Returnal is easily the biggest game Housemarque has made to date. It's important to remember that the team behind this sci-fi shooter is relatively small, but the game is being positioned alongside other key PlayStation 5 software like Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon's Souls. In some ways, it's an unfair equivalence, because this isn't a triple-A scale production. However, the Finnish studio has made a name for itself with its stylish, swiftly paced action games, and that very much rings true in its latest effort.
From our time with the game so far, a handful of things stick out. Most importantly, it plays wonderfully; a combination of responsive controls, sumptuous visual effects, and (almost) flawless 60 frames-per-second performance make for a slick shooter experience. We were slightly concerned about the dual functionality of the L2 trigger, where a half press enables focus aim, and a full press activates your weapon's alt-fire. You quickly adjust to the soft lock that occurs, though, and it wasn't too long before it was second nature. Just moving Selene around is easy and fun, with her fast sprint and generous dash ability.
It's a good thing it feels so nice to play, mind you, because you'll need all the help you can get. This is one tough cookie. The tentacled monstrosities of planet Atropos will pursue you with a plethora of projectiles and melee strikes — even the most basic baddies can be dangerous if you let them outwit you. Combat scenarios are frantic; the screen fills with neon-coloured bullets and enemies, and you're forced to keep moving and be aware of your surroundings. You've a single weapon, its alt-fire, consumable items, and your mobility going for you, and it's enough to see you through, but this is very much a game of skill.
When it's all going off, and you're blasting aliens, hoovering up Obolites (currency), and making it through tough battles, it's very satisfying to play. Selene is relatively fragile, but with deft control and a level head, it feels great to conquer her foes.
You won't be constantly killing baddies, however. Returnal dials the action up to 11, but some areas have no hostiles at all. The randomly generated maps are stitched together in such a way that the environment has a fairly good ebb and flow, meaning you do get some respite — it isn't all go. Each individual area has been designed, and they're jumbled together in differing orders with each run you make. The result is that the layout will change, but you'll come to recognise each component space.
Despite some repetition in the setting, we've found the game to have a strong "one-more-run" factor. Whether that's because of the fast restarts or the slow trickle of progress, it's a compelling experience. A rogue-lite structure means that you lose most of the stuff you gather upon death, but most runs result in some form of reward. Ether is a persistent currency that has all kinds of uses, but more than that, there are snippets of story in the form of audio diaries, permanent upgrades such as the super-handy melee blade, and new areas or items peppered throughout. An objective marker keeps you pushing forward, not just through the world but through the story. You start each run just that little bit stronger or wiser, and we've enjoyed the slow but steady progress so far.
There are lots of smart ways the game builds you up. You start with a basic pistol, but other weapons like an assault rifle and shotgun quickly come into play, and killing enemies increases your weapon proficiency. As you level that up, any subsequent guns will have better stats or additional effects. Your adrenaline level builds as you beat baddies without taking damage, giving you some passive benefits. Parasites give you a positive and a negative effect, and fabricators are essentially shops, giving you access to items and artifacts to further boost your chances. There's quite a lot to take in, but it all works cohesively.
We'd be remiss not to talk about the DualSense functionality, by the way. The haptic feedback in particular is excellent — you can feel the rain, the hum of enemy projectiles, and the thud of Obolites as they're picked up. It really does add another layer to the experience. As does 3D audio, which helps to locate enemies in those potentially chaotic firefights.
It's still early days of course, and we can't wait to share more with you soon, but what's encouraging is that we want to hop right back in and keep going. By its very nature, this is a game about repeating cycles, but so far it's doing more than enough to hold our attention, and keep us curious about what's around the next corner.