I was eager as ever to boot up Returnal, given it’s been a long time between releases for PS5 first-party exclusives, and it hasn’t disappointed me. We’ve seen countless trailers and a couple of PlayStation Blog posts, but outside of that, I felt like I was going in without any huge expectations for the game, but so far, I’m really impressed and super eager to dig my heels in further.
Straight off the bat, this game is far more visual than any Housemarque game that has come before it. Everything from the opening cinematic, to the main character Selene’s death sequence, is far beyond anything that we’ve seen in Housmarque’s other games like Super Stardust and Alienation. The first thing that I noticed watching the opening cutscene is that this is probably the first game since Astro’s Playroom to make really good use of the haptics in the DualSense controller. Everything from the space ship crashing, to the rain falling can be felt in your hands, which adds to the immersion.
In case you’re not familiar with roguelikes, it’s a similar structure to games like Dead Cells and Hades. Returnal follows the same core principle, which is essentially trying to get as far as possible without dying, with each run acting as a means to improve your arsenal and learn the core gameplay loop. Returnal changes things up from other roguelikes – introducing frantic first-person gunplay that is all about timing with your jump and dash, making use of abilities, and an active reload system that feels straight out of Gears of War. Whilst the gameplay feels just as addictive as other roguelikes, Returnal feels like it takes the concept to the next level with AAA graphics and a cinematic story.
The enemies in Returnal are the star of the show. In the first few hours alone, there are over a dozen different alien-like enemies to take down, ranging from those that take just a few shots to down, to others that will really test you early on. In Housemarque fashion, there are loads of moving bits on each enemy and particle effects for days.
There are so many systems at play in the first few hours that it does feel overwhelming as you find your feet. My favourite so far has been the Adrenaline level, which is basically an ability streak that improves with every three enemy kills (up until five levels). With each level, you’re given an extra ability like having extra time to do the perfect reload, or better vision, and you’re also given an extra bullet to your gun for each weapon. Taking a single hit will take this back to the start, which makes avoiding enemy fire even more crucial.
Another thing that Returnal does really well in a number of ways is the constant risk and reward of opening chests or other new items. Items and chests have differing levels of causing your suit to malfunction, meaning that picking up an item might give you a positive effect, but it might cause you to lose health, a longer cool-down for your alt-fire, or many other things.
The game also does a really great job in choosing which abilities and weapons to take away from you when you die (a roguelike staple) and which of those to leave with you, such as permanent abilities that allow you to travel between portals, or the melee weapon you find, or keys to the main biomes in the game. The punishment for dying never feels too great to the point that it’s frustrating, but it’s more about losing a loadout that you’re happy with, which you know is only temporary.
There’s two types of currency in the game that can be used for various upgrades. You’ve got Obolites which you’ll get from killing enemies and around each map, and these are used at upgrade stations to replenish health or get consumables, whilst Ether will last with you even when you die and is easier to come by.
The combat feels super satisfying. Whilst you will start each cycle with your sidearm, and a random alt-fire that ranges anywhere from a burst of bullets to an electric storm, you’ll quickly get better guns from chests and beating larger enemies. This is all reliant on your proficiency level, which you’ll build up through each run-through depending on how many enemies that you defeat. The game also has the best use of the adaptive triggers in the PlayStation 5 thus far. A half-press on L2 will set your sights, whilst a full press will engage your alt-fire. It does take a little bit of getting used to, but it feels great once you do and surprisingly intuitive.
The online portion of the game is super intriguing. You’ll come by other players that have died in certain scenarios and then choose to avenge them by taking on that very same scenario to get a bunch of Ether. I had a great time where the fallen character turned into an extremely vicious enemy and I had to quickly take it down for a hefty reward.
There’s also a daily challenge that you can access from your ship, which will put you in a certain simulation with a certain gun, with positive and negatives effects automatically applied to your character.
With the amount going on on the screen at any given time, this definitely feels like a game that wouldn’t have been possible on the PlayStation 4. It’s running at a buttery smooth 4K/60FPS, and I didn’t experience any slowdown despite 6-7 enemies on screen at once. Load times are also super quick between dying and transitioning between areas.
I’m intrigued to see where the story goes, and really hope that it might deliver. There’s a lot of lore in the way of audio logs that you pick up from Selene on previous run-throughs, and alien glyphs all over the place, so I’m hoping for something fleshed out, but it’s just too early to tell.
All in all, after a few hours with Returnal, I can’t stop thinking about it. The story has me intrigued, the game is absolutely gorgeous and I’m really addicted to the combat. The game has done really well in capturing what has made roguelikes great over the last few years and taking it to the next level. Whether it’ll hold up for the long-haul is yet to be seen, but so far, so good.