Returnal – Review
Follow Genre: Roguelike, TPS, Bullet Hell
Developer: Housemarque
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PS5
Tested on: PS5

Returnal – Review

Site Score
9.3
Good: Concept, Atmosphere, DualSense capabilities, Overall fluidness
Bad: Difficulty make progress impossible for those only wanting to experience the story
User Score
10.0
(2 votes)
Click to vote
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (2 votes cast)

If we have to be completely honest, the next-gen consoles have not offered that much in the way of unique and exclusive content up until now. Even though we certainly like Microsoft exclusives, we have literally seen none up until now, while Sony, on the other hand, is actually presenting a few original PS5 exclusive titles here and there. This brings us to Returnal, a title we have vaguely heard about but have not had the chance to properly explore. Now, however, we’re playing live-die-repeat on an alien planet, figuring out what is going on. This combination of Dark Souls and Bullet Hell games, in a roguelike jacket, had us on the edge of our seats for the duration of the game.

Story

The game starts off with the protagonist, Selene, crash-landing on a planet called Atropos. Determined to explore the planet, and hopefully find a way to contact someone from the company she works for, Astra, she soon stumbles upon the body of another scout just like her. Upon closer inspection, you notice the body is an exact replica of yourself, and also is carrying your missing handgun. When you soon meet your own demise due to the monsters on the shape-shifting planet, you just restart at your ship. Aware that you have died and are in a way ‘reborn’, you truly want to know what is going on. Soon you will find items of your personal life back on Earth, only to doubt your surroundings and what is actually going on.

Overall, even with the story being somewhat minimalistic at times, it is brought in a very impressive way. You soon find yourself speculating if Selene is just imagining things, or if she is actually on an alien planet, or even if it’s a metaphor of having already died, being stuck in limbo. The presentation is great, but you’ll have to really work on your skillset if you want to see how the story evolves.

Graphics

Graphically Returnal is a great indication of what the PlayStation 5 is capable of. The game looks quite amazing for most of its intense ride. The monsters, while sometimes lacking in variety, look very creepy and detailed, which is also true for the game’s environments. Selene herself sometimes looks a bit blurrier and has fewer details, but this is mainly only visible during certain camera angles. That being said, the overall quality is quite impressive and we did enjoy exploring the different biomes of the alien planet. These range from dark and lush forest areas to desolate ruins of an ancient civilization.

Weapon effects and kill shots were nicely animated, as well as the overall fluidity of everything going on. While this is also thanks to the great controls, the motions also make things feel smoother and easier to get into.

Sound

The sound design is also quite impressively handled. The cinematic backdrop wells up when it needs to, which adds a certain adrenaline factor to the entire experience. Every hit may be your last, thus being bombarded with loud(er) music does get you somewhat ‘riled’ up. The sound effects also pack a proper punch and have that perfect ‘oomph’ to them when your gun ends up gutting an alien monster. The voice acting is also quite decent, albeit somewhat rare in this gameplay-oriented experience.

We do have to say that the game is marketed to be played with a headset, and we can wholeheartedly agree. The oomph we mentioned earlier feels a lot heavier when playing with a headset, as well as the surround effects, which heighten the overall experience. On top of that, the DualSense controller also emits a lot of sound effects to add another layer of immersion.

Gameplay

Returnal is a mix of a third-person shooter, with bullet hell elements, as well as a core roguelike loop. Add upon this the (rage-inducing) difficulty of Dark Souls, and you are getting close to what the game actually entails. As ‘dying is part of the experience’, you’ll do just that: die (a lot). Every time you die, you start off at your spaceship once more, hoping to get a little further each attempt. The game wipes your entire progress, safe for some minor permanent upgrades you get rewarded with, and Ether, which serves as a currency for some actions. The game will always make you run through the first biome of the handful of available ones, to, luckily, have shortcuts to the one you have reached last. Sadly, no map is the same, as the game has procedurally generated levels.

While the game has a few interesting mechanics, it’s overall the atmosphere and fluid gameplay that steal the show. Every run will be somewhat unique, and you will encounter different items during each attempt at making a bit more progress. You can find chests and special artifacts, but also parasites. The latter will always give you a buff, but also a debuff (called a Malfunction), which you can only undo when achieving a certain goal. Exploring is very interesting in the game, but it could also mean an early demise, as wading through extra rooms hoping to get an upgrade may also cause you to get hit and damaged. The game also has a very rare currency called Ether, which will allow you to cleanse tainted items that cause malfunctions (excluding parasites), or even allow you to add a respawn point (if you’re lucky enough to find the device that allows a respawn during your runs).

The developers invested a lot of attention in DualSense controller support for the game. Not only will you have a lot of sounds playing through the speakers of the device (which are not always clear when playing with a headset), but you’ll have a lot of other features as well. You’ll feel a very subtle 3D rumble when raindrops hit your character, or the left trigger actually gets locked at a certain point, giving it a double function. Doing half a press to the point of resistance will allow you to aim down your sights, but going past that pressure point will active your special attack. It took a few moments to get used to this, but after one or two sessions, this felt amazingly innovative and a perfect way to add another function to a button, much like pressing L3 or R3.

If we have to be completely honest, Returnal is a very difficult game and may cause frustration for those who expect to experience the story casually. The latter is simply impossible. The game has no difficulty options, meaning it’s just working on your skill level, hoping to get a tiny bit further than the last run. We have not been able to beat the game just yet either, but we keep coming back for more, which means the game is successful in its offset; namely being a roguelike game where you still enjoy every run.

Conclusion

Returnal is a near-perfect experience if this is what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for just a story-based game you can play casually, it’s best to land your spaceship somewhere else. Those who want a tough-as-nails experience, with an interesting underlying plot, will not really find many better titles out there. We did have a few grievances with always dying and starting over again, but it also added to the charm of the game. Nonetheless, the gameplay is very fluid, the controls are really responsive and it has that one-more-go factor that makes you come back for more.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (2 votes cast)
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Returnal - Review, 10.0 out of 10 based on 2 ratings
Ibuki


Aspiring ninja.

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