Take a deep breath before you leap into Housemarque’s Returnal, because it’ll be a long time before you’ll come back up for air.
From the manic, bullet hell battles to the immersive controller response, everything about Returnal is designed to push your senses to the limit. It is by no means a relaxing experience. This is brutalist video gaming at its most primal.
Returnal is a third-person shooter, roguelike, psychological sci-fi, action adventure. Not only is it difficult to say all that, it’s difficult to comprehend how these game styles combine seamlessly to make Returnal both unique and special. At its core is the action, and there’s a lot of it. Fast paced and all-consuming, it threatens to finish you off if you pause for even a moment. And when you do eventually die – it’s a when, not if, situation – the roguelike gameplay kicks in. It’s punishing, like a swift kick to your tender parts, but hopefully you won’t make the same mistake twice. OK, well maybe you’ll make that mistake twice, but surely not a third time…
“When you die, you’ll be thrust back in time, through flashes of weird Lovecraft-meets-Giger alien visions…”
The story starts with your character Selene, an astronaut scout, who’s responding to a mysterious signal from a mysterious planet when her ship crash lands on the surface. You have a gun and a vague sense of an objective and that’s it. From here, Returnal teases with tiny pieces of the whole story that seep into the gameplay as Selene finds and retrieves data recordings. After that, the frequency of the story updates depends entirely on how well you play. If you survive for long enough, you’re rewarded with new environments to explore and other pieces of the puzzle. When you die, you’ll be thrust back in time, through flashes of weird Lovecraft-meets-Giger alien visions, to your shipwreck, left only with a slightly less vague sense of your objective. Death in Returnal is like a slap in the face with a cold octopus – shocking and oddly unpleasant.
One thing that isn’t unpleasant is the action. Returnal is, first and foremost, an action game. Here you see some of Housemarque’s excellent history at work with the absolute flurry of activity on the screen in every encounter. Enemies are big and beautifully designed, the weapons at your disposal are varied and awesomely powerful and the waves upon waves of bullets coming at you can be almost (but not quite) overwhelming. Single enemy types can be defeated easily once you learn their attack patterns, but once you have two or three attacking at once, then you’ve got something to think about. And that’s before you get to the boss fights, which really knock it up another notch. BAM! Boss fights in Returnal are equal parts difficult to reach and absolutely gorgeous to watch. By the time you reach that far you will either be limping across the line or armed to the teeth. Pray that it’s the latter.
One common theme that runs through Returnal is choice. Do you enter that super-risky dungeon on the merest possibility of cool loot? Do you risk picking up some tainted materials, with an equal chance that it could harm or heal you? Do you attach parasites to your suit that will apply buffs and debuffs in equal measure? Every choice you make impacts how you’re able to face the challenges ahead, and sometimes the risk of not choosing the most dangerous path is that things will only get harder from there.
Returnal is not a casual experience, and some playthroughs can last a long time. A good run might last two hours (if you’re lucky enough to survive that long), so you’ll want to bank in some serious couch time if you want to progress. There are also no save points, so if you die, turn off the machine, or an update applies while the PS5 is in rest mode, then the game resets and you start again. Face-slap, cold octopus. There are no apologies here, and not even the hint that things might get better if you try harder. You just have to find that something in yourself that makes you want to try again.
“From the way it looks, to the way it plays, to the way it sounds, everything about this game is something special.”
The new DualSense controller really shines in Returnal. The dual-purpose left trigger, which utilises half and full positions to operate different firing mechanisms, is a really neat addition. However, haptic feedback is the real superstar here. Some of the environmental elements come through in interesting ways. Raindrops show up in random spaces on the controller, and gusts of wind flow across it. You can even feel the distance of mid-level bosses crunching the ground near you.
The game does recommend that you play with headphones, as the 3D sound is designed to enhance your experience. If you’re lucky enough to have a set of the Pulse 3D headphones, these work perfectly for this title – especially during the big battles where you’re surrounded by a dozen different enemies, you can hear the direction that trouble is coming from, in a way that TV speakers or a soundbar won’t capture. In some cases, including some of the boss fights, this can make all the difference. If you’re playing without the aid of headphones, the inbuilt controller speakers do a perfectly fine job to help fill out the sound from your screen.
Returnal is stunning. Running at a buttery smooth 60fps no matter how much chaos is thrown at your screen. From the way it looks, to the way it plays, to the way it sounds, everything about this game is something special. You need to persevere through every tough choice, every cold and oddly fishy death, to uncover the mysterious story that lurks beneath the surface.
In a jam-packed action game that teeters on the fine line between masterpiece and madness, Housemarque has captured the essence of what we want from a true new-gen title, something new. Not only does Returnal look great, and provide a real challenge, it does so by showing off exactly what the new-gen platforms and peripherals are capable of. If this is what the future looks like, count us in!
Returnal is available now exclusively on PS5.