Image: IGDB/Housemarque

‘Returnal’ review: the PS5’s first must-have exclusive?

What’s the point of buying a PS5? It’s a valid question. With a vast array of errors and bugs, a lack of external storage options, and a stock shortage that lines the pockets of eBay resellers, many are opting to stick with their PlayStation 4, especially while developers are still supporting the console. If you’re looking for a justification, then Housemarque’s PS5 exclusive Returnal is as good as any, at least until God of War: Ragnarök launches.

Returnal is best described as a roguelike bullet-hell game. Rather than consisting of a selection of levels and checkpoints, Returnal sees players start over every time they die, albeit with a few handy caveats. Once you get to certain points in the game, such as defeating a boss or reaching a certain point of the biome, you will unlock specific items or portals that essentially allow you to skip these parts of the game. Aside from these items, and the one consumable item called ‘Ether’, everything else you gather during your run – weapons, consumables, and currency – is all lost. Combine this with a collection of enemies that just love to barrage you with a hefty stream of bullets when you go near them, and you’ve got the core elements of Returnal’s gameplay loop.

There was a reason why I somehow kept going after getting beaten down by the same boss for almost ten hours straight

There has already been a lot of discourse about Returnal’s difficulty, and I won’t deny that it certainly is one tough game to complete. Even the most veteran players will get frustrated during particularly difficult sections or when coming up against certain enemies (I’m looking at you, drones). To see evidence of this difficulty, all you need to do is log onto eBay and search for Returnal. As with anything, however, this difficulty is on a learning curve. The game starts off incredibly hard, especially before beating the first boss, but as you learn more about the enemies, items, and how to not get hit, the game gets much more rewarding – especially in the later stages. Where my issue comes with the difficulty is in the luck. So much of what makes a run go well depends on the random items or artefacts (essentially skill buffs) that you can pick up or purchase – items that are usually randomised, or by the fact the biome may randomly generate a specific door closer to you than it did previously. The fact your two-hour run can be ruined by an unlucky moment makes the game feel much less fair than it probably should be.

All of this difficulty is at least rewarded by a tense, sprawling narrative. Returnal sees you take control of Selene – an astronaut who crash-lands on the planet Atropos, and is stuck in a time loop, searching for the mysterious ‘White Shadow’ broadcast she believes may be the way out. The crux of the story takes place in these hauntingly tense ‘house sequences’ that see the camera shift from a third-person to a first-person perspective, designed specifically to put you on edge. While it draws heavily on horror elements that, if like me, you have never really enjoyed, these short, snappy bursts of anxiety add more pieces to Returnal’s ever-growing story. I can’t really say much about any more of the storyline without spoiling it, but I will say that there was a reason why I somehow kept going after getting beaten down by the same boss for almost ten hours straight.

Returnal is probably the first game (aside from Astro’s Playground) to show off what the PS5 can do

So, let’s talk about the bosses. These bullet-hell creatures of chaos each have three phases, an enormous amount of health, and a vast array of tactics designed to make your life miserable. And it works. The patterns and moves each boss utilises are just about fair enough to where you can successfully predict them and avoid being hit, with each different biome and boss presenting a unique challenge that prevents these epic confrontations from getting stale after one attempt. The enormity and sheer awesomeness of these final encounters did wither away a bit towards the latter stages of Returnal, however, which put a slight dampener on the game as I did not feel the relief in victory as much as I did against earlier bosses, for example.

What you might find more difficult is actually reaching the bosses, or reaching them with enough health to defeat them. To face off against the boss and advance through the story, you must traverse through one (or in some cases, two) biomes of a varying number of ‘rooms’, facing more alien creatures or machines designed to bring nothing but pain and hurt. As these biomes are procedurally generated, meaning they change and offer different paths every time you start over, it is only after quite some time that they start to get too repetitive. It’s here where the graphical power of the PS5 comes through, with each biome offering a beautiful landscape completely different from the last one, although I couldn’t help but feel that Housemarque could have tried to find inspiration further outside the generic elemental aesthetic of level design that is pretty worn at this point, as there are only so many desert, ice, and jungle levels I can play through in my life. Its slight twist during the mid-point does mitigate this, at least. These biomes are all well worth exploring to their fullest, even if they end up ruining your run.

One of the more unique aspects about Returnal is that it is among the few truly exclusive PlayStation 5 games. It isn’t available on any other platform – perhaps partially explaining its quick drop in the weekly best-selling games ranking. For the few players who have managed to buy a PS5, Returnal is probably the first game (aside from Astro’s Playground) to show off what the PS5 can do, and what separates it from the likes of the PS4, Xbox One, and even the Xbox Series X. Thanks to the PS5’s SSD, loading times are virtually non-existent within Returnal, and can only be spotted by eagle-eyed players who have perhaps loaded into new biomes a few too many times already.

I fear that its extreme pricing combined with the lack of PS5’s available will lead to Returnal selling far fewer copies than it deserves

Then, it comes to the DualSense. The PS5’s DualSense controller is perhaps my favourite thing about the console, and the only part of the PS5 not riddled with bugs. In Returnal, its unique features – mainly the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers – are used to perfection. Haptic feedback is the latest iteration of controller rumble that allows players to ‘feel’ different environmental effects or actions. Returnal utilises this to perfection, subtly using the rumble to increase the tension in some of the more uneasy moments in the game or to create a more immersive environment, such as allowing players to ‘feel’ the gentle rainfall in the first biome. The DualSense’s adaptive triggers allow you to switch between the standard fire and the ‘Alt-Fire’ mode of your weapons depending on how much of the trigger you hold down. It’s these subtle nudges that really enhance the gaming experience, and somewhat justify the existence of Returnal as a PS5-exclusive.

So would I recommend Returnal? As a game, sure. But as a product, there’s something that’s stopping me from being able to give a full endorsement of Returnal – the price. In the discussion about the rising cost of AAA games, much of the content remains American-centric, criticising publishers for pricing their games at $70. This is a justified complaint, which is also a much larger issue in the UK. Returnal costs £69.99 – which is worth just under $100. I struggle to find any games worthy of that price tag, and I fear that its extreme pricing combined with the lack of PS5’s available will lead to Returnal selling far fewer copies than it deserves. And it’s a shame too, because it’s one hell of a game.

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