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Returnal Review

Verdict

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Trusted Reviews Recommended

If you have a PS5 then you need Returnal. The game will absolutely trounce you with everything it’s got, but once the mechanics start to resonate and the overarching narrative gradually falls into place then it becomes near-impossible to put down. Returnal sets a new standard in the roguelike genre.

Pros

  • Addictive, fast-paced gameplay
  • Makes great use of the DualSense controller
  • Intertwining narrative elevates the roguelike genre
  • Challenging, but never unfair

Cons

  • A few technical issues

Availability

  • UKRRP: £69.99
  • USARRP: $69
  • EuropeRRP: €
  • CanadaRRP: CA$
  • AustraliaRRP: AU$

Key Features

  • Genre:Roguelike, Bullet hell
  • Platform:PS5

Not counting remakes or games included on the console, Returnal is the first major triple-A exclusive for PS5, and an absolute triumph from developer Housemarque.

It wasn’t until Returnal’s second boss that everything clicked. Dodging a sea of bullets and jumping over countless waves of harmful energy, I somehow managed to take the entity down on my first try. I leapt into the air with a roar, fist bumping the sky – Returnal had me hooked from that point onwards and I had genuine difficulty putting it down again. It wasn’t always like this however.

Returnal has no respect for your time. Every time you die, the player is sent straight back to the remains of their ship, Helios, forced to begin their journey anew. You’ll lose your weapons, power-ups and more (essentially anything that isn’t a permanent upgrade is gone forever). To shake things up even further, the layout of this mysterious planet will change with each new try, so you won’t be able to rest on any pre-existing knowledge of the map. Be prepared to think on your feet because you’re going to die, a lot.

Returnal
  • Fast paced bullet hell gameplay with roguelike mechanics
  • Death will send you straight back to the beginning

Opening up with the vast expanse of space, we are introduced to our heroine, Astra Scout Selene, who after spotting a unique signal coming from a nearby planet called Atropos, pilots her ship in the signal’s direction. It isn’t long until something malfunctions and Selene’s journey is brought to a screeching halt as her ship crash lands in a dense, forest-like plain.

As Selene walks through the dark, rain-soaked environment, there’s a huge sense of foreboding that some terrifying alien creature could jump out at any moment. What Selene actually finds is the corpse of another Scout. Upon further inspection, the recently deceased is actually her, and after picking up a nearby pistol, alien creatures start to come out of the woodwork. Just like me, you’ll fight for a bit before being overwhelmed by an unbelievably powerful monster, but it’s in death that Returnal truly begins.

The creatures that inhabit Atropos are brutally fierce and, getting right up in your face unless you get out of the way. While the game’s been described as a ‘roguelike’ ahead of its release, make no mistake that this is actually a bullet hell game in disguise. There are speedy projectiles, energy waves, homing missiles and more that will all be flying in your direction at the same time, and it’s up to the player to be constantly on the move. Staying still is a death sentence.

Returnal

Given Housemarque’s track record of making titles like Super Startdust HD and Resogun, it’s not the biggest surprise that the company has made use of its experience in this genre, but what separates Returnal from those earlier games is its use of story to drive the action forward. There are two facets to Returnal’s narrative: the personal history of Selene herself and the history of the Xeno race that once inhabited the planet Selene now finds herself on.

  • Two concurrent plotlines overlap and drive the game forward
  • Some segments shift into the first-person to amp up the tension

All aspects of the story are delivered in breadcrumb format, dropping small details here and there that lead up to a bigger picture for the player to put together. There are elements of horror running through both storylines, as Atropos’ history speaks of a race of highly developed beings driven to madness through separation, while Selene finds herself stalked by a mysterious figure in a space suit.

In a great twist – and as a means of amplifying the dread – small segments of the game shift into the first-person. Its best use is when Selene stumbles across an old house in the middle of this alien world, one that obviously shouldn’t be there. But as you explore the house at a slower pace, the secrets of Selene’s past and who this stalker might be reveal themselves. Because of their brief nature, these story-led moments never feel at odds with the rest of the game, instead offering some much-needed respite.

