There is a palpable weight of expectation that comes with being one of the first exclusives out for a new PlayStation generation. This is usually the time when you see those shots in the dark, the one-offs that exist primarily as technical showcases or ideas that are purposed into being a launch window title, that would be the cheapest game on the shelf in two years’ time. Then ignored for bigger brighter things. You know the ones; your Killzone: Shadowfalls, Order 1886s and the Ryse: Son of Romes of this world.
It’s at this time in the last generation that fledgling PS4 owners were treated to the first PS Plus freebie in the form of Resogun, a 2D planed Defender-like game from Swedish developers Housemarque, a studio outfit renowned for excellent, arcade-like shmups that revel in filling your screen with sparkling, deadly bullets. As a company, Housemarque feels somewhat intrinsically linked with the PlayStation brand, with most of their games being published exclusively, despite being smaller titles in general that could have done with multiplatform exposure. However, this partnership opened an identity for Housemarque, they quickly made a name for themselves as the go-to studio for arcade shmup thrills. Before Resogun, you had the top-down delights of Matterfall, before that was the nation series (Dead Nation, Alienation) and long before that you had the game that started the glorious partnership, Super Stardust HD.
The point being made by all of this is not that Housemarque just makes for a great PlayStation partner, but they are also notably experienced with smaller, PSN only titles that don’t break the bank. The mind boggles as to how we got here with Returnal, a full priced, AAA third person shooter with Housemarque’s brand proudly stamped on the box. This is where the expectation comes in, that is a fair amount of wedge to be trusting with a developer that previously made titles that some would consider rudimentary (from an initial glance, not trying to be harsh here). Could they possibly live up to the price point or customer predilections of what makes a game a triple-A release?
I’m happy to report that I believe that Returnal not only achieves this on practical level in terms of gameplay, but also on a technical level, where the PS5 feels like it is being taken on its first true outing, in more ways that can be appreciated at a cursory glance.
In Returnal, you play as Selene, a hapless interstellar explorer that crash lands on the verdant and very dangerous planet of Atropos. Selene is on Atropos to investigate the origin of the White Shadow, a signal which has been emanating and calling her to the planet. With her ship in ruins, it is her job to find the White Shadow, but also to get off the planet in one piece. Things immediately take a turn for the worse, when she and you, the player realise that she is in a constant loop of life and death, with failed encounters taking her back to the starting point, right next to her burning ship.
At face value, the story is a simple one. The narrative is slowly drip-fed to the player as they work their way through Atropos, with a structure that transcends both time and space. These culminate in encounters with Selene’s house that crops up multiple times during the narrative. Somehow, this 20th century structure has made it to this far-off alien planet and within holds a mystery that evolves at the same time as the player. Unfortunately, there is not much else I can say before this review heads into spoiler territory, but there is a genuine intrigue with each visit to this terrestrial property that is worth exploring whenever you return.
Getting through the wilds of Atropos is no easy feat and anyone reading this would be keenly aware of Returnal’s famous difficulty by now. As a third person shooter/Rogue-lite, this game and its world is designed with a clear goal to inconvenience the player at any step, with the concept of returning with each death being front and center to the experience. At times, it can feel that the game is being too harsh. Especially at first, when everything feels a bit much, with the myriad of enemies far outgunning the player. Tactically dismantling Selene within a moment notice if the player is not careful enough to hang back and watch how the enemies move or use their attack patterns. There is a lot to take in regarding mechanics, some of which are gated off until an item is unlocked which grants access.
This can feel massively daunting, especially when you see the bestiary that Returnal has to offer. The creatures of Atropos are relentless in their want to kill Selene on her travels and the player would be best to remember that. Ranging from squishy, flying enemies to hulking, dreadlocked beats that hunt Selene through each biome, each are capable of deadly attacks. None of these creatures, turrets or automatons hold back and all will attack at once if you give them a chance, resulting in a screen full of colourful projectiles that must be avoided, in addition to powerful melee attacks that can catch you by surprise if you are not careful. It is very easy to die to any of these creatures, big or small and learning each one’s quirks is the key to success. Least of all the boss fights, which can see arenas filled to the brim with glowing death.
While the initial difficulty and hostile bestiary may seem overbearing, there is a point to all the deaths and repeated attempts to dodge it. Each venture out into the dangerous world of Returnal is a lesson or a means in which to get better at the game. It’s in this time that you encounter artefacts; beneficial items that improve starts or grant special abilities, depending on how you use them. These are items that need to be discovered first before they can appear in other runs. Some of these are minor, giving baseline stat upgrades to your suit integrity or attacks, but others can be game changing. Take for example the Phantom Limb, which grants a 10% chance to heal when killing an enemy or the Astronaut Figurine which grants an extra life, extending your runs or boss fights and making things a lot more comfortable.
Other upgrades and stat bonus’s come in the form of the weapons you encounter. Each weapon comes within an archetypal class, ranging from your sidearm pistol, the carbine assault rifle class up to devastating rocket launchers. However, what stops you from getting comfortable with a single type of weapon and trying new things is the trait system. Each weapon comes with at least one of these and traits can include the ability to fire more projectiles, change the primary fire of a weapon or to leech health from opponents on hit. First, you must unlock each trait gradually and the only way to do so is to use the weapon with the trait on until it fully unlocks. While this can sound tedious, it can utterly transform Selene’s fortunes in further runs, with some traits getting to the point where they can spawn in random turrets that help fight for you, making the gunplay easier to handle while you focus on dodging the myriad of projectiles coming your way.
