Recently, in light of the mounting rumours of a Last of Us remake, Sony were accused by many of not taking risks. Peculiar timing when Returnal, a game that is so unflinchingly and unapologetically tough that many likely won't complete it, was just around the corner. A sci-fi time loop arcade-style shooter borrowing roguelike/rogue-lite elements whilst offering frenetic chaotic gameplay feels very much like a risk for Sony. Thankfully, it's a risk that very much pays off.
Returnal is a spectacular showcase for the PS5 and an unmitigated success for Resogun, Super Stardust and Nex Machina developer Housemarque. A joy to play, watch and importantly hear, Returnal is precisely what you'd expect from a developer known for creating arcade shooters and yet entirely surprising too. Their trademark gameplay not only translates to a third-person AAA title well, it entirely supersedes what has come before. Punishingly difficult but extraordinarily entertaining, Returnal is an absolute must-own for just about every PS5 owner. Just about.
Live. Die. Repeat.
After crashing her spaceship on the 'off limits' planet Atropos, having found herself drawn to a mysterious and somehow familiar 'white signal', our protagonist Selene is left stranded and stuck in a time loop, being resurrected after every death. Exploring the planet, and discovering your own corpses from previous efforts as you go, is an intriguing and mysterious experience.
The story slowly unravels itself as you delve further into the game's biomes and without giving much away it's a thoroughly captivating and curious journey from beginning to end. Each biome, essentially a 'stage' or 'level' though that may be a touch reductionist, is visually unique, introducing new enemies and forcing you into new playstyles. Just as you start to feel comfortable, a new biome completely changes things up. It forces you to pay attention to entirely new attacks and landscapes. It ensures that the game consistently feels fresh and challenging, but also visually distinct too.
Taking significant inspiration from Ridley Scott's Alien world, in particular, Prometheus, its oft eery surroundings are more stunning and engrossing than I originally felt from the trailers. Alien technology, bright holograms and energetic projectiles create a visual identity that feels incredibly unique, even with its clear inspirations in mind. It's graphically impressive, but more so in its totality than in the examination of individual elements.
Selene's character model isn't the most lifelike to be featured on the PS5 but Returnal's most chaotic moments, where projectiles are firing at you from all directions, enemies surround you, turrets blast missiles through their shields, secondary fire explodes in the distance as you hurdle over seemingly bottomless pits whilst firing your own reign of bullets on your adversaries, it's a truly awe-inspiring visual delight. You'd like to take a moment to sit back and admire it, but that would be an incredibly dangerous decision.
All of these elements come together to make for a visually arresting experience, unlike anything else available in gaming. The world is full of decay, its walls slimy and rotting. Something doesn't feel right. It feels dangerous.
Returnal is often being described as a rogue-lite/roguelike due to some of its design mechanics. All that really means here is that the game includes procedural generation, non-linear storytelling, random items, resetting on death, and unique character 'builds' each run. For most, that description won't mean very much and that's probably a good thing.
Ultimately, whilst those mechanics exist, those desperately seeking a 'roguelike will probably be disappointed. It's better simply to enjoy that Returnal leans on some of these elements with varying levels of success, without getting hung up on any in particular. Rather than creating an entirely different landscape every run, the procedural generation element takes various 'rooms' and pieces them together in differing combinations. It succeeds in keeping you guessing. You'll soon learn a room well enough not to be too concerned about being 'surprised'. That doesn't, however, mean that it's not a valuable part of Returnal. Discovering new rooms, new layouts are thoroughly enjoyable. It adds substantially to the overall mysterious experience.
More ingenious is the game's utilisation of item randomisation and the 'builds' it can create. Random pickups will alter your build in various ways. Consumables are, unsurprisingly, one-use items that do things like heal, produce a shield, transport you to a potentially valuable location and remove malfunctions. Artefacts will increase weapon proficiency, reduce cooldowns, increase damage. Finding an item you like or need, is often a thrilling moment. But they can be 'malignant', meaning that they could produce a 'malfunction' which would affect your gameplay until you achieve certain objectives, like defeating a specific number of enemies.
This is similarly true of 'parasites' you can attach to yourself, which will always carry both a positive and a negative trait. These negatives remain with you though, meaning that you'll constantly be weighing up whether the benefit really outweighs the harm. Decisions like this are littered throughout Returnal. Picking up 'silphium chunks' heals your 'integrity' (your health, essentially) and 'resin' raises your maximum health every third piece.
