I would hate Returnal if I didn’t love it so much.
This is one of the first major Sony exclusives for the PlayStation 5 and I was excited to get my hands onto a title that made full use of this console’s powerful graphics and revolutionary controllers.
I didn’t know anything beyond this game beyond the announcement trailer from June 2020, but the stunning graphics, mysterious story, and hellish combat sequences I observed from the launch trailer were all I needed to convince me to jump in.
What gaming feels like
From the very moment you enter Returnal, you realise how all-encompassing this game is (FYI, I highly recommend playing with 3D audio headphones because the sound design is like nothing I’ve ever encountered).
You play as Selene, an ASTRA interstellar scout. In the opening cinematic, you’re cruising through an asteroid belt in your spaceship Helios, only to collide with something mid-air that sends your damaged ship hurtling towards the surface of the mysterious alien planet Atropos.
The PS5 controllers’ haptic feedback is utilised fully in this moment, allowing you to feel every bump and air friction right there in your hands.
When Selene wakes from unconsciousness following the crash, raindrops manifest in feather-light vibrations sprinkled around the controller.
Once in combat, the adaptive triggers let you feel the weight of your weapons and each round of ammo fired into an enemy which is an awe-inspiring gaming experience I didn’t know I needed.
Like Groundhog Day in space
You will get very familiar with this opening sequence because if you die during a scuffle with Atropos’ bioluminescent tentacled monsters will bring you right back to the start to emerge from Helios once more. Trust me when I say you will die a lot in this game.
But Atropos is a shapeshifting planet, which means the layout of each ‘cycle’ will be different. Enemies won’t be in the same place as the last time, either, so there’s no way of building up that muscle memory to the point where you can just play on autopilot. Oh, that fancy powerful weapon you picked up? Poof, it’s gone too, but it leaves open the possibility to discover others.
This is a mechanic in a subgenre of video games known as ‘roguelikes’, which is actually quite an old-school game design where each time you die, you go back to the start.
Returnal feels fresh though. It forces you to adapt and tiny pieces of progression, like collecting alien tech to upgrade your gear, and that’s what motivates you to keep going rather than giving up in a childlike tantrum. But I’ll admit that there were times when fatigue and frustration kicked in.
Shoot and loot
If developers Housemarque are known for two things, it’s fast-paced combat and flashy graphics. They’ve seriously outdone themselves with Returnal.
The game’s energy ebbs and flows, with a mixture of frenetic gunfire in between short lulls of exploration, translating alien glyphs, and uncovering tech caches.
But combat can be so manic at times that it’s almost unfortunate there’s zero time to appreciate the visuals of bioluminescent monsters and their deadly orbs. Sci-fi warfare never looked quite so gorgeous.
The world of Returnal is supremely challenging, masterfully created, and one of the most unique gaming experiences of the last decade. It’s a fantastic showpiece for the PS5 hardware, too.
The deja vu certainly won’t be for everyone, but as far as I’m concerned, this is definitely a game worth dying for and perseverance is greatly rewarded.
Sophie Goulopoulos is a freelance writer and avid gamer | @SophieglpsF
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