When the PS5 released late last year, it arrived with a couple of cross-gen releases, a very pretty remake of a 10-year-old game, and an adorable platformer tucked away in the system's memory. But once the dust settled and the newness of the console started to fade, many wondered when the first real next-gen game would arrive for the system — the flagship title that would showcase what the PS5 is capable of. Not just from a technical standpoint, but in its gameplay, sound, story — the whole package.
Almost five months into the new year, it's looking like we have to turn to Returnal for answers. This roguelike is the first major PS5 release of the year so there is a lot riding on its shoulders. Not only was it bound to set the standard for next-gen releases, but it had a lot to prove as a new IP amidst news of Sony's focus on blockbusters and reluctance to greenlight new projects.
When I first started up Returnal, I thought I knew what to expect. Developer Housemarque's back catalog consists mostly of fast-paced, arcade-style shooters set in futuristic space backdrops, and Returnal seemed to fit that bill nicely. But after the opening hours, it became clear that Returnal was anything but ordinary, and when I hit the first twist in the game's ominous and mysterious narrative, I was exalted.
Returnal is something special. It's a game that feels epic and cinematic, mysterious and larger than itself while also feeling like a gamer's game. It's a twitchy roguelike shooter finetuned to perfection. Its inspirations are clear but it breaks away from them to form something brilliant. Plus, it's really fun, too.
Bottom line: Returnal is a tour de force for Housemarque and Sony, and is one of the best games I've played this year with gorgeous visuals, a surprising story, and great roguelike gameplay.
- Beautiful visuals and excellent performance
- Fast-paced, exhilarating gameplay
- Amazing sound design
- Fantastic use of the Dualsense controller
- A wonderfully dark and disturbing plot
- Incredibly replayable
- Some may find Returnal too difficult or too abstract to enjoy
Returnal: What is it about?
Returnal doesn't waste time with long-winded cutscenes or heavy bits of dialogue. It opens with deep-space ASTRA scout Selene Vassos crashing onto an alien planet called Atropos in pursuit of a signal called the White Shadow. With nothing else but a pistol and your spacesuit, you leave your crashed spaceship and quickly come across a familiar form: a body in a spacesuit, long dead. After taking a closer look, you realize it is you. You've been here before, and you've died a hundred times over.
|Genre||Third-person shooter/ Roguelike|
|PlayStation Version||PlayStation 5|
|Game Size||56.15 GB|
|Play Time||20-25 hours to complete, depending on skill|
You won't stop dying, either since Housemarque's experience with fast-paced shooters is on full display with Returnal. As you explore the game's six biomes, you'll find a variety of alien lifeforms who are determined to light up every inch of your TV screen like a Christmas Tree, forcing you to rely on both your muscle memory and your reflexes if you plan on surviving longer than five minutes. Returnal is brutal in that regard, but it never feels unfair. Every death was my own, as well as every triumph thanks in part to the super-tight controls that made traversing Atropos a breeze.
In shifting the perspective to behind the player rather than a 2D perspective or one that's top-down, I felt more connected to the character and to the action, and the bullet hell that awaited me was just that much more intense when I was facing it down head-on.
Returnal gameplay: There is nothing permanent except change
Returnal is like other good roguelikes — think Dead Cells or Hades — but it surprisingly also feels like a spiritual successor to Super Metroid. Weapon placement and item drops are always random, but occasionally you'll find a piece of permanent equipment that'll open up new paths that can fast track your progress and uncover new secrets in other biomes, just like in a traditional Metroidvania.
There's a clear emphasis on risk and reward throughout the game.
This also helps keep the momentum up with constant playthroughs. One of my problems with roguelikes is not being able to learn enemy patterns in later levels because of how difficult it was once you were there. In Returnal, with the right piece of gear, you can almost immediately head back to the biome you died at. You also don't have to beat the boss of the biome again after defeating it the first time. These slight tweaks were enough to numb the pain of constant death in a game with no checkpoints and made replays less of a chore.
There's a clear emphasis placed on risk and reward throughout the game. Parasites can be bound to your suit and offer bonuses as well as crippling suit malfunctions; you sometimes find spoiled and malignant health drops that may prove more harmful than good; more kills fuel your adrenaline, which gives your temporary skill boosts so long as you don't take damage; and occasionally you'll even find the bodies of other players, which you can choose to avenge for powerful weapons. You're constantly rolling the dice in Returnal, but not everything is so set in stone. Weapons, for example, improve as you use them, and eventually, you'll come across more powerful versions, packed to the gills with useful skills. As your weapon proficiency improves, so does the quality of the weapons you find.