After death, you might be seduced into grinding the first biome until you feel powerful enough to take on that boss you just narrowly failed to defeat. Raise your max integrity, find your favourite weapon, attach the right parasites. But, there is always a chance you'll slip up after hours of 'building' your character. There's even a chance you won't find what you want, thanks to the item randomisation. These decisions are often frustrating, with what's on offer being so determined by luck. This is what makes Returnal so unique and entertaining. It's also what makes it so hard. And Returnal is hard. Often, you are so overwhelmed by gunfire that getting distance between you and your enemies is impossible. Enemies also drop 'obelites' upon death which disappear after a few seconds.
This is the game's currency, required to buy items and upgrades from the 'shop'. As such, you are often forced to engage and continually stay close. Dodging provides a brief moment of invulnerability during its animation, and so moving through projectiles is usually the best way to avoid them. Learning an enemy's firing pattern and movement is crucial to victory. The gameplay is frenetic and truly brilliant.
It's Behind You
Sound is extraordinarily important in Returnal. Having an accurate understanding of exactly where you're being shot at from and when an enemy might melee attack you is at times essential to survival. This is where 3D audio proves to be a godsend. Having played using a solid surround sound system and a headset, I can testify that this gives you an important edge. Hearing that projectiles are on their way from behind you whilst you deal with something in front is an incredibly valuable advantage.
Even setting this benefit aside though, Returnal simply sounds extraordinary. The unique screeches from enemies, projectiles, guns, all create an incredible atmosphere and vibrant soundscape. The 3D audio certainly shows off some worthwhile PS5 'power', but so too does the excellent implementation of the adaptive triggers, haptics and lighting fast load times. Holding down the left trigger halfway engages your alternative/secondary fire mode. Therefore allowing you to switch on the fly without tapping another button. The haptics put out subtle vibrations to represent the rain hitting Selene's suit. It's all impressive stuff but perhaps most impressive of all are the load times. A new run can be started nearly immediately, the cutscene that begins on death being immediately skippable too.
On the Run
From the console being off, you can be playing in around 30 seconds. That's extremely helpful when you bear in mind the number of times you'll probably be doing exactly that. Because, therein lies Returnal's biggest problem, the lack of any kind of save system. By that, I don't mean that you can't quickly load a save instead of starting again. That is key to Returnal's experience after all. The issue is that a run might well last three hours and be interrupted by, well, life. If you exit the game, that run is over. Sure, you can leave the game in the PS5's rest mode but that is notoriously unreliable, often causing crashes. In which scenario, your run is lost forever.
Returnal desperately needs some way of pausing a run, without fear of losing it. After finally defeating the first boss (I'm not ashamed to say it took me a few times), I somehow managed to survive the second biome and defeat its boss. Hours had passed and it was time to do something other than play Playstation. I ended up letting myself die for fear that the permanent progression elements would be lost. As it turns out, I believe any such progression (the ability to run straight to boss three, for example) is 'saving' in the background. However, being able to 'save' in that moment would have been invaluable. I had a build I was confident in, that I'd put a ton of time into too. It's definitely the game's biggest problem, but it doesn't ruin it. It's just worth bearing in mind in your purchase consideration.
No Place Like Home
I won't reveal much about the story, but it's told in a non-linear fashion. Throughout the game's biome's you'll find audio files from 'previous deaths'. These will provide insights into the overall narrative and after completing each biome you'll also 'unlock' a new segment taking part in Selene's home. These first-person segments are equally as mysterious as the main story, slowly drip-feeding you new information to Selene's backstory and current situation. It's an enjoyable, intriguing and haunting sci-fi story that I certainly found delivered. Make no mistake, Returnal is about the gameplay more than it is its narrative, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
An Essential Purchase
Returnal is definitely a must-own for PS5 owners, if not necessarily for every PS5 owner. Its difficulty will undoubtedly be a deterrent for many people. However, it is an incredible experience that is entirely worth the effort. Its challenge is overcome easily enough with repeat attempts, focus and patience. Some may give up before they get there. It harnesses the power of the PS5 in several impressive ways and is, thus far, one of the very best games the console has to offer. Sony are definitely taking risks, and these risks are paying off.