Returnal is a much, much bigger game than you think it is. For all the noise surrounding the game's price point, Housemarque has produced its largest, most ambitious project by a country mile. This isn't a small scale title with a premium cost; the studio has made something on a whole new level. There's an awful lot of game here, and if you're a fan of rogue-likes, arcade shooters, or both, this delivers big time.
The game takes place on Atropos, a mysterious, uncharted planet where space scout Selene, the protagonist, finds herself stuck in a never-ending cycle. After a crash landing wrecks her ship, Helios, she begins to explore her surroundings, on the trail of an unknown signal called White Shadow. The trouble is, whenever she dies, she finds herself back at the crash site, and the planet's terrain changes every time.
Indeed, most of your progress is reset when you kick the bucket, and randomly generated environments mean a slightly different experience every time you set off — this is a rogue-lite through and through. Returnal will do little to sway people who dislike this structure, but it's a fantastic example of the genre, and one of the best we've played in a long time. This is partly because the narrative is so closely tied into the game's design; Selene's struggle as she adjusts to her Groundhog Day predicament is something you'll observe as you slowly inch forward through the game's six biomes.
The story actually takes somewhat of a backseat for most of the game. Through audio logs and Xenoglyphs you need to translate, you'll get a little background on Selene and the planet's ancient alien race, but the vast majority of your time will be spent blasting neon nasties — more on that shortly. While we're on the subject of story, we have to mention the House. As you explore, a typical, American country home will appear in the environment from time to time, and you can go inside. As if the presence of the House in this eldritch hellscape isn't eerie enough, the camera pulls in and you explore the space in first person. There's an uneasy atmosphere in the murky corridors, and things only get weirder as you pay return visits. There was a risk that this sudden change in perspective would feel jarring or detached, but the game establishes first person moments from the off, and it's so integral to the story that it feels like it belongs.
So, let's talk about the action. Housemarque is a studio best known for its flashy visual effects and fast-paced shoot-'em-up gameplay, and this might be some of its greatest work to date. Selene is an agile character who can dash through environments with ease, which is ideal, because Atropos is going to throw all kinds of otherworldly opponents at you, each with their own attacks and quirks. In combat areas, the game often has you dealing with multiple threats at once, and they're all very happy to attack you with bullet hell patterns and lasers. The game lights up like a Christmas tree as your screen is filled with vivid, deadly colours. If it wasn't going to kill you, we'd say it's a sight to behold — especially on a 4K display.
You start out with a simple pistol, but it'll handle early enemies pretty well. As you take down baddies, your weapon proficiency level increases, and that means any guns you find will be that much more powerful. New weapons are introduced fairly steadily, and these mostly stick to stereotypes — a machine gun, a shotgun, and so on. However, later weapons get more experimental; the Rotgland Lobber throws out acidic rounds that deal damage over time, while the Electropylon Driver sends out rods that connect with damaging energy, and enemies tethered to them will be continuously weakened. Some weapons feel more useful than others, but powerful Alt-Fire attacks and Weapon Traits are randomly assigned, and can make a huge difference to whichever gun you have equipped.
Fortunately, the combat is electric, whatever the case. Fights are frenetic and seriously intense — you're forced to fight aggressively to thin enemy numbers, but you also have to stay on the move. The rainbow of bullets, shockwaves, and lasers are relentless, and can come from almost any direction. It's no hyperbole to say that the game left us physically shaking at points, particularly some of the boss battles. Not everyone will enjoy the challenge, but this is pure arcade shooting at its finest.
By the way, Returnal really does feel like a game purpose built for PS5. This game has the best haptic feedback since Astro's Playroom, it makes good, functional use of the adaptive triggers, the 3D audio is immersive (and helpful for pinpointing enemies), and load times are almost completely absent. It ticks all the next-gen boxes.
Of course, the game also provides you with a ton of items that can be beneficial or detrimental. As you explore the planet's various environments, you'll find consumables, artefacts, Parasites, and much more that will augment your character in myriad ways. Everything stacks together in fun ways, and it's almost always worth looking into optional side paths, as you may find lots of useful goodies to save your skin.
Inevitably, you will die, and most of your progress is lost. While this can be a touch frustrating if you're a hair's breadth from beating a boss, or you've only just found a new biome, the game does give you permanent upgrades to help you out. An early one is the Atropian Blade, which gives you a strong melee attack that can also cut down red vines, allowing you to find even more items. We'd say the distribution of these is a little inconsistent; permanent equipment comes fairly steadily until the second half, when things drop off for a while. This can make worlds four and five feel particularly tough, but following this, you're rewarded with a couple more upgrades in the sixth biome.
What's odd about the game's overall structure is that you'll play through the first three biomes, and after that, there's a hard checkpoint which means you start your runs on world four instead of world one. For this back half, there's no way to get back to those early stages. You are eventually able to swap between these two sets of biomes, so you can do all six in one run — you just have to work for it.
There are so many little ways the game will hook you back in. Fun Daily Challenges give all players the same loadout to chase scores on a leaderboard, letting you practice or even get a sneak peek at later weaponry. The adrenaline mechanic encourages you to avoid damage, as you'll gain some useful buffs as you kill enemies without dying. And of course, there's the mystery of Selene's story that'll pull you through. It never truly reveals its hand, keeping you guessing for almost the entire game. That can be a long time; we've clocked around 40 hours so far, and there's more to do post-credits.
There are one or two weak spots — the review build is mostly solid, but has some bugs and small performance inconsistencies here and there. A day one patch should mean the experience becomes even smoother, however. While the game generally looks and sounds fantastic, we did notice some low quality textures in places, and the 3D mini map can be hard to read. We're nitpicking, though — Returnal is a joy to play, and had us glued to our screen for hours on end.
Housemarque has delivered the PS5 promise with Returnal. All the console's bells and whistles enhance the experience, making this a real showpiece for the hardware. But more than that, the game is a force to be reckoned with; the breathless combat, super slick gameplay, and the subtle but unsettling story combine for an experience of surprising scale. Rogue-lite aspects mean it won't gel with everyone, but for those looking for a challenging, addictive arcade shooter, this comes highly recommended.