REVIEWED: Returnal for PS5
Gareth Woods gets personal and in-depth about Returnal on PS5.
When I first got wind of Returnal at the PS5 showcase last year, it immediately stood out for me as one to keep my eyes on. That opinion certainly didn’t change over the coming months and as more information was leaked through gameplay trailers and screenshots, I found myself overcome with hype pending its release.
Usually, I do my best not to get swept away by the hype train since, in my experience, that particular train very seldom delivers when it eventually pulls in to the station. However, in this case, Returnal has definitely over-delivered on my expectations.
Returnal has you play as Selene, an astronaut stranded on the planet of Atropos. She is inextricably stuck in an endless loop whereby every time she dies, she is reborn at the crash site of her spaceship. To end this loop, she needs to find the source of a mysterious transmission signal and break free.
Endless death loops are nothing new for Roguelike games and in fact, are a core part of the gameplay mechanic. In Returnal, each time you die you begin again, all your weapons, perks and collectables lost except for a few rare pieces of gear which are persistent – usually acquired from killing key bosses in the game.
Each time you die you might feel like you have lost everything and gained nothing, but your knowledge of the environment, its enemies and how to defeat them has grown - making each failed attempt a learning exercise. Where Returnal differs from many roguelikes is its focus on “bullet hell” style gameplay which should come as no surprise since Housemarque (the studio who developed Returnal) are behind some of the best games in the genre such as Super Stardust HD and Resogun. “Bullet hell” games, as the name might suggest, involve enemies firing a seemingly insurmountable salvo of projectiles which you need to avoid, while doing your best to return fire.
What ensues is an action fest of the highest tier as you deftly dodge your way through swarms of enemies doing your best to survive each room of the procedurally generated levels. Each playthrough is unique with different level designs, enemies, weapons and bonuses sometimes the chips will fall in your favour with great weapons and easier enemies, other times it might feel like Lady Luck has it in for you.
Returnal borrows heavily from Metroidvania-style games too, by having certain areas be inaccessible till you acquire certain gear, this is partly to curtail exploration, but also helps to create shortcuts to speed up future playthroughs.
The game also boasts some of the tightest controls and the best use of the haptic feedback on the PS5’s DualSense controllers. From the subtle patter of rain to the hefty jolts of being thrown across the map by an explosion, the controller feedback is easily some of the best and most immersive I have ever experienced. The triggers are expertly utilised whereby a half push snaps you into a down-the-sights viewpoint, while a full press engages your weapon’s secondary fire.
From an immersion standpoint the graphics, particularly the lighting and shadows are truly latest generation and the 3D audio, particularly when played through a compatible headset are immaculate. Whether you are traversing overgrown jungles or barren wastelands, you will be blown away by the accuracy of the soundscape Housemarque have managed to create.
If I had to give Returnal any critique, is that it is difficult -really difficult. You will die. You will die a lot. This might be a tad frustrating for most, or this might be exactly the sort of challenge you are looking for. As a fan of Soulsborne titles myself, Returnal was everything I look for in a game. A steep learning curve that is fair, but punishing with a skillset that is quick to learn, but difficult to master – sounds like my cup of tea.
At the moment of writing this review, I have finished the game three times, died countless dozen times and still looking to find everything the game has to offer and hopefully get that prestigious platinum trophy. However, I will be the first to admit that this might not be for everyone and in a way, I think Housemarque might have missed out on a much larger appeal to Returnal than they deserve.
All in all, Returnal is an expert mash-up of everything you love about indie roguelikes with that AAA blockbuster coat of paint over it. It boasts tight controls, stellar graphics and an interesting storyline that will entice you to play it over and over. However, its brutal difficulty might make it more of a niche offering than intended.