We can level criticism at the major console manufacturers that this generation has been slow with system specific releases all we want, but when one of them finally releases something new that leverages the performance upgrades, we’ve got to give it a go… even if that means venturing into a genre that maybe we’re not overly comfortable with. Returnal is unashamedly hardcore in its premise and is upfront about it, and that’s likely to put more casual players off. Housemarque have a hill to climb in convincing people that they should take the plunge and experience what their bullet hell-RPG-Roguelike-horror-adventure has to offer. This may be a case of descriptions being deceiving though, and that hidden away in a tale of a lone survivor stranded somewhere beyond our known region of space with the odds stacked against them, is a compelling action game that will appeal to a wider audience than first thought.
Picking up a strange signal that mentions the phrase “White Shadow” whilst on a mission beyond our galaxy, ASTRA Corporation explorer Selene Vassos disobeys orders, ignores safety warnings and heads to the planet Artopos to find the source and solve the mystery. It doesn’t start well and her ship, the Helios crash, lands on the surface, leaving her without communication, equipment or the ability to leave. With no option but to get to the transmission and call for rescue, she sets out across the strange landscape expecting to find it and a way to escape. It’s not long before she realises things are a bit off on Atropos when she stumbles across a dead ASTRA explorer that looks like her, and soon after that winds up dead herself. It’s not the end though, it never is in Returnal, and Selene wakes up back at the crash site with the memories of what’s just happened. However, not everything is the same. The environment has shifted, locations have moved, creatures and items scattered around are different… what in the world is going on? Her only option is to keep going, keep trying, and hopefully she’ll make it through to the end in one piece.
Returnal fundamentally wants you to complete the game in one sitting, working from the crash site, through all the biomes, levelling Selene up and utilising weapons and items to defeat everything in your way. Its use of the changing world leans into the fundamental Roguelike nature – each death and return to the crash site resets everything you’d built up, removes all items collected, and randomises the room layout and their contents meaning that no two attempts will ever be the same. Over time you’ll start to recognise the base structure of the areas, and maybe even what type of enemies are going to spawn there, though that’s no indication that you’ll make it through. Bullet-hell is probably an over exaggeration of what Selene experiences in the exploration areas as it’s not constantly raining coloured particles on her head… maybe it’s more like a bullet-purgatory with the actual hell to follow. This doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park through, far from it. Every enemy is doggedly trying to kill you, multiple foes will swarm and strike at once, and with multiple types of attack for each foe there’s always the potential to get cut down quickly. You need to be quick, agile and able to look and think in all three dimensions at once to stand a chance of surviving. As much as you’ll initially think this game hates you, understanding the mechanics that underpin it will mean that even in death you’re making progress.
Up first is the weapon system and that works on a recharge principle rather than finding ammo. Burn your way through the bullet counter, or stop firing, and it’ll start to fill it back up. With this taking a few seconds it’s not ideal in frantic combat so there’s an overload option. Pull the trigger in the right window during the recharge and Selene with have a full clip to work with again. Supplementing the standard ammo is the alt-fire which gives you a powerful shot to unleash, though that’s regulated by a cooldown timer. Getting the overload timing right and managing the alt-fire frequency is crucial in taking out the variety of creatures on screen. Additional firearms can be found throughout the various biomes you’ll explore, and their power and potential is linked to your proficiency with them. Basically, the more you kill, the higher your proficiency, and the more powerful the weapons you’ll find. Each one collected has secondary traits for the ammo and the way they work, and these are unlocked through use as well. For example, serrated ammo will deal additional bleeding-type damage, or rising tempo will see the fire rate increase the longer the trigger is held (a personal favourite). All are particular to the different gun types, and all are randomised alongside the alt-fire on each pickup. Even Selene’s base pistol is different at the beginning of each cycle.
Intrinsically linked to the shooting is the adrenaline system, where different buffs are bestowed when increments of three enemies are killed. Avoid getting hit and these will stay active, but a slight knock or full on devastating blast will reset it. It’s worth trying for a full meter as the boosts to triggering overload, gaining proficiency and seeing where enemies are through objects will ultimately give you an edge. Getting hit will result in the suit’s integrity being reduced and that in itself changes the difficulty of Returnal. Finding integrity top ups in the world is fairly easy and can be used to replenish that loss. Have a full meter though and the pick up becomes a resin that can be stacked to convert to more integrity – effectively increasing Selene’s overall health. Keeping out of harms way enables you to be more perceptive, build weapon affinity faster, kill foes quicker, and develop more resilience for the harder enemies. To do this you’ll need to be constantly on the move, dashing through projectiles, running out of range, or jumping over incoming hazards. There are a range of moves to make yourself a harder target and it can’t be understated how important they are to success.
