Generally, I don't like the rogue-like genre. Just the idea of having to restart an entire game over again upon death sort of rubs me the wrong way. I want to be making progress at all times; having to replay sequences never entertains me. That need is probably why I so rarely replay games in general. A few classics such as Dead Cells have a place in my gaming collection, but on the whole, if you tell me your game is a rogue-like, I'll give it a wide berth more often than not. Except then Housemarque came along with Returnal.
As the Assistant Editor of a website all about PlayStation, I feel like part of the job is to keep up with and at least sample all of the exclusive games out of Sony. If I am not, I don't think I'm in the best position to comment on the company and its products, right? So I spent the £69.99 on a digital copy off the PS Store (a day before it was reduced in price) and got to work. Never have I made a better decision. Returnal is now one of my favourite games of 2021.
The funny thing is it houses so many of the mechanics that put me off the genre in the first place. You must start the game over again if you die — that is until you reach some welcome checkpoints and unlock shortcuts. The currency used to buy upgrades and consumables is lost when you perish. Permanent enhancements are few and far between, scattered throughout the six biomes. One or two of them are even optional pick-ups that you might never encounter. It's also quite difficult, testing your skills and endurance over one long run. On paper, I shouldn't like this game. But I love it.
What kept me coming back for more after every single death was simply how good it feels to play Returnal. Game feel isn't always something we comment on during reviews, but it's the driving force behind Housemarque's latest. The way it feels to dash about Atropos, avoiding attacks and gunfire from alien lifeforms. The way it feels to dodge incoming attacks by utilising the grappling hook at the last possible second. The way it feels to lay down fire on an enemy, then activate your alt-fire and see it burst into a sea of Obolites.
Every action in Returnal has been purposefully crafted to feel good, heightening your actions and creating satisfaction for both Selene and yourself. I genuinely cannot think of a game in recent memory that has plastered more smiles across my face. My head was in my hands sometimes too, but the highs that followed made those setbacks worth it.
This feel-good factor allowed me to reevaluate my failures. I started to see my runs as an opportunity to further my knowledge of the biome, not simply a waste of time. I learned how to deal with some of the tougher enemies, making subsequent runs easier for me. Weapons were levelled up, granting me access to more powerful alt-fires. The biomes themselves become second nature — I was able to immediately identify time-sensitive rooms, meaning I knew what was expected of me in a flash. Maybe that's what I've been missing about the rogue-like genre all along.
Returnal will now likely find itself in my top five list of the best PS5, PS4 games of 2021 come the end of the year, and I'm chuffed to say that. A genre that once turned me off almost completely can now be viewed from a more positive perspective, potentially opening me up to other titles in the future. If you haven't played Returnal yet and you have a PS5, I implore you to do so. You may just find something very special — I know I did.
Have you played Returnal on PS5? Do you agree that the game feels incredible to play? Or do you disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.