Creating Returnal’s otherworldly enemies: VFX-driven tentacle tech and deep-sea inspirations

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Creating Returnal’s otherworldly enemies: VFX-driven tentacle tech and deep-sea inspirations

Meet the uniquely terrifying creatures that will test your survival abilities on Atropos.

Hi everyone! We are very excited to be approaching the launch of Returnal, on April 30, and we wanted to share a few more details on Selene’s journey. This time we wanted to talk about some of the hostile forces she will encounter on Atropos. 

Creating Returnal’s otherworldly enemies: VFX-driven tentacle tech and deep-sea inspirations

The planet of Atropos is a dark and mysterious place, and each environment will provide its own unique set of enemies to overcome: from the organic and parasitic creatures inhabiting the Overgrown Ruins, to the cosmic or corrupted entities roaming the sands of the Crimson Wastes, and the mechanical automatons that endlessly patrol the haunting Derelict Citadel… Players will encounter a large variety of different foes, which aside from their unique aesthetics will also provide their own unique gameplay flavor and special attacks.

When creating the organic enemies of Returnal, one of the biggest sources of inspiration for me was looking at bioluminescent deep-sea creatures. In many ways they felt like the most alien lifeforms one could find here on Earth. There is something inherently unsettling and foreign about the deep-sea as an environment for us. The way these creatures move deep underwater, with their long tentacles and bioluminescent highlights, can often appear majestic, beautiful and downright terrifying. It’s also not uncommon for these creatures to use their luminous beauty to allure or distract their prey (for example, with a dazzling display of bioluminescence), and suddenly strike when their prey is least expecting it. This combination of chaotic beauty and nightmarish aggression was something we aimed to capture with our organic creatures’ aesthetic.

Towards this purpose we ended up creating our own special VFX-driven tentacle tech and used it very liberally. These fully dynamic elements bring that chaotic beauty to the enemies we were after, and also created some really satisfying feedback for players as well.

For instance, the bioluminescent emissives on tentacles are strongly highlighted to telegraph oncoming attacks and provide satisfying hit reactions when enemies are shot (or when an enemy is killed, where they blow up in a glorious explosion of severed tentacles). The strong emissive highlights also connect back to our Bullet Hell attacks, where our projectiles naturally inherit this vibrant “energy signature” from our enemies, to create a cohesive aesthetic that strongly reinforces our gameplay intent as well.

For our creative process, we wanted to make sure that our enemies looked otherworldly and unique, but also wanted them to provide great gameplay of course. In a few cases, our enemy ideas would start from a particular aesthetic or story we were trying to tell – for example our Mycomorph (pictured above) was the idea of a parasitic organism that festers on Selene’s corpses, so you would see her fractured skull and ribcage amidst the tree-like parasitic growth of the enemy up close. But usually, we followed a very gameplay-first approach when crafting our enemies in Returnal: we’d devise various key roles and archetypes that we wanted to fill for each biome, and start prototyping them not only by themselves, but also in different combinations with each other.

While many of our encounters will provide a projectile challenge from afar, some enemies can provide close range attacks that demand precise avoidance timing as well. One example is the aggressive Titanops you can see in the video. This large bipedal creature has one arm completely made of tentacles, while the other is a cleaver-like extruded bone that it uses to land devastating blows. The Titanops takes a lot of damage to defeat, and will chase you relentlessly, often closing the gap on you by leaping large distances directly into melee range.

But most other creatures prefer to keep combat at a distance. For example, in the Overgrown Ruins the Mycomorph has a strong emphasis on shooting aggressive homing projectiles from afar. It will often teleport to new locations to find better vantage points, and will also throw out a grenade-style attack that releases a cluster of vines, which will inhibit player movement when within proximity.

In the Crimson Wastes, the Gorgolith is a crab-like creature with a penchant for ambushes. This predator is able to fire a barrage of fast-moving projectiles, a direct laser from its tail, and an expanding shockwave blast, but can also surprise you with a tentacle-style melee attack if you get in close and personal. Protected by a hard shell, its only weak spot is the head, so you will have to balance good defensive manoeuvring with a consistent offense, for example by utilizing our Focus Aim, which highlights enemy weak points and also increases accuracy.

Ultimately though most of our encounters will rely primarily on highlighting our signature projectile and Bullet Hell gameplay, and our bosses especially will provide a vast array of challenging patterns to showcase this. For example, soaring in the skies of the Crimson Wastes, Ixion has a large variety of different layered attacks to avoid, ranging from patterns that populate the playfield with hundreds of slow-moving bullets to carefully weave through, to fast-speed attacks that provide more reactive dash-focused gameplay, to expanding shockwaves that compartmentalize the space and demand your continuous attention, to majestic bursts of countless homing missiles with long trails which bring some extra intensity to our combat.

While many of these combat encounters will prove very intense on their own, it is really when they’re combined that they showcase Returnal’s unique gameplay. While each enemy has its own distinctive personality and its own uniquely identifiable attacks patterns, we have also tried to find the best synergies and pairings between enemies to ensure they work together gracefully. We want to ensure our combat scenarios feel consistently challenging and deeply rewarding, but also avoid veering into the unfair or incomprehensible.

