Returnal features challenging combat, stunning environments and inspired use of the PS5 hardware, my full review.
If you are looking for a challenging sci-fi experience Returnal is an absolute must play. Its punishing difficulty curve serves as a test to even the most hardened gamer, but it’s definitely part of the greater experience. From addictive gameplay mechanics, interesting interwoven narratives to near endless replayability, Returnal has a lot to offer. You’ll definitely earn your battle scars in this rogue-lite, bullet hell that will push your skill and will in order to progress. Let’s dive into the constantly shifting world of Atropos to discover what makes this such an incredible experience I couldn’t put down.
Live, die, repeat
As a lone astronaut, Selene Vassos, you crash-land on a mysterious planet named Atropos. Marooned on the alien world you become locked in a seemingly unending time loop against unforgiving enemies. Once you emerge from your ship, Helios, you are tasked with tracking down a mysterious signal. This is when you are presented with hostile aliens, a time looping environment and a fractured story that you need to piece together. Death is no escape for Selene as every time you are felled, you are sent right back to the start, emerging from your ship to tackle it all over again.
Usually, I’d find this mechanic a turnoff, but it offers a fun challenge and acts as a narrative device to help uncover Selene’s story. It’s interesting how developer Housemarque employs rogue-lite mechanics to help tell Selene’s story. If you are a sci-fi fan, you’ll love the atmosphere and homage that Returnal serves up mixing in elements from movies like Aliens and Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. During your playthrough you even get P.T. style sequences where you explore a creepy Earth house that has mysteriously appeared on Atropos. These sequences are all woven together to help peel back the layers of Selene’s past. All of this adds up to a satisfying story and atmosphere that Returnal does an excellent job establishing.
A brutal, beautiful world
The PS5 exclusive looks stunning in many regards, from ray tracing in randomly generated environments to incredible particle effects, it’s a feast for the eyes. The game features 4K assets at a blazing fast 60 frames-per-second. It has seen some patches since launch that have also upped the game’s stability and performance. Thus far I haven’t run into any game crashes, slow down or framerate drops. This is a pretty impressive feat considering the technical wizardry taking place in the background. Not only are environments subtly reorganized every time you die, but it’s also done in a manner that still delivers a rock-solid technical performance.
Dazzling visual effects
Returnal’s in-game engine uses global illumination and volumetric particle fx that adapt to the randomized world. What this means is light reflects off of all surfaces from cave walls to puddles, with incredibly life-like accuracy. Layered on top of this are volumetric fog effects, creating a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere throughout many of Returnal’s biomes. This is most apparent in darker cave areas where small rays of light shine through cracks and illuminate the fog. In the desert biome, Crimson Wastes, this effect is ever present with the sand. The fog effects paired with wispy red sand create incredible Mars-like vistas that come to life as you battle in and explore the environment. One of the most incredible visuals takes places when you warp Selene to a new location. Your body breaks down into what looks like a million tiny balls and reforms at your new destination. It’s a real testament to Housemarque’s commitment to detail in all the game’s environments.
Immersive audio experience
The music, environmental ambience and weapon sounds are truly unique in Returnal. Experiencing the game with 3D Audio is a must as it gives you lifesaving hints about enemy positions. Housemarque squeezed all they could out of the Tempest Engine in order to provide superior directional sound, especially during combat. When you are in a fray with dozens of projectiles coming from all directions, auditory aides are always appreciated. The soundtrack from composer Bobby Krlic is hauntingly powerful and stuck with me long after the credits rolled.
PS5 hardware adds to the immersion
Returnal is a showcase in many ways for the PlayStation 5 hardware from graphics, to load times and the ground-breaking use of the DualSense controller. Thanks to the PS5’s lightning-fast SSD players are treated to next to no load times between biomes and bigger maps. The experience is seamless, and you aren’t pulled out of the world with loading screens. This is a massive plus in game where you’ll be dying and reloading a lot.
A new frontier of feedback with the DualSense controller
The use of the DualSense controller is truly incredible in Returnal, using haptic feedback for both touch and sound. The adaptive triggers also offer greater control with weapon zoom and secondary fire.
If you’ve been following my podcast, Down To Play, you likely know I’ve been singing the praises of what the controller brings to the table since experiencing ASTRO's Playroom.
Returnal sets a new standard with how it employs haptic feedback. You can feel raindrops ping off your spacesuit through the controller. Housemarque even had its gameplay designer work in tandem with its sound team to have the haptic responses for weapons and effects create their own “music.” Even though the DualSense has its own onboard speaker, the team used the haptics to make rumbles and pings in the controller create audio, its nothing short of genius. The rumbles are actually driven by an audio mix, providing immersion through a controller I’ve never felt before. I am happy to see the innovation continue with DualSense controller and Returnal raises the bar on how it can be used.
Outstanding, addictive gameplay
What kept me coming back loop-after-loop was the outstanding gameplay, it seriously has me hooked. The melding of Metroidvania and bullet hell mechanics works so well because of the refined, pinpoint accurate gameplay. The moment-to-moment action is sublime, especially because each encounter is so high stakes. If you can avoid getting hit, you continue to gain weapon buffs that build as you take out enemies via an adrenaline gauge. If you get hit once, this build up is completely reset and you need to start rebuilding. This “mini challenge” within the game really rewards you for being as perfect as possible in combat, making you push yourself more each time to walk away unscathed.
The gameplay is arcade-like and frantic, but the combat is always superb with 10 weapons to upgrade and experiment with. My personal favourite has to be the Atropian Blade, if you can get close enough to enemies without getting hit, you call pull off devastating melee attacks. Pair the blade with your trusty pistol, shotgun or automatic-style weapons and you have a combination for thrilling showdowns. The combat is fast and intense; it will keep you coming back for more, especially with a wide range of weapons you can continuously upgrade.
The long run
One area the Returnal experience needs improvements is the way saves are structured. I found each loop too long, sometimes demanding a 1-2 hour dedicated loop. A mid-run checkpoint here and there would further maximize my enjoyment of the game. Currently, the only way to “save” is to put your PS5 into rest mode. This also puts you at the mercy of a system or game update that could potentially wipe hours’ worth of work. This issue is somewhat addressed through permanent gear unlocks like a grappling hook, hazard boots, underwater travel and more that allow you to access short cuts to newly discovered biomes. Still, more save options would go a long way to cater to more players.
The game is hard, and it’s meant to be, but a small amount of mercy could go a long way. The way your character is debuffed with a single hit can be demoralizing, a second hit or an over shield could create a slightly more forgiving system. All this aside, when you are in the zone and can overcome these challenges, the game is fun and extremely rewarding.
Final thoughts on Returnal
Returnal mixes elements of rogue-lites, metrovania and bullet hell games delivering something familiar, yet new and unique in its own way. You rarely see so many genres weaved together so masterfully in a new franchise. Housemarque could have played it safe and delivered a vanilla 3rd person shooter, but Returnal is so much more. If you are a PlayStation 5 owner that enjoys a real challenge in a game, this is an absolute must play. The experience does a great job of showcasing the PS5’s unique hardware via DualSense feedback, 3D audio and lightning-fast load times. All this adds up to a unique formula that makes the game difficult to put down, I highly recommend a visit to Atropos.
+ Stunning particle and fog effects
+ Superb, high intensity combat
+ Interesting story advanced by rogue-like mechanics
+ Ingenious DualSense integration
-Very steep difficulty curve
-Lack of mid-run save points
Overall Game Score
A copy of the game was provided by PlayStation for the purpose of this review.