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Review: Returnal

How does the PlayStation 5's first true exclusive stack up?

8 mins read

AS one of the first true PlayStation 5 exclusive games, Returnal carries a responsibility of showing off just what the next-gen system can do.

The game, released on April 30 this year, is a ‘rougue-lite’ third-person shooter which borrows heavily from developer Housemarque’s pedigree in the ‘bullet hell’ genre, and marks a change for the developer from smaller, downloadable titles like Nex Machina and Resogun to a full-blown AAA title with a price tag to match.

At first, the game may not appear to be anything special in terms of graphical prowess, but it doesn’t take long at all before it quite literally blows you away in a tsunami of neon projectiles, plasma beams and particle effects.

There are some jagged, muddy textures here and there which make it evident that Returnal is upscaling to 4K from a lower base resolution, but this isn’t the type of game where you want to be stationary for long, and with a very stable framerate of 60 FPS, with only the odd drop in performance, it looks absolutely fantastic in motion. Screenshots don’t do it justice.

The start of one of the game’s boss sequences. Yes, you will die. A lot. Image credit: Housemarque / Sony

There are six biomes in Atropos, the planet which you explore, with locations ranging from snow-covered wastes to underwater expanses. Some look prettier than others, but each one is wonderfully atmospheric with its own selection of beautifully designed and vicious enemies to take on as you progress through the game.

For the most part, each enemy is wonderfully animated, from lizard-like creatures covered in tentacles to corrupted machines intent on ending your current run in a storm of rockets and lasers.

Housemarque have used the PS5’s ray-tracing hardware to accelerate the game’s lighting system which results in a more subtle use of the technology compared with true ray-traced reflections, but the lighting remains dynamic and really is something to behold, particularly when individual particles from something which has just been blown to smithereens are individually lit.

As a rogue-like, each time you are defeated you reawaken at the beginning of the game with a very limited number of resources carried from one run to the next. Because of this, you are encouraged to spend Obolites, the most frequently found in-game currency, as often as possible as you build a loadout of different boons and buffs which may just be the difference between staying a live long enough to get through the next area and obtaining a permanent equipment upgrade or meeting your early demise.

The much rarer currency, Ether, can be used to give the player a one-time checkpoint, or to ‘cleanse malignancy’ on chests and items found throughout. Malignant items are those which have been infected with a mysterious power and carry a chance of inflicting a debuff on the player each time they are interacted with.

This means that many choices the player faces are a gamble. Do you open a chest hoping for a better weapon, or pick up that health item, only to find that your ‘overload’, a system which rewards players for careful timing with a quicker reload, has been disabled?

Parasites which can be found and attached to Selene, the game’s protagonist, are also a gamble. They can provide very strong bonuses, but will also introduce detrimental effects. Parasites are also very difficult to remove, requiring a machine that only appears a handful of times throughout the entire game to do so.

Parasites are always a gamble. Image credit: Housemarque / Sony

The game also features some light, asynchronous multiplayer features along with challenge runs used to compete with other players on a leaderboard. You can also often find what appears to be your own, or Selene’s, body which represents another player, along with a recording of their run’s final moments. This doesn’t help the player in any particular way, but there is an option to face the same foe that caused another player’s untimely for some bonus loot.

Although these factors do create a very challenging gameplay experience, Returnal’s frantic nature as you jump, dash, weave and blast your way through the procedurally generated levels, with increasingly satisfying weapons and abilities keep it from ever getting boring.

The PS5’s SSD is also put to good use, with the most impressive fast-travel system in a game to date implemented with visual flair and absolutely no loading screens whatsoever.

Pacing is broken up with first-person narrative driven sequences which gradually uncover the mystery surrounding Selene’s circumstances, and why things may be far from how they first appeared when you awaken for the first time after crash landing on a deadly planet with no outside contact.

The Lovecraftian story maintains it’s enigmatic nature even after the end credits roll, with a secret ‘true’ ending available to dedicated players, but as with many rogue-like games, much of the story is presented through in-game flavour text of which more and more is revealed by achieving gameplay milestones.

Returnal’s areas are often dark, mysterious and dreamlike. Image credit: Housemarque / Sony

Returnal makes the best use of the DualSense’s features so far too, with the adaptive triggers used to differentiate between aiming and activating your secondary fire, effectively turning the trigger into two separate buttons in a way which is never confusing to the player and doesn’t feel gimmicky.

The haptic feedback and controller speaker are used subtly, as they should be, with the speaker in particular often going unnoticed as it blends into the rest of the audio producing a soft surround sound-esque effect. Saying this, I would still highly recommend using a pair of headphones with 3D audio enabled, as directional audio cues can often be the difference between success and sleeping with the fishes.

Returnal is a fantastic game that shows off all of the most exciting new features on PS5 and is a must-play in for those lucky owners of the next-gen console.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Featured image credit: Housemarque / Sony

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