Ever since Returnal was revealed during Sony’s first PlayStation 5 stream event last June, there has been a lot of mystery and intrigue behind Housemarque’s next major release. While the Helsinki-based development studio has done a great job of divulging more details via their Housecast episodes, the truth of the matter is that there’s still so much more to learn about this game by playing it firsthand.
Having already spent well over 24 hours with Returnal, I can personally say that it’s one hell of an experience that will kick your ass and keep you coming back for more. Before I dive deeper into my impressions, there is one key point that I want to clarify about what this game is and isn’t.
A Superior Roguelike
Returnal could be best described as a third-person shooter roguelike psychological horror video game. Roguelikes are usually identified as role-playing games with procedurally generated levels, and strenuous enemy encounters where frequent death is always guaranteed. Due to this game being a PS5 exclusive with a strong marketing campaign behind it, I feel that there will be some that may overlook the importance of the roguelike aspect and think this is strictly a cool new third-person shooter experience.
There are plenty of gameplay videos online right now that perfectly illustrate how roguelike elements play a role in Returnal. It bears repeating though that death is a part of the journey and you can expect to revisit this cycle over and over again, learning from your mistakes until you have hopefully overcome your adversaries. In a way, playing last year Demon’s Souls served as a perfect appetizer for Returnal and if you appreciate a good challenge then this will certainly keep you satisfied.
Survival of the Fittest
Returnal revolves around players stepping into the shoes of Selene, an Astra scout space pilot with a secret past. Shortly after crash landing on a hostile alien planet named Atropos, she begins exploring the planet to investigate a nearby signal source. While exploring the unknown regions of her surroundings, various types of aliens kill Selene and she quickly finds herself in an endless time loop of chaos and despair.
Every new loop starts off with a quick video recapping the crash and a harsh reminder that you have lost all of your previously acquired items with the exception of your standard-issue sidearm and the Atropian blade if you discovered/unlocked these weapons already. It’s also worth noting that as you explore new rooms and sections throughout Atropos, Selene may start off in those same areas after exiting the crash site. All of this is randomly generated along with the creatures that appear within these areas.
Addictive Gameplay Loop
Despite this being a game where you essentially have to start over from scratch after getting killed, I’m very much enjoying the journey so far. This is no doubt thanks to the polished gameplay, crisp visuals, smooth controls, and strategic way in which the game forces you to think about things like combat, preserving the integrity of your suit/health, and acquiring leeching parasites that may harm or hurt you down the road. Exploring each of the biomes is also equally exciting as you uncover secrets about both alien civilizations on Atropos and Selene’s dark past. At the time of this writing, I’m currently at the very beginning of the 3rd biome and there are a total of 6 to run through.
Every single time that you die, you are supposed to rethink how you approach combat and this is especially true for bosses. The action remains constantly fast-paced which means that you have to be ready to dash, jump, shoot, and outmaneuver enemies at any given time as they continue to fire projectiles at you. This is where the bullet hell formula comes into play that we have seen in previous Housemarque games. If you take a moment to consider just how far this studio has come in the last 25 years, then you’ll quickly realize how impressive a feat Returnal is and may agree that it’s their most ambitious title yet.
An Outstanding DualSense and Pulse 3D Headset Showcase
Much like Astro’s Playroom, Returnal is a perfect example of what can be achieved when developers fully utilize all that the DualSense and Pulse 3D wireless headset has to offer. The haptic feedback and adaptive triggers will leave you feeling every pulse-pounding sensation as Selene traverses through Atropos and engages in wild shootouts with every alien. The 3D wireless headsets add an extra layer to this experience by allowing you to hear where creatures may be hiding as you approach different areas. Simply writing and telling you how much care and attention to detail was put into implementing these peripherals wouldn’t do it justice. This is something you have to feel and hear for yourself to truly get the full effect.
Rounding out the PS5 features, Returnal loads incredibly fast thanks to the ultra-high-speed SSD. In many ways, it’s a solid reminder of how fast the loading times were for Spider-Man: Miles Morales. In a game where you’ll die multiple times, this is a very much appreciated bonus as it gets you back into the swing of things right away.
My Verdict So Far
Simply put, Returnal has been a fun ride so far. Given that it leans heavily into the roguelike genre, I certainly can understand if there are some who might not want to check it out. With all that said, if you do like challenging games or at least have some intrigue about this game, then I would highly recommend that you try it out. Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on Returnal once I’ve completed the game.
This preview was written based on a digital review copy of Returnal for the PlayStation 5 provided by Housemarque and Sony Interactive Entertainment.