It’s a great system and makes for some interesting moments throughout Returnal. Unlocking traits made my fortunes with one weapon go from replacing it immediately to not wanting it to leave my side. Notably, this happened with the Hollowseeker rifle, which went from shooting piddly energy orbs to becoming a devastating EDM lightshow by the time I was done with it. To get it there, I had to persevere with an early version, which at times felt like I was bringing a pea shooter to a world war. Despite this initial feeling of futility, it made me try out other weapons, some of which completely surprised me by their effectiveness.
This all feeds nicely into the strong theme of risk/reward throughout the title. Just about every choice you make throughout Returnal effects the longevity of your run for better or for worse. Picking the right weapons and artefacts to purchase or pickup is only the start, additional options come to you in the form of malignancies and parasites, both of which net you something useful, however they come with a downside that could cripple Selene’s progress.
Malignancies are much like the health pickups or chests that you find throughout the game but come with a drawback in that they have a chance to make your suit malfunction, these detrimental effects can limit your ability to pickup weapons, cause extra damage for using keys or falling. The upside is that that chest could hold your next weapon upgrade or a free artefact. Collect too many malfunctions and this could result in a critical malfunction that can destroy artefacts you hold or reduce your health pool, so you must be careful if you go for these.
Parasites are similar but are a bit more black or white. These come with a clear upside, such as increasing your damage output from your weapon or increasing your health pool drastically. However, they always have a downside, and these feel more permanent. It’s up to you whether the pros outweigh the cons and for the most part, I found myself leaving these on the floor unless I felt that I could manage the detrimental effects or negate them entirely through my playstyle.
These mechanics all combine into something great, where no two runs feel the same. It’s important to note that besides the story critical upgrades such as the melee blade or grappling hook, you will lose everything else if you die during a run. All your artefacts, parasites, weapons, and proficiency disappear, meaning you would have to start the cycle again with just your trusty pistol to protect you. Not only that, but you will end up right at the start of the first area again. It can feel futile to have to pick yourself up after these moments, such as only seeing the first phase of a boss encounter after scraping through the build-up with a slither of health, but Returnal is worth persevering with, as the next run could be your best yet.
Another great reason to keep coming back, gameplay aside is the overall presentation of Returnal, This is the first game on PS5 that truly feels next gen to me, with each of the six available biomes each having a strong atmosphere of itself. The initial area of the Overgrown Ruins feels suitably alien, echoing vibes from Ridley Scott’s classic and erm, not so classic films such as Alien and Prometheus, featuring a forest teeming with verdancy and ominous looking bio-organic pods that are dotted around. The ruins are a stark contrast to the next biome, the Crimson Wastes which is an area that would look right at home on the book cover of a pulp sci-fi novel. While these will be the levels you will likely spend the most time in, Housemarque have managed to keep these fresh with the randomisation of the areas with each return to life.
Each biome is made up of rooms, strung together in a random format. While this has been done before, special note must be given to how organic everything feels. No matter how long I played, I never felt that parts of a biome were out of place or didn’t belong. Instead, it still felt like structure that had been designed to fit together to the next. While some room types did end up repeating a lot, even after ten hours, I was still encountering new rooms for the biome that I hadn’t seen before.
The biomes are further enhanced by Returnal’s use of the PS5 hardware in ways in which I have not seen before. The DualSense controller gets a proper work out with Returnal, from the haptic vibrations that simulate the pitter patter of rain as it hits Selene’s suit, to the knocking footsteps that are felt when entering an abandoned ruin. The triggers also get a workout thanks to the brilliant implementation with the alt-fire system, which applies a satisfying crunch to your trigger pull when the mode is ready to fire or applies a weightless travel when it isn’t. This is taken to even further lengths when coupling this with a headset that is compatible with Sony’s 3D audio system. You can hear every detail in the world around you and this is by far the best incorporation of the audio technology that I have heard.
Most importantly however, is just how smooth everything runs and the removal of gamified, immersion breaking tropes that I never realised were a problem until now. After I had played through the game, I had a realisation. At no point did I sense that the game was loading, even when exiting one area and entering a completely different one. This made me feel that I was with Selene all the way, that there were no unseen passages of time, that my four-hour runs were four hours of her life, with no breaks in between. There are clearly some shenanigans going on behind the scenes that the PS5 is working on, but at no point did I see that in action. Instead, the game feels congruous, with no downtime during moments where Selene is living, dying, or returning to life. It keeps a breakneck pace that the previous generation just couldn’t keep up with.
While some will be put off by the difficulty and the disheartening throwbacks to the first biome upon death, this is a game that is worth persevering with. To put it on the shelf after a couple of failed runs would be a detriment, as there is plenty to see and do in the dangerous world of Returnal. From the visuals, to the immersive extrasensory elements; It’s all very impressive and the future of PS5 exclusives is looking bright, especially now that we have seen what a relatively small developer can do with the hardware, when given the tools and time they need to see it through.
+ Tight, kinetic gunplay with depth
+ Highly atmospheric, especially with 3D audio, Dualsense haptics and visual flair
+ A story that intrigues, but doesn’t get in the way
- The challenge will be too much for some
- Some technical hiccups, but nothing game-breaking (that I encountered)