Not to be too harsh on players, Returnal does include ways of boosting stats in the form of both artefacts and parasites. The former are objects that always have positive benefits and stay in the inventory for the duration of the current run; the latter are living creatures that attach to Selene’s suit and offer a great benefit and a significant disadvantage at the same time. This might be an increased chance of enemies dropping loot tied to you starting to take fall damage; or obolites (the “currency” of the game) stay around longer yet you’ll get injured when picking up items. Whether you pick them up or not is optional and creates a risk vs. reward way of playing the game. You can take the positive elements as long as you remember to not fall foul of the negative. This is even more prevalent in the malignancy system where items and chests can be infected with a chance to cause a suit malfunction. Do you really want to pick up that health or collect that cash when there’s a chance it’ll invoke a negative status effect with very specific requirements to clear it? Occasionally it’ll work in your favour, more often it won’t, so you really need to be aware of what you could end up living with, and whether there’s a pick up nearby that might help you out. Get three infections at once and there’ll be a suit malfunction which can range from destroying inventory items to stripping back suit integrity.
Each room entered is mapped and as Selene makes more progress through each biome, shortcuts and teleports do become available that will help speed up traversal, though the option to fully explore is there from the start of each cycle. The objective markers will always point towards tackling a level boss, and this is where purgatory does become hell. Defeating a boss is about timing, memory and not just a little bit of luck. They’re big, bad and capable of inflicting huge damage, and of course have massive amounts of health to whittle down. The best of us will be able to go in unprepared and make short work of them with the base pistol. For the more human amongst us preparation is key and having a few gadgets on hand and decent weapon will be essential to surviving. Every boss in Returnal has three phases to make it through and it will only get more frantic the longer it goes on. Take them down though and the sense of achievement can’t be denied, as well as something being added to your inventory that lets you go deeper into Atropos. Even if you get beaten you’ll know why it happened and it will genuinely be your fault… except maybe with the 3rd boss, there are some bits there that will have you going WTF?! The good news is that once they’re down and out you don’t have to do it again, unless you’re a masochist.
Figuring out your personal strategy is one of the big puzzles in Returnal, and the random nature of item, artefact and parasite drops means that you’ll start to look at each run as either experience gathering or a genuine attempt at battling the boss. It can plateau at times and feel like it’s just too hard, then a few particular collectibles will turn up and suddenly the tables have turned and you’re much further than you thought you would be. There are always enemies that will frustrate – particularly flying kamikaze ones that seem way too overpowered and always appear in big swarms – though Housemarque have largely got the balance right. Key is not getting bogged down with dying. Accept that at the start, and the game goes to great lengths to make sure you’ve got the message, and the frustrations will start to lift. It’ll sound strange, but knowing others are dying frequently too helps. If you’ve got friends playing it and the PS App, you’ll get notifications when and where they die. You can even stumble across downed players and chose to avenge them which triggers and a tough battle that comes with some decent rewards. Is it worth the risk though? That question hangs over a lot of your actions.
At least repeat runs through the game means that you’re going to experience all of the next gen features fully. The use of the DualSense controller is superb. The haptic feedback denotes everything from rain falling to melee strikes; the adaptive triggers work brilliantly for aiming and alt-fire, as well as vibrating in time with the weapon fire; the inbuilt speaker builds atmosphere like you wouldn’t believe; and the 3D audio is excellent for positioning. There’s a slight drawback with that last one where if you’ve got headphones on you won’t here what the controller speaker is doing, though if you’ve a surround sound setup you’ll get the joys of both at once. Of course, Returnal is beautifully realised and the power of the PS5 have let the team create a fantastically smooth and responsive experience that’s littered with neat particle effects and detailed complex enemies. The world building is excellent as well and the distinct biomes really give the impression of a desolate alien world ravaged by unknown events. The icing on the cake is the SSD driven loading times which means you’re never left hanging around as Selene transitions from biome to biome, or recovers from failure to try again.
The final question that needs answering is whether Returnal is a game that everyone can love, or is it just a bit too far away from the casual gaming space that would see it picked up in big numbers? It’s an interesting one to tackle because the style of the game isn’t something I’d usually go for, yet I’ve found myself completely absorbed by it (and it’s similar for others in the team too). There are levels of annoyance and some pieces of design that don’t sit right, like the continually mentioned lack of mid-run save for one, but that’s part and parcel of the mechanic. If you buy into that then this is one of the most exciting and freshest feeling games you can play, and hopefully the low level of PS5 specific titles right now will send more people on Selene’s journey. It’s tight, well defined and has an intriguing way of telling a story that transcends the genre it’s set in, and it deserves the recognition to reflect that. Housemarque and Sony have taken a risk with Returnal and it’s definitely a reward for the players.
Returnal is available now exclusively on PS5 for around £70, but can be found cheaper with a bit of scouring.