When Returnal landed with a splash on PlayStation 5 last year, all I wanted was the chance to play it cooperatively with a friend. Now that such a mode is here? Meh.
Returnal, a third-person roguelike about the seventh-greatest classic rock song of all time, is a relentlessly difficult game. You play as Selene, an interstellar scout who’s crash-landed on a planet overrun by malevolent tentacle monsters. Returnal smacks of Housemarque’s pedigree—which includes such bullet-hell masterpieces as Resogun and Matterfall—so, naturally, you can’t go a minute in Returnal without facing a barrage of projectiles. If you’re new, you probably can’t go two minutes without getting hit. Every time you die you restart the cycle, reliving Selene’s crash.
This week, Housemarque rolled out Returnal’s free 3.0 update, formally called “Ascension,” which adds support for two-player co-op play. It’s fine enough. But it’s no revelation. (“Ascension” also adds an endless mode called, perhaps a bit too fittingly, the “Tower of Sisyphus.” I haven’t had a chance this week to play much of it myself, but feedback on the game’s dedicated subreddit suggests stalwart fans are obsessed.)
As with the rest of Returnal, starting a co-op session doesn’t involve pulling up a neat, tidy menu. Instead, you interact with an in-game object—in this case, a giant, pulsing blue orb—situated at the start of every biome. You’ll see options to host public or private sessions, or to hop into a public one. Once you match up, Selene stands flummoxed, watching as another Selene walks out of said orb.
Less easy, seemingly impossible even, is the act of hopping back into a session if you lose connectivity. Once you’ve started a session, there’s no way to access the multiplayer options again, even if your partner is dropped. Traveling your way back to the big blue orb merely results in an “already used!” pop-up window. (When reached for comment about a workaround, Sony did not immediately have anything to add.) Given PlayStation’s recent woes with its online services, not ideal! It’s all a microcosm of Returnal’s design sensibilities: trading convenience for that ever-elusive, ill-defined target of “immersion.”
When it works, though, Returnal’s co-op is serviceable enough. The best co-op games—from blockbusters like Halo to indie darlings like Wizard of Legend—force you to refine how you play, to devise a different strategy than the one you’d fall back on while playing solo. Returnal, meanwhile, feels a lot like posting up at a bar with a friend just for both of you to spend the entire time on your phone. Sure, you’re together, but you’re doing the thing you’d be doing while alone.
Mind, the things you do alone—the running and dashing and shooting and ziplining—is still a delight. There’s just a bit too much going on in any given fight to meaningfully coordinate any strategy other than “point and shoot and try your best to survive.” Maybe this will change after time, but after more than half a dozen runs, it doesn’t seem like Returnal’s gameplay lends itself to refined co-op strategies.
Returnal grants both players all of the permanent upgrades, including unlocked gear and biomes, of the host player, so there’s impetus for someone who’s sunk dozens of hours into the game (hi) to drag along a lesser experienced player for an escapade of digital tourism through the game’s later stages. A “See this third biome? It sucks. So does the fifth one. And the sixth,” sort of deal. “But hey, isn’t the grappling hook pretty cool?”
Ephemeral upgrades are handled confusingly, however, as Returnal doesn’t effectively communicate what’s shared between players and what isn’t. Health pickups can only be snagged by one, but obolities (the in-game currency) go to both players, as do single-use items that increase weapon proficiency. Buy something from a shop, and it’s still listed on your partner’s screen, but if you pick up a gun from a chest or a defeated boss, it disappears from your partner’s view. If you’re not keen on voice chat with randos, the lack of an effective ping system means there’s no way to point any of this stuff out, short of falling back on the age-old Destiny trick of simply shooting it until your friend takes note.
Like many co-op games, Returnal features a revive mechanic, in which you walk over to a dying teammate and hold down a button to revive them over a matter of seconds. (Initially, Housemarque planned on forcing the living Selene to sacrifice some health to revive the dying Selene, but removed that feature because it was too “mean.”) But any revived teammates come back with just a sliver of health, which means they die all over again just as quickly. More often than not, it’s a better strategy to just leave your downed partner where they are and focus on your own survival. So much for team spirit!
Flaws aside, Returnal’s foray into co-op highlights a welcome emerging trend among PlayStation’s first-party single-player games. A few months after the release of Ghost of Tsushima on PS4, developer Sucker Punch released a free four-player co-op mode, Ghost of Tsushima: Legends. It absolutely ruled, expanding on what made the base game so great while also introducing a robust new slate of features. (Legends became available as a standalone game last fall.) By comparison, Returnal’s “Ascension” mode doesn’t leave quite as positive of an impact. Nevertheless, I’m pumped it exists at all, even if it misses the mark. Gaming is lonely enough.