Returnal's world is constantly shifting, like a puzzle being rearranged with every new cycle. Every playthrough is procedurally generated, and each section of every biome is immaculately designed, full of secrets that are both obvious and hidden, and set the stage for every enemy encounter. When the rooms locked down, I felt the claustrophobic tension building, like a hand around my neck, and both the relief of a victory or a frustrating defeat were equally palpable.
Returnal's world is constantly shifting, like a puzzle being rearranged with every new cycle.
That can be attributed to the world that Returnal takes place. The planet of Atropos is home to an ancient alien civilization, one that bears a resemblance to our world with technology light years ahead. From the overgrown forest, red deserts, frozen wastelands, and even underwater biomes, every area felt unique and striking in its own way.
I almost wished that Returnal was a different type of game if only to allow me to stay in the ruins of this long-dead world for longer. The game is unrelenting, which made the moments of solace feel like real breaths of air before being pulled back under the surface.
Returnal story: Silence is better than unmeaning words
Returnal is heavy on the action, but its quiet moments remind you that it's very much a psychological horror game. Selene's fate is a horrific one, and it's made hauntingly clear as you uncover your own dead bodies staring down at you from a cliff, floating stiff in the waters, or slumped against a wall. The ancient civilization she wanders through becomes more than scene dressing and the logs you find, left behind by other versions of yourself, chart Selene's inevitable descent into madness.
But the story itself is told in brief flashes and almost never in a traditional way. Occasionally, you'll also come across your old home, which shifts the perspective to first-person and allows you to wander Selene's memories, unpacking her deep-rooted trauma that leads the story to some very surprising and sometimes disturbing places. These segments feel like they ripped straight out of P.T./ Silent Hills (RIP) and you'll want to experience them all to grasp the full story.
But the story itself is told in brief flashes and almost never told in a traditional way.
Even at the end, I felt my head spinning at the game's climax. Selene's tragedy is rooted in Greek mythology and might require extra homework for those who aren't familiar. There's not one Greek myth you can point to that fully encompasses Returnal's plot, and there are references to many prominent gods and Titans scattered throughout. Whatever your interpretation, I found Selene's suffering biblical in nature, the world around her diverse and unique, and her ever-changing cycle of torment profound.
Returnal PS5 features: From the zenith to the horizon
Being the first major PS5 exclusive since Demon's Souls at launch, it's fair to look for Returnal to make use of the console's features. And it does, in both performance and visuals, while making the best use of the DualSense controller since Astro's Playroom.
Both big and small movements, from reloading to the sound of rain are both heard and felt through the controller.
Both big and small movements, from gunfire to the sound of rain, are heard and felt through the controller. The haptic feedback triggers are also put to excellent use. Holding the L2 button aims but clicking it all the way down activates your weapon's secondary function. Shooting and reloading are relegated to the R2 button, and while there's no resistance on that end, catching a reload at the right time and feeling the subtle snap of your gun never gets old.
The sound design is also incredible and adds so much to the atmosphere of the world. You're going to want to grab a good set of speakers or the PlayStation Pulse 3D wireless headset to experience the 3D audio in all its glory. All of these features combined make for an immersive experience that can only happen on the PS5.
The game also runs at a consistent 60 FPS at 4K with ray tracing that specifically adapts to the shifting landscape of Atropos. The intense particle effects are beautifully rendered, and every effect, from the weather to the gunk caked on Selene's spacesuit, is marvelous and detailed. The loading times are also lightning fast, making use of the PS5's beefy SSD. It's a spectacle in a lot of ways, and it's exactly the kind of showcase that the PS5 needs right now.
Returnal: The anguish was horribly wonderful
Returnal has a lot going against it. It's a new IP anchored by a $70 price tag, it's a psychological horror roguelike that will definitely be too difficult for some (though I've definitely experienced harder games), and its storytelling is hardly traditional. However, if you take a chance on Returnal you'll find an incredible game, and one of the best in its genre.
Returnal is like if Hades, Alien, Metroid, and Ovid's The Metamorphosis were thrown into a blender with a healthy dose of Ikaruga mixed in. It's avant-garde while feeling very much like an arcade game, and it's as awe-inspiring and epic as it is frightening. Sony, as well as Housemarque, have produced one of the best games I've played this year and is easily one of the best games on the PS5.
Returnal is a roguelike. Returnal is about trauma. Returnal is a Metroidvania. Returnal is about retribution. Every time I awakened from my death at the base of my destroyed ship, I only wanted to try again. Like Selene, I was obsessed with the mystery of the White Shadow, and it drove me deeper into the heart of Atropos, and beyond the point of no return. Whether it's divine punishment or redemption, Returnal is greater than the sum of its parts and is a must-play for every PS5 owner.
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