If you’ve been waiting for a true next-gen experience on your PlayStation 5, now is the time.
While the pre-installed platformer Astro’s Playroom did initially delight us showing off the hardware, it was essentially a glorified tech demo that others haven’t quite tried to match, especially as we’re still in that awkward cross-gen phase. And even as fantastic Demon’s Souls is, that’s still a remake of an old game.
It’s hard not to think the PS5 owners lucky enough to get hold of one amidst months of stock issues might be getting envious with Xbox, who while not exactly offering much that is new is at least keeping its players happy with a suite of enhanced features like FPS boost and a generous library on Game Pass. Thank goodness then for Returnal to show just what the PS5 is capable of.
If you had any reservations about paying full price for a game that’s based on the roguelike genre usually sold at ‘indie’ prices on Steam and made by a developer better known for arcade-sized games like PS4 launch title Resogun, then Returnal quickly quashes those assumptions.
A new title may not carry brand recognition like God of War or a Naughty Dog production, but studio Housemarque truly fires on all cylinders right from the get-go. From the moment your space scout Selen first crash lands onto a hostile alien planet, you get a full blast of the PS5 hardware, from the palm of your hands as you feel the depth of the DualSense rumble to the immersive 3D audio of the Tempest Engine (definitely play with headphones). It’s also a scene you’ll go through many more times since the twist is you’re trapped in a purgatorial time loop.
Even as desolate as the game’s multiple biomes are, the visuals are nonetheless incredibly atmospheric, all running at 4K in smooth 60FPS with ray-tracing, while accessing each area is as seamless as just running through a gate - and for a game where you’ll be restarting a lot, it helps to have a super fast SSD.
At its core, this is still a Housemarque game through and through where you’re trying to survive against waves of intimidating enemies who shoot projectile patterns encompassing all the colours of the rainbow, where you’ll respond in kind. That arcade-style run-and-gun approach works beautifully in the guise of a third-person shooter, while the adaptive trigger allows you to switch instinctively between aiming with your primary weapon or a powerful alt-fire.
Similar to last year’s critically acclaimed and awards-sweeping Hades, Returnal also uses its looping structure to tell an intriguing story that slowly unfolds with each new run, whether it’s a new cut scene, a new audio log you discover from your past or future self or holograms of an alternate Selene’s demise that occasionally manifest into hostile takeovers similar to the invasions in Dark Souls.
What starts like a straightforward sci-fi jaunt that has you tracking a macguffin referred to as ‘White Shadow’ becomes something of a psychodrama where past traumas, personal objects and the occasional jumpscare coalesce into something as bizarre as other examples of the new weird genre as seen in Netflix film Annihilation or fellow Finnish developer Remedy’s Control.
Its narrative twists and turns incidentally have an impact on the gameplay as well. At risk of spoiling anything, let’s just say the moment you think you’ve got a handle on how the game works, it pulls the rug from under your feet and goes in some bizarre directions. Indeed, you’ll still have plenty more questions and secrets to uncover even after the credits have rolled.
However, the game will make you work for its story too. Because unlike Sony’s other narrative-driven games like The Last of Us, there’s no option to adjust the difficulty - Returnal is just balls to the wall hard. By the time you’ve reached the second biome you’ll wonder whether you’ll have the mental fortitude and gaming prowess to see what the rest of the game has to offer.
Ah s***, here we go again
The biggest obstacle to get over, besides epic bosses with three phrases and health bars that demand you memorise some insane attack patterns, is that death essentially resets your progress all the way back to your crashed ship. You may unlock new weapons and artefacts over time, as well as gadgets that allow you to access new areas, making Returnal often feel like a third-person successor to Metroid Prime, but you always start again with your pistol, while most resources need to be found from scratch.
With each run also changing up the map layout and items you can find in them, you’re often at the mercy of luck. It’s not just whether a better weapon shows up, it’s that certain items actually have a chance of causing a suit malfunction while there’s also parasites you can attach that provide both a buff and debuff, letting you weigh up whether you should take the risks.
The game does make some concessions, in that once you’ve progressed in certain parts of a biome, you can make a beeline for the boss like you might have done in Demon’s Souls, while the map icon always indicates which door leads to the main path. My advice however is not to rush, but instead take the time to explore each biome, gather resources, where you may even get the opportunity to fabricate items to give you another fighting chance, from med packs to extra ‘lives’ - but you may also unwittingly run into a nasty surprise that cuts your run short.
It may feel cruelly Sisyphean to see your progress wiped after a bout of bad luck, and frankly, Returnal had me running the whole gamut of emotions. But when you’ve got the right supplies, equipment and buffs, it can totally transform a run. The sense of elation of conquering a boss that had seemed previously impossible makes it all worthwhile.
Returnal is an arthouse blockbuster, both a technical marvel that fully showcases every aspect of the PS5 that makes it features absolutely sing while providing a bold choice of structure, narrative twists and other leftfield moments that embrace the new weird.
It’s also uncompromisingly tough as nails, which might scare off a more mainstream audience. But this is a game that doesn’t do half-measures on either its gameplay or as a truly next-gen exclusive that you won’t find anywhere else.
Let its tentacles embrace you and by the time you come out the other side bruised and battered from your infinite battles, you won’t want to let go of it either.