On that note, your spatial awareness will be put to the test in Returnal. You’ll need to keep moving and make full use of Selene’s moveset in order to prevail, while staying fully alert of the myriad threats incoming from all directions. Our level layouts have lots of verticality, so you’ll need to be constantly traversing the environment to avoid the onslaught of projectile attacks and try to reach better vantage points to dispatch the enemies. Effective use of Dash will be critical, as it can be used freely as a navigation tool, but also to dash through our projectile attacks without taking damage, and also avoid last-minute melee attacks with some split-second timing. We’ve covered our wide array of weapons and upgrades that Selene can find in a previous post, and players will need to use every tool and navigation option they have in order to survive on Atropos.

This is just a small glimpse of some of the various encounters and combat scenarios you’ll find in Returnal. We are very excited and proud for PS5 users to experience Returnal very soon on April 30.

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  • So hyped for this!

    Can’t wait to get it when it’s a normal price.

    • It is at normal price at launch, 70$. If you think of this a different way, Sony first party titles don’t often sell DLC or expansions or contain microtransactions. Just the game itself, without the fluff. So 70$ an increase of 10$ without the 40$ DLC pack is a reasonable price for a full game to cover a game’s 5 year development. (Average time for a new IP) So get off your high horse and support products your want more of. or stop complaining when the games you want don’t get released since the only games that are financially successful are COD, and Assassins Creed. Both games filled to the brim with Microtransactions and season passes.

    • The best tentacle animation I’ve seen. Incredible enemy design. Day one. The game looks great.

  • Looking forward to this. I’ll wait till it drops in price a fair bit though. I won’t pay 70 squid for a game.

  • Looks better everytime I see it! Movement looks intuitive and responsive and those enemy designs are so on point. Another game to look forward to when I get hold of a ps5 :0

  • I’m excited for this, got it pre-ordered. Resogun was my favorite game for a solid while at launch.

  • This game looks absolutely amazing. Housemarque has a great track record so far, and I’m beyond hyped for this one.

  • Definitely a day one purchase. Housemarque has never made a bad game. If we don’t support the game companies we like they won’t be around. This game is well worth 70 bucks. Great graphics, great gameplay, 3D sound, and dualsense support. Not sure how people don’t think this game is worth it.

  • Day one purchase for me. I am rooting for Housemarque! Good luck on the reviews!

  • Secretly the best looking game coming to PS5 exclusively anytime soon. Cannot wait to play this looks like another impressive shooter from Housemarqe.

    This game is definitely a testament to allowing a dev to go wild and continue their legacy of great gameplay. I really wish Sony would let this internal studios do the same, maybe it’s better to be a contract company like Bluepoint and Housemarqe to get better games? Sure looks that way.

    • Right…

      Because Sony hasn’t had any good games recently..

      Bro, stop reading propaganda and look at reality. Was Tsushima a bad game? Were SP not allowed to “go wild”? The game had a six year production with several studio trips to Japan.

      Was Mm held back IN ANY WAY on Dreams? Another six year production. Sony imo gave too much leniency with Mm. They needed more focus and a full length campaign. Sony should’ve been more hands on. Dreams is incredible but not a commercial success.

      Did Sony stunt ND on TLOU2? A game with brutally honest art direction. A pure creative vision despite controversy. The most awarded game EVER.

      Was Concrete Genie not allowed to flourish? Pixel Opus was giving full control and an exponentially larger budget coming off a lukewarm reception in Entwined.

      These first party games all released fairly recently. Oh, and Miles Morales was beloved. A massive hit.

      Ratchet & Clank doesn’t look good? It releases a month after Returnal. Then another big first party, Horizon. God of War also planned for 2021. Sony is killing it with first party. Sorry. Take your Bloomberg articles elsewhere because in reality, PS5 is the only next gen system with new exclusives. Five of the last eight consensus game of the year winners were Sony games. PS4 sold 120 vs 50 mil XB1s. PS5 is dominating sales, games, performance, revenue, and demand. Oh, and tech. DualSense, SSD, 3D audio. PlayStation is continuing to run through Xbox. VR? Gamepass can’t save you from everything. Ppl want new games made exclusively for their next gen system. Demon’s Souls Remake, Returnal, R&C etc.

      A world of sheep, I refuse to baahh.

  • I have this game preordered. I’m really excited to play it launch day. This studio never disappoints.

  • Looks interesting.

  • It’s day one if I can get a PS5 by then lol. It will be the first game PS5 game I play on the system. I’m hoping I get lucky somehow in the next couple of weeks and get one(PS5).

  • Playstation, please send me an PS Direct invite next week thank you😉

  • Great insight into the enemy design! Not long to go now. The icon is taunting me on my PS5 homescreen xD

  • For me at least, I cannot risk being taken by developers again after the disappointments of Anthem (EA), the glitchy release of Fallout 76 (from a giant like Bethesda), and the problematic Cyberpunk 2077 just to name a few.

    It is obvious that big developers (at least) cannot be trusted to turn out a working product anymore, and instead would fix it after the release date; like a movie being edited after you buy your ticket to see it; in those ancient places with the moving picture called theatres.

    I test every game for free via loan given its 94$ to buy.

    Bethesda games at least feature clauses in their EAU the shrug off any liability from glitchy or “broken” games that are released.

    At 94$ to roll the dice on a game? You have to protect your wallet.

    I hope the Dead Space inspired game or Dark Souls clone does well … however others like Fade, Agony, immortal shell, have been anything but fun (for me at least ).

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