“Returnal takes full advantage of the capabilities of the PS5 to give players a fast-paced and furious sci-fi spectacle.”
Great risk-reward systems
Immersive DualSense functions
Limited build options
Returnal is finally bridging the gap between AAA and indie video games. While these worlds have often felt separate from each other, the new third-person shooter is proof that they can naturally merge. Its DNA is as ingrained in indie gems like Dead Cells as it is in big budget sci-fi shooters like Mass Effect.
The exclusive PS5 comes from Housemarque, a Finnish studio known for niche titles like Super Stardust and Nex Machina, which draw the influence of arcade shooters. The studio announced it would change direction in response to weak sales and famously declared that “Arcade is dead”. Fans feared the pivot might crush the studio, but it turns out that Housemarque’s take on an AAA game only reinforces his indie spirit.
Returnal is a brave science fiction shooter that successfully breaks down the gaming industry’s longstanding genre barriers. While its punishing roguelite elements can detract from its narrative strengths, fast-paced combat and a gripping atmosphere make it one of the more exciting, high-end PlayStation exclusives to appear in quite a while.
Live, die, repeat
Describing how Returnal works is no easy task. It might look like a regular third-person shooter, but that barely scratches the surface. It’s also a roguelite, bullet hell game, and Metroidvania adventure all rolled into one (that’s a lot to deal with, I know). This jumble of influences may sound like an “too many chefs” situation, but Housemarque is a master chef when it comes to genre fusion. Every taste is perfectly balanced.
The basic premise is that players control an astronaut named Selene, who is in a science fiction version of Groundhog Day after her ship crashed on the planet Atropos. She must shoot and work her way through six different biomes as she collects new perks, weapons, and upgrades along the way. When she dies, she will be sent straight back to her ship, with most of her equipment removed.
Fortunately, players don’t start over. Clever progression hooks are branded in. If you defeat the massive boss of a biome, the path to the next area remains unlocked for the next round. There are permanent skills that can also be collected, such as: B. a grappling hook or metal legs with which the players can walk on lava. This little piece of Metroid-style gear gating is constantly revealing secrets around the world, and fun to explore every time the randomly compiled map.
It’s an aggressive action game that is always fun to just do the basics.
Everything is glued together by fast-paced action. The movement itself is satisfactorily quick and enables evasive ballet as giant space squids throw balls in all directions. The weapons are a blast thanks to the perks that unlock permanently over time and give each weapon type a different feel. Weapons use a short cooldown system instead of limited ammo, so players are encouraged to go wild on encounters. There’s also a powerful melee sword blow that provides a solid incentive to rush headlong into battle. It’s an aggressive action game that is always fun to just do the basics.
There’s a lot more complexity to talk about, like an adrenaline system that gives stat boosts every time players get three kills in a row without getting hit. All these small systems together form an experience that is always on the gas. This is where it’s easy to see where Housemarque’s arcade roots come into play. Returnal feels like a top-down shoot-em-up reimagined as a big budget 3D action game. The studio may claim that “Arcade is dead,” but it’s alive and well in these high octane battles.
In terms of sound, Returnal’s closest comparison to director Ridley Scott’s films. The game has Scott’s signature brand for threatening science fiction, much like Alien or Prometheus. Selene’s story is both otherworldly and deeply personal. Sinister narrative sequences in Selene’s house that mysteriously appear on Atropos slowly build up her troubled story before it leads to a gripping emotional conclusion.
Without giving too much away, it’s a terrifying story that justifies the game’s cyclical roguelite setup. There is something inevitable about Selene that makes her relive her past over and over again. The journey is not so much about shooting every enemy in sight as it is about uncovering a deeply repressed memory.
Much of the game’s haunting tone is achieved through Atropos itself, a menacing, threatening planet. From a sprawling desert full of mechanical octopuses to an icy tundra where there is almost no organic life, Selene is truly cut off from society. It’s a lonely experience that creates the awkward isolation of games like Metroid Prime.
Returnal is the most compelling argument for PS5 technology we’ve seen so far.
Housemarque went to great lengths to immerse players in this environment. As an exclusive PS5 product, Returnal takes full advantage of the DualSense controller to make Atropos feel more tactile. The haptic feedback simulates soft raindrops and slimy parasitic winds. The controller’s built-in speaker also gives some helpful hints, such as: B. a sharp squelch, which indicates that the old fire of a weapon has been charged.
Returnal is the most compelling argument for PS5 technology we’ve seen so far. While exclusives like Destruction AllStars made the Dualsense a gimmick, Returnal shows how well thought-out details can help create a comprehensive interactive experience so that a fictional planet feels real.
The difficulty debate
Returnal’s difficulty will surely be a point of discussion. Like many roguelites, it is a merciless and sometimes unforgiving video game. There are no additional levels of difficulty or accessibility options to make the gaming experience easier for players. That can be extremely frustrating given the compelling story it tells. Anyone who is only there for the narrative but cannot keep up with the demanding action is simply out of luck.
The problem here isn’t so much that the game is “too difficult”, although that is certainly the broad criticism that is likely surrounding it. Instead, Returnal doesn’t offer enough versatility when it comes to what constitutes a winning strategy.
As with other roguelites, every run is about creating a successful build by making constant micro-decisions. The game offers players a consistent range of risk-reward decisions, whether through malicious objects that can cause the suit to temporarily malfunction or parasites that, in addition to a debuff, provide a huge advantage. These do an especially good job at changing the feel of each run and encouraging players to experiment with potentially risky side effects in order to earn a high reward.
Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many recipes for success. Every single “good” run I’ve had came with a defense buff and some sort of suit repair that would heal me if I had poor integrity. The runs I had this on could last for hours and take me through multiple areas with ease. Those I haven’t been with were often inevitably doomed. Since items like artifacts appear randomly, I have often saved my currency until I found the right one. It also doesn’t help that players can only hold one weapon at a time, which reduces the potential for creating a toolset that can handle different situations.
Returnal doesn’t offer enough versatility when it comes to what constitutes a winning strategy.
Part of the problem is that failed runs are not necessarily worth the effort. Hardly anything useful carries over from run to run, and it can take hours to search one area to get the strength it takes to tackle the next. Entering a new biome after a long flushing process that is only crushed in the first encounter is an emptying experience. This makes the runs that lead to progress feel much sweeter, but there is an imbalance between success and failure.
It doesn’t feel like players are trading notes with each other about their eclectic win builds. They are more likely to share their misery and relief, as they would in a Dark Souls game. These conversations can create a barrier to entry that transcends Retunal’s complex plot and engaging story that deserves to be the center of attention.
Returnal is a winning combination of big budget production value and creative, cross-genre gameplay typically reserved for cult indie hits. It tells a haunting science fiction story that thematically justifies the cyclical roguelite setup. Demanding action combined with a lack of workable build options make too many runs frustrating non-starters, but a compelling puzzle and fast-paced action always provides a strong reason to die and try again.
Is there a better alternative?
Hades is still the best roguelite out there, and there’s no shortage of great budget space shooters, but Returnal is the best of both worlds for the most part.
How long it will take?
Because of its roguelite nature, that depends on skill. Some players could finish the game in 15 hours. Others could take 40. Expect to end up somewhere in between, with some daily challenges and post-game exploration to extend its lifespan.
Should you buy it?
Yes. For PS5 owners, the best exclusivity to have been using the console since its launch, and it can remain unchallenged on that front until Horizon Forbidden West.