me of the mode in the Breath of the Wild DLC called Trial of the Sword. There is also a new boss to face called Algos, and the boss fight gets pretty intense as you keep fighting them.

If you haven’t played Returnal before then now is a great time to jump in, as the game is likely cheaper now than it was a year ago. If you haven’t played Returnal since putting it down after completing it, or perhaps you put it down due to frustration, then I’d recommend going back and checking out the update. It’s free after all, and the perfect time to take another look at Returnal.

Developer: Housemarque
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PS5
Release Date: 22nd March 2022