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