I spent the last week playing Housemarque’s upcoming PS5 exclusive Returnal and I absolutely love it, but don’t consider this a review.
“Ok, so what even is Returnal?” If you had asked me this question a month ago I would’ve shrugged and mumbled something about a generically titled PS5 game that I had little interest in.
Then my review code came in and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
It’s almost like Returnal is tailor-made for me. It’s an insanely challenging third-person shooter with roguelike elements. Think Hades with a AAA budget.
Returnal starts off with the main character, Selene, crashing her spaceship on an alien planet. As she climbs out the wreckage, she quickly stumbles into her own corpse, signalling to the player that there’s something up with the way this game handles death.
Venture a little further and you’ll eventually run into your own demise, only to start the whole thing over again.
You’ll die a lot in Returnal since the game is challenging as hell, but fortunately there are some upgrades (like your melee attack) and items that you get to keep after death.
Those are few and far between; most of the progress you’ll make stems from learning how to overcome the game’s enemies and hazards.
Though tough as nails, Returnal plays like a dream. It runs at a buttery-smooth 60 frames per second and the controls feel great. You jump, dash, and shoot your way through the procedurally generated world with ease, and each encounter feels like it matters.
High risk, high reward is what Returnal what excels at. You die very quickly, but you gain power-ups and bonuses just as easily. This design philosophy shines in the game’s Adrenaline system.
As you kill enemies without taking damage, your adrenaline level rises. Kill two foes and you gain the first level, making it easier to pull off fast reloads, which you execute by hitting the reload button at exactly the right time. Slay another couple of enemies without getting hit, and you’ll gain another perk, like a boosted melee damage or increased weapon XP.
Initially this system can be very frustrating, because it makes getting hit even more infuriating than it already is. Every enemy deals a ton of damage, healing items are scarce, and losing your adrenaline level feels like you’re getting kicked while you’re already down.
The flipside is that Returnal feels amazing when you’re doing well. Once you get a hang of the controls and learn the enemies’ attack patterns, you’ll fly through the initial stages and feel like you can conquer anything. It took me about a week of playing to finish the first of the six worlds, and when I finally did I was jumping on my couch out of sheer joy.
Dying still sucks, you can easily lose hours of progress by messing up a single encounter, but each subsequent run will get easier.
The world is procedurally generated, so you won’t get the same layout twice in a row. You’ll also gain permanent unlocks that allow you to skip certain sections or gain access to new rooms, alleviating the frustration a little bit.
That being said, Returnal will still kick your ass a thousand times before you start making significant progress. I can’t stress enough that this game will absolutely wreck you before it lets you feel any sort of joy.
Returnal looks, sounds, and plays exactly like I want it to. It’s the big-budget PS5-exclusive roguelike I never dreamed of getting. I still find it very hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t invested in the genre. It’s harder than Dark Souls, it’s more obtuse than Spelunky, and it will make you snap your controller in two before it will make you feel happy about your purchase.
Returnal retails at $69.99, which is a steep price for those who aren’t deep into these sort of challenging roguelikes. Plus, I can’t even really comment on the value proposition, as I barely made it out of the first world and haven’t even scratched the surface of this wonderful game.
I hope Housemarque releases a demo at some point down the line, so that those with a casual interest in the genre can dip their toe in before buying it at its full retail price.