Returnal PS5 Review: A celestial death-cycle

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9.0 Technically magnificent

Enter a graphically beautiful world of Atropos, your new home littered with deadly inhabitants, dodge patterned death orbs and learn the ways of the giant Xenotype species while guiding Selene through the emotional turmoil of never-ending peace. Returnal pulls heavily on the PS5’s next-gen features to immerse the player, while without the fluff, it’ll still be an exceptionally enjoyable game. Try to put down the controller, we dare you.

  • Gameplay 9
  • Narrative 9
  • Pacing 10
  • Graphics 8
  • User Ratings (0 Votes) 0

Returnal is Sony’s latest PlayStation 5 exclusive made by Housemarque, a dev studio that may just become a ping on the industry’s radar right about now. Many previews of this particular game hail it as being the first ‘true’ PS5 title. Why’s that? It’s just an ultra-addictive sci-fi/horror, 3D bullet-hell third-person shooter roguelike, right?

While that sounds like a mouthful, that’s strangely exactly what Returnal sets out to be, and the strategic gamers, as well as those who are just here for the story, will have a helluva time with this title. It combines all the technical considerations expected from a polished, challenging game, and integrates it delightfully with a heart-wrenching story that you just can’t shake. Even after you’re climbed into bed after a 5-hour session. 

Anyone with a slight interest in sci-fi or eldritch horror or Ridley Scott’s Aliens or Prometheus, or any celestial horror themes or rogue-likes or bullet-hell gameplay should keep on reading right here. 

Groundhog Souls

Returnal stars an astronaut named Selene who fights her way across a hostile, alien planet called Atropos after her spaceship Helios suffers a devastating crash. Atropos presents itself as a perfectly shill place at first, until you encounter ‘hostile fauna and flora’ that’s clearly trying to put an end to this organic biped. 

Selene finds a few corpses scattered around the strange alien planet, which all turn out to be other Selenes. Some of them have dropped an audio log, from which you later gather are previous selves who all fought to their death — something you’ll soon do too. 

The game is hard as nails, for lack of a better idiom. It challenges some of the great challenging games of our generation, most of which originated from From Software (ahem… all the Souls titles). No matter your skill level, you will die initially, but don’t fight it. Once you die, you’ll emerge the way you started: with nothing. Certain items are permanent (you’ll find them soon), but you’ll lose consumables and weapons. Starting fresh has never felt so daunting. 

Actually, this horrendous deathloop (sorry) is encouraged to progress the narrative in Returnal. Some deaths trigger small segments of memories from Selene’s past (or future) adding small pieces to a seemingly convoluted puzzle of reason. 

Selene starts out with a standard pistol, and shortly after you’ll learn of alt-fire features in the various weapons. The game’s made up of six biomes’, each more challenging than the last. Initially, however, you’ll have to navigate a landscape that shifts every time you perish. You lose all sense of direction in the viney, tentacle, dark terrain at first. It gets better once you know the various pieces of the map by heart.

Imagine a game of Settlers of Catan. You have a set number of resource hexagons to place, but in every game, they’re placed differently. That’s kinda how the maps function in Returnal — just this time it’s a bunch of small maps that are trying to kill you. They’re filled with increasingly powerful enemies, each with its own crazy attack methods and projectiles (let’s not forget this is a bullet-hell format). 

Sensing a Return

Calling this the first ‘true PS5 exclusive’ isn’t far off. One of the very first things you’ll find, is the DualSense’s subtle but effective way of communicating the ‘feeling’ of the environment. The small haptic sensations felt when you emerge from your spaceship into the rain, includes ‘feeling’ the tiny water droplets on your fingertips. It even increases and decreases in intensity depending on how much tree cover you have — it sounds like overkill, but it’s exceptionally atmospheric. 

Rather than telling a story from start to finish, Returnal works to feed you bits of narrative while keeping you engaged in the technical effects. As you explore the biome, you’ll find better weapons, health upgrades, weapon mods and “parasites”. These are little critters that can attach to you that give you both buffs and debuffs. Yep. 

Then there’s a sort of currency called Obolites, but you lose your ‘gold’ upon death. There’s the more rare Ether currency that you hold onto even after death, and all of these can be used for items, artefacts or gates. Some Parasites or Ether will cause Malfunctions to your suit, and you’ll need to complete a task to fix it. 

It’s quite impressive that Housemarque managed to tie as many of the DualSense’s next-gen features into Returnal in such a natural way. Firing a weapon allows you to pull the trigger halfway for primary fire. And if you pull it through the tension mid-way, you’ll find alt-fire, which makes gameplay dynamic, with no need to switch to an alternate trigger or button for primary/alt-fire. 

That’s not even mentioning the PS5’s 3D audio engine that provides an immersive soundscape that captures both the cramped rainy ruins of the first biome and the windy sandy desert of the second and beyond. The eerie soundtrack elevates this already engaging game into an immersive horror environment. 

No detail goes unremarked here. Enter the in-game menu in the first biome and you’re met with a slight pitter-patter of raindrops on Selene’s helmet. The attention to detail is awe-inspiring, across every aspect of this game. 

Met with Death Orbs

While it’s not the official name of these enemies, you’ll encounter a wide array of airborne and ground-based enemies that legit just want you dead. The longer you play, the more deadly all of ‘em will become regardless of which biome you’re in. 

But the game does a stellar job of keeping its pacing dynamic by introducing more dimensions. This is done by making Selene increasingly less… human? Along the way, you’ll find Xenotype attachments that become part of your character, giving her increased alienlike abilities, opening up more areas to explore and methods to destroy the hostile fauna and flora all over the place. 

You’ll learn a melee skill — which comes in useful for shielded turrets and enemies. After the second biome, Selene learns a grapple ability, which encourages more verticality. This comes in handy when fighting speedy hostiles and getting into never before-explored nooks in all the maps. As you progress, more Xenotype abilities will become your own, bringing even more versatility into gameplay and encounters. 

Oh, and there will be encounters. 

Some of the best boss fights we’ve ever endured occur in this game, and it’s an experience we’ll forever remember. 

Returnal PS5 Verdict

While we haven’t really touched on the actual story, we’ll say this: Return that box of tissues as soon as possible. Don’t mistake Returnal for being a technique-heavy shooter that purely relies on skill. The developers managed to bring a heart-wrenching sci-fi/horror storyline to life through inventive storytelling techniques here. 

Enter a graphically beautiful world of Atropos, your new home littered with deadly inhabitants, dodge patterned death orbs and learn the ways of the giant Xenotype species while guiding Selene through the emotional turmoil of never-ending peace. Returnal pulls heavily on the PS5’s next-gen features to immerse the player, while without the fluff, it’ll still be an exceptionally enjoyable game. Try to put down the controller, we dare you.

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Digital Editor at Stuff. Nevermind the fancy title, I like writing about things that are cool. Like games, gadgets and sometimes even software. Depending on how cool it is.

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