Returnal’s co-op mode on PS5 is kind of a disappointment

Selene and Selene stand back to back and battle tentacle monsters in Returnal's co-op mode.

Picture: Housebrand

When Return landed with a bang on PlayStation 5 last year, all I wanted was the chance to play it co-op with a friend. Now that such a mode is there? Meh.

Returna third-person roguelike on the seventh greatest classic rock song of all time, is a game of relentless difficulty. You play as Selene, an interstellar scout who has crash-landed on a planet overrun by malevolent tentacle monsters. Return smacks of Housemarque’s pedigree, which includes masterpieces such as Resogun and material drop-so naturally you can’t go there for a minute Return without facing a barrage of projectiles. If you’re new, you probably can’t go two minutes without getting hit. Each time you die, you restart the cycle, reliving Selene’s crash.

This week, Housemarque rolled out ReturnThe free 3.0 update, officially called “Ascension”, which adds support for two-player cooperative play. It’s quite good. But this is not a revelation. (“Ascension” also adds an endless mode called, maybe a little too rightly, the “Tower of Sisyphus”. I haven’t had the opportunity this week to play it much myself, but the feedback on the game dedicated subreddit suggests loyal fans are obsessed.)

As for the rest of Return, starting a cooperative session does not involve displaying a clear and orderly menu. Instead, you interact with an in-game object – in this case, a giant, pulsating blue orb – located at the start of each biome. You’ll see options to host public or private sessions, or to jump into a public session. Once you match up, Selene remains bewildered, watching another Selene emerge from said orb.

Less easy, if not impossible, is getting back into a session if you lose connectivity. Once you’ve started a session, there’s no way to access multiplayer options again, even if your partner is dropped. Going back to the big blue orb simply translates to “already used!” pop-up window. (When contacted to comment on a workaround, Sony had nothing to add immediately.) Given PlayStation’s recent issues with its online services, that’s not ideal! Everything is a microcosm of ReturnThe design sensibilities of: trade convenience for that ever elusive and ill-defined goal of “immersion”.

Selene and Selene shoot a turret in Returnal's co-op mode.

Even with a friend, turrets still suck.
Screenshot: Housebrand

When it works, however, ReturnThe coop is fairly serviceable. the best cooperative games—from blockbusters like Halo to independent darlings like magician of legend— forcing you to hone the way you play, to devise a different strategy than you would fall back on when playing solo. Return, meanwhile, it’s kind of like posting to a bar with a friend just for the two of you to be on your phone all the time. Of course, you are together, but you are doing what you would do if you were alone.

Beware, the things you do alone – running, running, shooting and ziplining – are always a delight. There’s just a little too much going on in any given fight to meaningfully coordinate a strategy other than “aim and shoot and do your best to survive.” Maybe that will change over time, but after more than half a dozen runs, it doesn’t seem that ReturnThe gameplay of lends itself to refined cooperative strategies.

Return grants both players all 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 train a less experienced player for a digital tourism jaunt through the later stages of the game. A “See that third biome? This sucks. The fifth too. And the sixth”, a kind of agreement. “Well, isn’t the grappling hook pretty cool?” »

However, short-lived upgrades are handled in a confusing way, as Return does not effectively communicate what is shared between players and what is not. Health recoveries can only be picked up by one, but obols (the in-game currency) go to both players, as do consumables that increase weapon proficiency. Buy something from a store 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 don’t like voice chat with randos, the lack of an effective ping system means there’s no way to report any of this, short of falling back on the old destiny trick of just pulling it until your friend takes notice.

Selene reaches out to the camera at night in Returnal.

“Come with me if you want to die right now.”
Screenshot: Housebrand

Like many cooperative games, Return features a revive mechanic, where you walk up to a dying teammate and hold down a button to revive them within seconds. (Originally, Housemarque foreseen by forcing the living Selene to sacrifice health to revive the dying Selene, but removed that feature because she was too “mean”.) But all resurrected teammates come back with just a shard of health, meaning that ‘they die again quickly. More often than not, it’s best to leave your downcast partner where they are and focus on your own survival. So much for the team spirit!

Flaws aside, ReturnThe foray into co-op highlights a welcome emerging trend among PlayStation’s single-player games. A few months after the release of Ghost of Tsushima on PS4, developer Sucker Punch has released a free four-player co-op mode, Ghost of Tsushima: Legends. It absolutely reigned supreme, expanding on what made the base game so great while introducing a robust new list of features. (Legends became available as a standalone game last fall.) In comparison, ReturnThe “Ascension” mode of does not leave such a positive impact. Nevertheless, I’m pumped that he exists at all, even if he misses the mark. The game is quite lonely.

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