When it was first announced, we weren’t sure what to make of Returnal, the PS5-exclusive roguelike shooter from Housemarque.
We were hopeful, of course: Housemarque is a developer known for quality games. We absolutely loved Resogun, Alienation and Nex Machina. But Returnal is the studio’s first game in four years, and it marks its official departure away from the arcade-style shooters it was best known for. Instead, Returnal is a third-person roguelike action game that casts you in the role of Selene, a woman whose spacecraft has just crash-landed on an alien planet.
Things quickly become apparent to Selene that all is not as it seems when, exploring a little away from her wrecked ship, she discovers her own dead body. Alarm bells. She soon realises she’s stuck in a loop, with her death sending her back to the time of her crash every time. Can she find a way to break the loop? That’s up to you.
We’ve only spent a couple of hours with Returnal so far, having only explored one of six of the game’s biomes, but our initial impressions are extremely high. We needn’t have been concerned about Housemarque stepping into new territory; it has brought its trademark quality with it, and in fact turned it up to eleven. There are signs of past Housemarque games here; the alien landscapes and bullet hell-style enemy attacks make you think of Alienation. But to compare this too much to a top-down arcade shooter would be rather reductive; Returnal is so much more.
Each time you start a new cycle, the environment around you will change. You’ll come across the same rooms and challenges, but each time they’re presented to you in a different order, with a new map layout to become accustomed to. You can run straight through, following your quest marker that will eventually lead you to a boss, but taking your time to explore and uncover secrets will pay dividends. As you explore, you’ll gather currency which can be used to buy upgrades and helpful items, and you’ll also come across new weapons. Unlike other roguelikes, Returnal is fairly generous at handing out health refills, so it never feels like you’re constantly one step away from death. A single run can last a very long time if you know what you’re doing. It can also be over in a matter of minutes if you don’t.
It is all too easy to get caught off-guard. Returnal‘s foes are a varied but dangerous bunch. Some keep their distance but bombard you with ranged attacks that you need to jump over or dodge. Others like to get up close and personal, charging at you with a deadly dash attack. Add into the mix flying enemies, turret-style enemies and enemies with shields that need depleting first and you’ve got a myriad of challenging combat encounters. Often, you’ll be facing multiple types at once, so your dodge manoeuvre becomes your best friend.
Dying doesn’t mean completely starting over from scratch, either. While some upgrades are temporary – like consumable items and weapons – others are permanent. And a persistent form of currency – ether – allows you to unlock helpful perks or even a revive point should you die. The narrative strands that run through Returnal stick with you on each death; you won’t be repeating the same story beats again and again. It feels as though Selene is just as aware as you of her fragile life status.
What is particularly impressive about Returnal, which becomes apparent before you’ve even got past the game’s opening cutscene, is how well it implements some of the PS5’s next-gen features. It makes great use of 3D audio, so if you have a compatible set of headphones, you’d be wise to wear them while you play. Sound design is excellent as-is, but making full use of the 3D audio allows you to be even more immersed in the game’s fascinating alien environment.
DualSense features are used excellently, too, even down to feeling the pitter-patter of raindrops in your controller. Perhaps most interesting, though, is its use of the left trigger. Lightly touch the trigger, and you’ll aim with your primary firing mode. Hold it down, however, and you’ll enable a more powerful, secondary firing mode. It takes some getting used to, but after a few minutes it feels like second nature.
Of course, the power of PS5 allows Returnal to look and perform brilliantly, too. We can’t emphasise enough just how buttery smooth this game is to play. Running, dashing and dodging through environments is a joy thanks to a reliable framerate. And while the heat of combat often requires you to move quickly, there’ll be times you want to stop just to take in your surroundings. We’ve got five more biomes to see yet, each promising their own environments, but we’re already enamoured with just the first.
Dark and mysterious, it’s packed with intricate detail. Textures, like rock walls and grassy floors, are fantastic. Enemy designs, too, are incredibly inspired – there’s a feel of Alien and the works of Giger here, but Returnal is very much its own vision. The ever-changing environment means there’s always something fresh to gawp over.
We’ll have a full review of Returnal next week, but our first few hours with the game have already cemented this as a must-play. We can’t wait to see what else awaits Selene as she continues to loop through death and delve deeper into this mysterious world.