Returnal review

Returnal is a new PlayStation 5 exclusive from Housemarque and it’s a punishing, interesting game filled with euphoric highs, jump scares, and dramatic low points too. It’s one of the best demonstrations of the PS5 to date, in particular with a fantastic audio design that is rarely experienced anywhere else. This is a game that will divide the crowds, but it’s one you simply have to try.

There’s a decent mix of genres in Returnal. One minute you are exploring and platforming, the next minute you’re in a bullet-hell style battle with an enemy with tentacles thrashing about threatening instant death. There’s the infinite loop of the rogue-lite genre, which many more will be familiar with since Hades broke through in 2020. Returnal has layers and you have to dig pretty deep and work hard with your skill and time to find out everything that this game has to offer.

Housemarque isn’t new to the bullet-hell style game, however, this feels like the studio is making their grand entrance onto the AAA stage, having been put front and centre by Sony. Returnal featured as one of the games in the Summer of Gaming showcase last year and was also shown off with the first glimpse of the console, so it shows Sony’s backing.

It’s interesting because there’s been lots of news and reporting along the lines of Sony is taking fewer risks and investing in their big AAA releases, but Returnal is a good response from Sony as a rebuttal to this. Returnal, most likely isn’t going to be for the mainstream audience. Similar to when Darksouls first came out, this is a punishingly hard game, one that will turn many people off almost immediately. But, much like Dark Souls before it, the victory in the face of this difficulty and risk for the player reaps massive rewards.

Housemarque has been here before with great games like Resogun and Nex Machina. Returnal feels bigger in size, scale and scope though – helped out by the 3rd person point of view behind our main character Selene. The game seamlessly moves between exploration and punishing action against a terrifying array of monsters. Returnal is a rogue-lite by design, as when you die you are sent back to the very start of the game and then the world reconfigures itself in front of you. You’ll get to keep a few select items when you die, but on the main, you lose everything and start from scratch. It’s not for the faint-hearted that’s for sure.

As well as the rogue-lite elements, it’s also a Metroidvania where you have to explore a map and find power-ups after defeating bosses to help you get to new areas of the map. There’s a little more than a dash of Metroid in here, as well as the genre description with a female protagonist inside a spacesuit wielding an array of weapons. It’s almost what you would have got if From Software got their hands on a Nintendo IP, which is meant as a massive compliment to Housemarque.

Returnal also has its fair share of horror too. You’ll be confident walking around an area then all of a sudden you’ll be grabbed off the ground by some tentacles and hoisted into the air, or a monster will stalk you and scream in rage in an effort to scare you off, as well as towering, thin humanoids appearing right next to you… and always firing a massive and fast array of projectiles at you. There’s a lot here to process, but it comes together really nicely to provide a new and exciting experience.

The story in the game unfolds as time and runs go by. When you first boot up the game the main character Selene is in a ship, she’s trying to land on a distant planet and the landing goes badly wrong and she crashes, gets out of the ship, and then proceeds to explore. The environment is dangerous, dark and everything is reaching to grab you. It reminds me of a darker version of Pandora from Avatar, where everything wants to kill you. Moments after leaving her ship, Selene comes across a fallen pilot, wearing the same suit as her, and she rolls over the body to reveal her own nameplate. Selene has found herself, and she’s not sure why… but there are some audio notes been left behind. Another Selene describes ‘returning’, waking and exploring plus meeting other dead versions of herself, just like you are doing now. There’s traces of another race, as well as the array of monsters trying to kill you at all times.

Selene is trying to find the mysterious broadcast signal. The world, however, is doing its very best to stop her and provide as many deadly roadblocks as possible. There’s plenty of unanswered questions here too, for example, why does Selene keep waking up back at her ship after death? There’s a strange house in the middle of the first biome, one seemingly from Selene’s memories, but also appears to physically be there in front of her. The messages from dead Selenes increasingly become madder, as other versions of her are losing the plot-related… and surely it’s only a matter of time before she descends into madness too.

Adding to the visual and narrative environment in the game is the masterful audio design. The sounds of the environment, the guttural screams of the beasts, footsteps in the mud, and the pitter-patter of raindrops on her suit (which you can also feel through the DualSense Controller thanks to the haptic feedback integration). The game is best experienced with the headphones on and I take my hat off to the audio design team as it’s some of the best I’ve ever heard.

