Published on May 25th, 2021 | by Sean Warhurst
Returnal PlayStation 5 Review
Summary: The core gameplay loop is definitely not for everyone but the rewards for persisting are well worth pursuing here. The gunplay and movement feels absolutely divine and the “one more run” approach to the gameplay is certainly addictive and unique amongst larger budgeted titles.
Returnal, Housemarque’s fledgling foray into the ‘Triple-A’ gaming space is one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played.
It’s also one of the best.
The core premise of Returnal can be distilled down to a few sentences. Playing as ASTRA Corp explorer Selene Vassos, you awaken on a foreign planet, disoriented after a crash landing.
Discovering what appears to be your own corpse nearby, you venture into the foreboding environment ahead of you, armed only with your trusty pistol.
Seeking out the source of a broadcast transmission is what initially drives Selene’s quest but pretty quickly the story starts taking a few unforeseen existential left turns and the cause of the ‘Groundhog Day’ mechanic that drives the gameplay loop becomes the central mystery.
As intriguing as the narrative is, it’s in the gameplay and performance arenas that Returnal performs in spectacularly, albeit with a few caveats.
The gunplay here is sublime, responsive and made even more satisfying by the application of haptic feedback.
Essentially, Returnal boils down to being an amalgam of the ‘bullet hell’ and the ‘rouge-like’ genres, seeing you embark on perilous runs and dancing between flurries of bullets whilst attempting to reach your goal without dying.
It’s that latter part that is the source of all of my frustration; I’ve smashed my way through many a tough title, having platinumed all the Fromsoft Souls-like titles, but the inherent difficulty here is much more dependent on you honing your skills and adapting to the randomly generated levels on the fly.
You can’t brute force your way through Returnal – each run sends you back to the beginning of the loop to start again with only your starter sidearm and it’s impossible to ‘level’ up your character, as it were. You can, however, collect Ether and artefacts that will carry across permanently, and each time you unlock a weapon trait they’ll also be available on scavenged weapons from that point on.
This means that each run contributes at least a little something to your pool of permanent resources, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that the gameplay loop doesn’t pull any punches and will definitely put you through your paces.
Throughout the game you’ll be collecting new weapons and unlocking their traits, scavenging artefacts that grant new abilities and fabricating consumables to drop during the heat of battle. The randomly generated levels can take a bit of time adjusting to but after a few runs you’ll start to recognise the layouts and approach them accordingly, as they don’t seem to change as much as they more tend to “shuffle around” the map.
Collecting parasites can help your chances of survival, although they generally have a negative to counter any positive benefit they grant you, and you’ll also have to make a choice between risking getting a suit malfunction or a useful item whenever you encounter malignant pickups. Suit malfunctions apply a penalty to Selene, such as cutting her attack down by 85% whenever she’s not moving, until a task is fulfilled.
This adds a nice little risk and reward mechanic to things, although I often found myself skipping malignant items as the payoff generally wasn’t worth it.
You’ll spend a lot of your first few hours running back and forth through the first couple of biomes, unlocking permanent upgrades like the sword or grapple and getting to grips with the mechanics.
Restarting with a clean inventory after each death can get super frustrating at times, especially as you’ll get to a later biome only to get slammed by some kamikaze tie-fighter and sent back essentially three stages with nary to show for it.
The lack of a save function has been a major discussion point and, whilst it is admittedly odd, I can personally understand why Housemarque elected to make this decision. Although save scumming is definitely a thing, I think the developers can avoid players exploiting a save system by possibly having a temporary save that deletes itself once you load back in to a run.
The main bugbear here is Housemarque’s solution for the lack of a save – Either commit an hour or more to attempting a run in a single sitting or put your console into rest mode. Now, even overlooking the rest mode bug that bricked PS5’s during the first few months after it launched, this method is just not reliable enough; whether it’s a power outage or a surprise update, a decent run can be borked far too easily.
Speaking of patches, when Returnal first came out there were a few issues with door not opening and other issues caused by wearing the pre-order bonus suits. While attempting to fix these issues, Housemarque inadvertently released an update that would wipe all save progress. Although they quickly pulled it, the damage had been done and many players, myself included, had lost upwards of twenty hours and multiple biomes of progress.
Another point to note – Prior to the latest version of the game, players were able to return to the crashed Helios ship and rest in order to restore their health. This allowed players to cautiously stalk through the first biomes and collect health pickups, which turns into life-bar boosting resin when collected at full health.
This meant that you could enter the following biome with a decently jacked health bar as well as a solid arsenal behind you… Not so much now, however, with the Helios only offering a single-use minor health bump following the latest update.
Graphics and Audio
Returnal is a visual powerhouse taking full advantage of the PS5’s capabilities to provide a dizzying spectacle for the eyes; although a lot of the environments are relatively grimy, the light-show of enemy projectiles is truly a sight to behold. The more realistic elements work just as well, from the Giger-esque forest of the first biome to a barren tundra, every biome looks absolutely terrific, as does Selene herself.
The audio is also exemplary, especially with headphones; whether it’s the chattering of hidden creatures, Selene’s stoic musings, the brittle arctic wind echoing around an empty, frozen chamber or the haunting strains of an organ, the sound design plays an important part in drawing you into the universe of the game and it does so exceptionally well here.
The core gameplay loop is definitely not for everyone but the rewards for persisting are well worth pursuing here. The gunplay and movement feels absolutely divine and the “one more run” approach to the gameplay is certainly addictive and unique amongst larger budgeted titles.
The absence of a save function and the post-launch troubles are my only real gripes with Returnal, although I’ll also whinge loudly about those asswipe tie-fighter things to anyone who will listen.
The RNG nature of things means that sometimes the odds are just going to be stacked against you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be insurmountable as a result. I’m probably outing myself as a ‘scrub’ here but I do wish that they left the Helios healing exploit in for those of us who like to maximise their potential before moving to the next area, but, again, I understand why they removed the function.
One of the best titles on the PS5, for my money at least, even with its flaws Returnal is a thrilling, addictive and punishing journey that rewards perseverance and dedication in the most satisfying of ways.
Primary Format – PlayStation 5
Game Genre – Bullet Hell/ Rogue-lite
Rating – M
Game Developer – Housemarque
Game Publisher – Sony Interactive Entertainment
Reviewer – Sean Warhurst