After crash-landing on a shape-shifting alien planet, Selene finds herself fighting tooth and nail for survival. Again and again she’s defeated, forced to restart her journey every time she dies.
In this roguelike shooter, both the planet and your equipment change with every cycle, forcing you to adapt your play style and take on evolving challenges.
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Reviewed on: PS5
Also available for: N/A
Cast: Jane Perry, Nicholas Parris
Game Director, Story: Harry Krueger
Writer: Luke Maulding
Executive Producer: Jari Hokkanen, Sami Nurmio
Concept: Harry Krueger, Harri Tikkanen
Lead Game Designer: Henri Mustonen
The latest from Resogun and Alienation developers Housemaruqe is one of Sony’s bravest publishing efforts. If recent reports suggest they are opposed to risky ideas, Returnal is a stark argument against that notion. It’s a brutally challenging game with an amalgamation of several genres; a brand new IP and a $125 price tag. It is also one of the best games of the year, a must-play PS5 exclusive, and well worth the premium entry price.
Returnal is a third-person shooter with bullet-hell enemies, a Metroidvania unlock system and uses a rogue-like structure as its core. You move fast, can spam dodge to initiate invincibility frames (I-frames), unlock gear by defeating bosses, and you’ll die a lot, losing the majority of your progression. Move from room to room fighting the enemies inside as you pick up items and fight your way to a boss. Once you beat that boss you don’t have to again, and can always race straight to the next level if you’d wish.
Selene Vassos crash lands on the planet Atropos attempting to trace a signal she refers to as “White Shadow.” Shortly after arriving, Selene comes upon a dead body, which turns out to be her own. Learning that each death returns her to the crash landing, Selene sets out to find a way to break the cycle and trace the mysterious White Shadow signal.
Live. Die. Repeat. Similar to last year’s Hades (our 2020 GOTY), Returnal has a narrative reason as to why you’re replaying the same levels over and over again. But don’t think that Returnal is a typical rogue-like, as it’s simply not.
Progression in Returnal can be both daunting and frustrating until you fully understand all of the elements of the game. Both from a UI, tutorial and general user-friendly way, the game is obtuse. You’re introduced to many different items but never explained what progress carries over after each death. Unlike similar games, there’s no currency earned to permanently level up Selene’s health or attack power between runs. What you do increase run is the effectiveness of the various guns you can find in the wild. Using the stock-standard pistol or shotgun enough may unlock a secondary fire with missiles; for the missile launcher itself, you can unlock a full-auto fire mod which is fantastic. The rare Ethers you find in the wild will stay in Selene’s pockets between each run which can be used on a machine near her ship to permanently unlock new items that’ll appear in the wild or for use during your run. Use Ether to clean malignant items that can hurt or curse Selene or activate a machine that gives you a second life upon death.
The hardest part of Returnal can be working out which of the items you find are worth picking up. While artifacts always offer positive effects, parasites will give you a positive and negative to weigh up. It’s easy to dismiss all of them as useless, but it often depends on your build. If you’re already carrying an artifact that gives +20% to your health, and you find a parasite that takes -15% of your health but gives you the ability to auto-heal when at critical damage — you should make that trade. On the other hand, malignant items are a lot riskier and are less about being able to weigh up options and instead rely on you being able to take the negatives of flipping a coin and getting the wrong side. A malignant chest may contain high tier weapons or artifacts, but opening them will affect you with a random curse. Some of the easier ones may say your melee damage is halved until you kill thirty enemies. At the same time, the most annoying effects will make your map useless or cause you to take damage every time you pick up an item.
As much as I think a major part of Returnal’s difficulty relies on strategy, the third-person shooting and your ability to concentrate on shooting while dodging bullets is at the core of the experience. Returnal does an excellent job at building up the difficulty of enemies as you play through, going from creatures that shoot a straight line of slow orbs to the boss of biome one sending waves of slow orbs around an entire room. By the time you reach the end of the game, Returnal will have you locked in a trance. The amount of orbs and effects the final boss unloads onto the screen is insane, but it’s a dance you can master.
As a PS5 exclusive, Returnal takes advantage of all of the console’s best features. This is a treat for players both from a visual perspective and an audio one. H.G Giger highly inspires the world design — so think Alien/Prometheus — and each of the six biomes has a distinct theme with different enemies to master in each. I don’t want to spoil them, but the design of biomes three and six are superb and some of the best levels I’ve played in any game in years. Playing any of the levels comes with a distinct audio design that is both grotesque and haunting, from the sounds of the tentacled alien creatures lurking around any corner to the oozing of alien eggs as you crunch on their remains. The final biome is on another level thanks to the PS5’s 3D audio, and I wish I could tell you why in detail, but take my word for it, you want to play with headphones on.
The DualSense controller gets a full workout amongst all of Returnal’s uses. From the adaptive triggers having different feelings for each game’s guns, to the pattering of rain you’ll feel thanks to the haptic feedback. Audio cues and noises are coming out of the controller as well that you’ll miss if you’re playing with headphones on, but it’s worth playing for some time without a headset to hear how fantastic the controller can be.