Since its launch just six months ago, Sony’s PlayStation 5 has had a good amount of games that have showcased its next-gen capabilities. But nothing has highlighted them quite like Returnal.
From Housemarque, a company renowned for its arcade-style shooters, Returnal marks a new direction for the developer. A purposeful change of direction, actually, as Housemarque announced it was stepping away from its arcade roots back in 2017. And as much as we loved Alienation, Resogun et al., we’re so very glad it took that leap of faith: Returnal is phenomenal.
Described on paper as a third-person action roguelike, Returnal is actually much more than that. There’s more than a whiff of Housemarque’s legacy here; in the heat of battle, this is very much a bullet hell game, albeit from a different perspective. Mixed in along the way are platforming elements, first-person segments that crank up the horror, and so much more. It is a roguelike, yes, but it’s probably not like any roguelike you’ve played before. You’ll die, die and die again, returning each time to the same place you started. But thankfully, you’re never really starting from scratch.
Taking on the role of the mysterious Selene, you’ll learn more about her as you progress through the game, unravelling her captivating story bit by bit. On the surface she’s a space explorer, whose ship has just crash-landed on the hostile planet of Atropos. When she makes the disturbing discovery of her own corpse, she soon realises she’s stuck in a loop; she can’t die – she simply gets returned to the time of the crash. But her memories remain intact, and as such, so does the story progress you make while playing. You’ll not have to keep fighting the same bosses or locate important pieces of equipment on each run. Though you will need to find a better weapons, as well as consumables and artefacts – which give you various perks – each time.
Progressing through Returnal means exploring each of the six distinct biomes of the game. Each area of Atropos has its own unique feeling, and a very helpful map will aid your navigate. You can stick to the main path if you like, taking the quickest possible route to the boss, or whatever artefact you might need before you can access the next area. Or you can choose to explore. It’s risky; maybe you’ll encounter a particularly tricky combination of enemies and environmental threats, making your survival less likely. Or maybe you’ll luck out and find better weapons and items, making the likelihood of your success that much greater.
Like all roguelikes, there’s a large risk versus reward element to Returnal. Putting yourself in danger might mean an untimely death, but it might also mean getting an artefact that massively increases your chances of defeating the next foe that stands in your way. Obtaining an item that revives you upon death or steadily restores your health when it’s low is obviously very advantageous. It’s up to you if you want to take those chances or not, but exploring all of what Returnal has to offer absolutely feels like the best way to play.
And you will want to explore everything Returnal has to offer, threats be damned, simply because it looks oh-so stunning. It’s a beautifully-designed game, making full use of the PS5’s grunt to display a world so brimming with atmosphere. There’s a real sense of scale; Selene often looks miniscule alongside the vast structures and environments she finds herself exploring. Verticality is used to great effect, too. You’ll often have to explore upwards and downwards to find everything hiding within an area. You might not even be able to access certain areas straight away; you’ll need to unlock new (permanent) tools later on.
Its visuals are only part of the excellent design that brings Returnal to life: it has some of the most impressive sound design we’ve experienced in a game. Partly that’s because it makes use of Sony’s 3D Audio technology; if you’re playing this with a set of headphones on or through a 5.1 surround sound set-up, you’re in for a real treat. Sounds really feel as if they’re fully surrounding you; doors literally close behind you, while enemies can be heard from the left or the right. It also helps that the sound effects themselves have been so expertly crafted. From otherworldly alien sounds, to the squelchy movements of jelly-like enemies, to the loud mechanisms of doors and portals, Returnal‘s sounds breathe so much life into its world.
Returnal also make excellent use of the DualSense controller. From feeling the patter of rain falling on Selene thanks to haptic feedback, to the way that the left trigger is used to both aim and activate each weapon’s alternate fire mode, the PS5 controller helps immerse you into the game’s world. There’s also the fact that Returnal‘s controls are so responsive and intuitive; you can run and jump from one platform to another, confident in your actions. Never does Selene feel like a chore to control.
It’s because Returnal is such a joy to play that you won’t mind that its difficulty level is quite high. Besides, it’s typical of the genre. While each biome in the game can eventually be beaten in around an hour or two, chances are you won’t master any of them on your first attempt. You’re going to be dying and making your way back to them many, many times, and each one generally has a terrifying boss for you to overcome before you can move onto the next. The only problem is, there’s no option to save and quit your game mid-run; you either put your console into rest mode, or submit to death.
But Returnal does throw you a bone or two to ease your progress through the game. Upon reaching the boss of the second biome, for example, you’ll unlock a portal that grants quicker access to it in the future. There are also rooms where you can exchange Ether – a persistent resource you find while playing – to create what is essentially a checkpoint. And then there’s the game’s weapon system, that allows you to permanently develop their abilities over time. My favourite weapon, for example, the Hollowseeker, starts out as a simple weapon with a high rate of fire. Eventually though, it can fire serrated projectiles that retarget enemies, hitting them multiple times and causing damage over time. It can create portals that fire beams, too, capable of taking out enemies while you focus on simply surviving.
With other variables to consider during each run, such as parasites that you can attach to your body that positively and negatively affect your abilities, as well as artefacts that boost your capabilities without any drawbacks, every attempt at besting Returnal is equally engaging and exciting. While you’ll encounter rooms that look familiar, there’s always something different, and the action is so fast, frenetic and downright enjoyable that you’ll be constantly on the edge of your seat. There’s never really a moment’s rest – the absence of loading screens means you’re immersed in Atropos from the moment you boot Returnal until the moment you close it.
The first time I sat down to play Returnal, I only intended to play it for 30 mins or so. Three hours later, I reluctantly turned it off in the wee hours of the morning. My next session with it was around seven hours – the time just disappearing in the blink of an eye. After just over twenty hours the credits rolled, but I’m still returning to it thanks to its daily challenges, complete with online leaderboards, and the carrot of additional story scenes hidden behind mysterious objectives dangled in my face. Needless to say, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied.
Playing Returnal, it feels like next-gen has truly begun. The way it seamlessly moves from third-person to first-person; how you move from biome to biome without loading screens taking you out of the action; the DualSense implementation; the fluidity of the gameplay; the phenomenal visuals and audio; all of these elements, and more, come together to create an experience that is truly like no other. This is not only Housemarque’s best game to date, but perhaps also the best game currently available on PS5. It’s a genre-defying delight that raises the bar on so many levels. If you own a PS5 you need to play Returnal. It’s as simple as that.
Returnal Review: GameSpew’s Score