Returnal

Plus, the game’s story is arguably what will keep players coming back to Returnal, as it’s impossible to unearth all of its secrets in a single playthrough. Heck, after a while you can largely avoid these segments if you’d rather get to the next boss as quickly as possible. This style of thinking also leads into the gameplay itself, with Returnal operating on a risk-reward system.

For example, you could choose to stay away from the main path in search of items and better weapons, but in doing so you always run the risk of being killed in that endeavour and being sent straight back to Helios. Occasionally you’ll come across a hologram of another player, giving you a glimpse into how they perished – you can decide to avenge them by taking on the beast that got them and potentially sniff out a reward, but the monster that spawns in is very rarely a pushover.

The contrast is a tad more literal when faced with parasites – small creatures that will give the player a buff and a debuff at the exact same time. This could include having a larger health bar, while also taking damage whenever you pick up an item. It’s up to you to decide whether the benefit is worth the trade-off.

Returnal

You also have the ability to hold consumables – power ups that can offer much needed assistance in a pinch – but again, you have to decide if one consumable might be more handy than another. Personally, whenever I come across a storable health pack, I give that full priority ahead of everything else, but another player may be more inclined to stock up on the ability to disable nearby turrets.

While I’m sure some gamers will be happy to dive into the challenge, there are no doubt others who are already sweating over the mere mention of these mechanics. Let me assure you, as someone who had never played a roguelike before reviewing this game, the difficulty is not insurmountable.

Whenever I did perish, I always knew exactly what had happened and how I could have avoided the outcome – no death felt cheap. While it’s true that the enemies you face will always be fierce, the game makes you feel powerful. Even from the get-go, Selene feels a lot like the Doom Slayer in that, with the right timing and arsenal, you can run rings around waves of enemies without breaking a sweat.

Once you get past a certain point in the game, death doesn’t exactly mean going back to square one either as you acquire certain mainstay power ups such as a melee weapon and a grapple hook that allow you to reach areas more quickly and get back to where you left off.

Outside of the gameplay, it’s clear that Housemarque has spent a great deal of time not only in designing this estranged world, but also in making Returnal a true next-gen title. You can feel the patter of rain in the DualSense controller, and enacting varying levels of force on the triggers will activate different aspects of your weapon. That’s without mentioning the gorgeous art style that really brings this world to life and the detailed emotions on Selene’s face as she reacts to the horrors around her. If ever there was a title to show what the PS5 is capable of, this is it.

The only negative points I have to make about Returnal relate to a few technical issues. Throughout my playthrough I encountered a few graphical hiccups and at one point the screen went completely black, forcing me to restart my PS5 (and my run). 

Returnal

It’s worth pointing out that if you want to take a break, you’ll have to put your PS5 into rest mode in order to pick up from where you left off as there’s no save mechanic. You can imagine my frustration then when a system update closed the game and effectively erased a run that I invested well over an hour in.

Aside from some minor technical issues, Returnal is outstanding. Making full use of the PS5’s hardware, the game pulls you into this addictive cycle of fast-paced action that keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Walking the balance of being a challenging game without ever being unfair, Returnal always makes you feel powerful, but it’s the constant dread that you could lose it all in a moment’s notice that keeps the adrenaline going.

It’s a substantial game, and one that will no doubt have additional longevity on the speed running scene. Plus, the inclusion of daily challenges will allow you show off the skills that you’ve been practising on a global scale. Returnal is not only one of the best PS5 games you can buy, it’s also one of the best new IPs Sony has had in years.

Should you buy Returnal?

You appreciate a good challenge

You don’t want any type of challenge

Verdict

If you have a PS5 then you need Returnal. The game will absolutely trounce you with everything it’s got, but once the mechanics start to resonate and the overarching narrative gradually falls into place then it becomes near-impossible to put down. Returnal sets a new standard in the roguelike genre.

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Returnal FAQs

Is Returnal coming to Xbox Series X/S?

At the moment, there are no plans to bring Returnal to consoles other than the PS5.

Does Returnal have online play?

While Returnal doesn’t have PvP, the game does have daily challenges where you can compete against a global leaderboard.

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