Returnal: A Generation Defining Experience – PS5 Review
The first year of a console’s launch is a formative one. It is when its identity as a gaming platform is forged and its legacy in the public’s eyes is created. A big part of Sony’s strategy has been the creation of first-party AAA exclusives. So far Sony have announced three major upcoming AAA titles for their platform, Horizon Forbidden West, God of War: Ragnarok and the soon to be released, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. But it is their latest title, Returnal, that showcases Sony’s commitment to developing exclusive new IPs for their next-gen console. The question is, does this new title by Housemarque live up to the high standard set by Sony’s titles in previous generations? It just might.
“Those with a PlayStation 5 who have been waiting to see an experience tailored to the unique features of the console should certainly consider giving Returnal a go.”
Returnal is a science fiction roguelike third-person shooter exclusive to the PlayStation 5 developed by Housemarque. You play as the explorer, Selene Vassos, whose research vessel crash-lands after responding to a distress signal seemingly directed toward her. Unfortunately for her, she lands on a mysterious planet inhabited by hostile alien life.
The player makes their way from the ship in an attempt to reach the source of the distress signal. In doing so, they begin to piece together Selene’s story and how she came to arrive in this situation. Of course, it isn’t that simple, as Selene must survive this harsh world and fight her way through numerous types of aliens and robots. This will almost certainly result in her death. Each death is a canonical part of the story and each time she dies she reawakens at the crash site.
When you first play Returnal, the first thing you will notice is how high its production values are. The environments are dense and atmospheric, with rain, fog and flora enveloping the player. The audio design is phenomenal, particularly when experienced with 3D audio. You’re able to hear the patter of rain on your suit while browsing the in-game menu. You can also react to enemies positions based on the direction you can hear them.
To top this off, the game makes extensive use of the DualSense haptic features. The controller will react in unique ways to most of the actions in Returnal. This gives you an extra sense when playing and increases immersivity by a surprising amount. Those with a PlayStation 5 who have been waiting to see an experience tailored to the unique features of the console should certainly consider giving Returnal a go.
“The core movement and gunplay feel phenomenal.”
The gameplay is fast-paced and hectic. When you first load Returnal, you receive a message informing you that this game is intended to be challenging and you should expect to die a lot. For most players, this is likely an apt warning. Enemies are numerous and spew bullet-hell style projectiles which will quickly fill the screen with bright colours. The core gameplay is centred around dodging these projectiles while dealing damage and avoiding environmental hazards.
Luckily, the core movement and gunplay feel phenomenal. Dodging and running feels fluid and satisfying and the auto-aim is generous. It lets you focus more on dodging, which could almost be thought of as the primary gameplay mechanic in some ways. One thing to note is that some environments can become visually cluttered. This can occasionally lead to frustrating deaths where environmental pitfalls cannot easily be identified when split-second decisions must be made.
“It was fun to switch up my playstyle whenever I hit a wall.”
Being a roguelite, levels and loot are randomly generated upon each death and most progress resets after each cycle. This being said, there are some elements which persist between deaths. Bosses (of which there are five) do not need to be fought again. Certain upgrades that unlock more of the levels do not need to be reobtained either. There is also a currency called “ether” which persists between cycles. One way to collect ether is to “avenge” corpses of previous iterations of Selene. These corpses are actually the corpses of other players who played the game. Similarly to in the Souls games, you can see their final moments before dying.
At the start of each run you begin with the same basic pistol. You must rely on having good luck in order to find better weapons as you progress. There are ten types of weapon types in the game. Each one can be found with various modifiers that can affect playstyle drastically. Some weapons are more generally useful than others. But I found that, with a little experimenting, each weapon was proficient in certain scenarios and it was fun to switch up my playstyle whenever I hit a wall.
“While not a primarily story oriented title, Returnal does indeed have a fantastic and meaningful story”
In general the random aspect of the loot can be a little frustrating due to the risk-reward mechanics many of the items come with. A good portion of the loot found in a run will have a probability to inflict the player with a negative status effect. This ultimately causes the player to carefully evaluate the risks and rewards of the loot they collect. While this does add some strategic depth to Returnal, it can exacerbate the frustration in a particularly bad run. I often found on my more successful runs that I mostly ignored the loot tagged with these risks. I feel this is a strong indication that maybe these should be balanced a little better.
While not a primarily story oriented title, Returnal does indeed have a fantastic and meaningful story that complements the themes of the gameplay nicely. Without delving too deeply into spoilers, the story is largely told through occasional first-person segments. These act as a psychological horror mini game of sorts, similar to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard or Amnesia.
These segments and the story they tell are fantastic and quite eerie. They serve as a wonderful change of pace from the fast paced action that makes up the majority of your play time. Those who like stories that give solid definitive answers and clearly resolve their mysteries may be frustrated by Returnal’s ending. However, those who enjoy analysing the themes and meaning behind things will appreciate the narrative of Returnal greatly.
“It took me approximately 20 hours to play through the first two acts.”
Like most new AAA PlayStation 5 games, Returnal comes at a higher price tag than most other games. As a result it is important to discuss how much content there is. There are six distinct environments split into a two-act structure and a third act that essentially acts as a New Game+ mode. It took me approximately 20 hours to play through the first two acts. This included me taking some time to experiment with different aspects of the game.
However, players of different skill levels will likely take a lot longer or a lot less time depending how often they die. The third act is worth playing if you enjoy uncovering the lore of the world and if you wish to delve deeper into the main story. It is worth noting that I found trophy hunting to be a little frustrating.
“Returnal is a difficult game that will test your patience but incredibly rewarding if you persevere.”
On release, Returnal was plagued by some run-ending bugs and game crashes. In my first 10 hours of gameplay I experienced two bugs that forced me to restart the run and one game crash. These were particularly frustrating since there is no way to save the game-state upon closing the game app. However, the developer has since patched the game and I have experienced no further bugs or crashes since then and a save feature is apparently on the way.
Ultimately Returnal is a difficult game that will test your patience but incredibly rewarding if you persevere. The core gameplay is extremely satisfying and once you get into a rhythm you will find yourself always wanting to try “one more cycle”. The game is also an excellent showcase of the what the PlayStation 5 is capable of and offers a level of immersion not offered by other games in the genre. Minor balancing issues aside, the core gameplay loop is a lot of fun and I sincerely hope we can to see it expanded upon in future titles from the Housemarque.
Returnal is an incredible roguelike with outstanding visuals and an intriguing narrative. Its gameplay loop is deeply rewarding, with each death encouraging you to continue playing. While some minor balancing issues and a few bugs got in the way of my overall enjoyment, I'm certain they'll be patched out soon. Returnal is an exceptional showcase of the power of the PlayStation 5, and a generational defining experience.