Returnal gets a lot right. The visuals are stunning, the audio is very impressive, the world design is very cool. It feels inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus. The environment is deadly and it wants you to know it with every sense. There are 6 biomes to explore, each with a boss at the end which you have to beat to get to the next biome. If you die, you start back at the beginning, and the world in front of you reconfigures itself, so no two runs are ever going to be the same. Each biome is made up of a series of rooms, all of which lead you to the boss via some discovery paths. On the side, there are powerups, weapon upgrades, and audio messages to discover.

There’s always a sense of risk when running through Returnal. Walk into a room, some doors will close behind you and you’ll be locked in there with 4-5 enemies hell-bent on trying to kill you and the doors aren’t going to open until you’ve killed them off. Sometimes there are shining things on the floor, you’ll go over to pick it up and fall through a trapdoor, there’s a tantalizing shining object on the ground below some tentacles that try to squeeze the life out of you. Then there are the massive eyes that shoot lasers down on you from above. Returnal is a game that will always keep you on your toes and there’s a nervous energy rising whenever you have the controller in your hands. Housemrque certainly has drawn an emotional response from me, and I like it.

Returnal is probably at its most challenging during the combat sequences. It’s hard to pin down, it feels new, but it’s a combination of bullet-hell and 3rd person shooters. Selene has rapid movement, and it feels good to run, jump and dash. You’re going to need all these skills plus precision reflexes to last more than a few minutes in the world of Returnal. Together with Selene’s skills, there’s an array of weapons from sidearms, to alien weapons like Carbines, Shotguns, and much more. All can be fired by aiming with the left trigger and firing with the right, but the adaptive triggers come into play with the alternate firing mode by partially holding down the left trigger. This can be a little tricky, to begin with, but becomes second nature quite quickly. The array of guns are impressive, as are the secondary fire modes that often fire off projectiles, lightning, or miniature bombs to kill whatever monster with huge tentacles happens to be in your way at the time.

Make no mistake Returnal is tough. There’s going to be moments where you’ll put the controller down and sigh, having died after a run lasting a few hours or so. Sometimes there’s so much going on it’s hard to know where to jump and dash and the only course of action is to instinctively mash the buttons until you either make your escape or die. Returnal is a game that has once again opened the debate on the difficulty of games, with many commentators coming out on Twitter over release weekend saying an array of things like “It’s too hard” or “There should be checkpoints or save states”… all of which are valid points, however, part of me thinks that Housemarque is sitting back checking this out and perhaps wryly smiling to themselves.

It’ll be interesting to see the sales figures for Returnal, but in the past 5 days this game has dominated the conversation on Twitter… it’ll be interesting to see what the general public thinks of it. I’ve seen all kinds of feedback related to the difficulty. I would imagine you’re going to need plenty of time to sink into this game to experience everything it has to offer, but I think it’ll be a worthwhile experience and it’s great to see something like this, something that has its own identity so early in the lifecycle of this generation.

There’s been a few bugs at launch which have plagued the game. I am sure these will be mopped up with a post-launch patch very soon, but I’ve seen people lose hours’ worth of progress due to crashes and also auto-updates from the PS5. Given there’s no saving or pausing, you either have to finish up your run or go back to the very start. Games, where you can’t pause, aren’t always the most friendly, especially in this day and age where we have kids at home, have to answer the door for some reason plus a whole host of other things. Housemarque has their reasons and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the feedback if anything. Part of me wants them to stick to their guns, albeit fix up the game-breaking bugs as they are unfortunate.

Returnal is an endurance test of a video game. In the early hours, you are in discovery mode, learning about the planet, the monsters, the attack patterns, and staring in wonder at most things in the game. As time goes on the game becomes more and more punishing and it’ll take a particular type of player to want to jump back in time and time again. If you like this style of game, or if any of the above sounds like it’s for you then I would fully recommend Returnal. It’s truly a next-generation game and shows off the wide array that the PS5 can do. I like that Sony is investing in this type of game – it’s tough, it’s different and it’ll make you laugh with delight and cry with loss. I don’t know if I am that type of player to want to jump back in time and time again, but I’m impressed with what Housemarque has produced and if you have access to a PlayStation 5 then I’d recommend checking it out.

Developer: Housemarque
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 5
Release Date: 30th April 2021