Returnal PS5 Hands-On Impressions – Returnal has always felt like uncharted territory for gaming ever since its announcement. What was pitched as Housemarque‘s first AAA game and what might be the roguelike with the highest budget we have ever seen Returnal has always been a shot in the dark. Would it come together in the end? Will all the pieces work in the final product?
Well, after playing the first few hours of the experience and getting to explore the opening two biomes in the game I can say that everything that makes roguelikes good is here and Housemarque’s arcade, fast-paced legacy of arcade games has been transferred to a third-person perspective flawlessly. But what might shock you is that Returnal isn’t pulling any punches it is a roguelike through and through and no watered down for a mainstream audience at all.
Returnal PS5 Hands-On Impressions
A Crash, The Attack, My Death
Those three phrases which were the core of the reveal trailer for the game are at the heart of Returnal. You play Selene, an astronaut who has landed on the planet of Atropos after your ship crashed. But, upon every death on this mysterious planet, Selene relives the same crash over and over again. A crash, the attack, Selene’s death. That is the core loop of Returnal and you will see the opening cutscene to the game over and over again, albeit shortened down to a montage of five or six clips.
But, each time Selene relives this crash, the sequence of events in her mind is shaken up by the brief appearance of figures and her home. Through these sequences, new details about who Selene is, why you can’t die, and just what is happening are teased early on and I expect to be elaborated on as I get deeper into the experience.
On top of that, while traversing the world of Atropos, Returnal does an excellent job of incorporating its story into its gameplay. Occasionally, you will come across Selene’s old house (as mentioned above) and new details about the planet you are on, its creatures, and the civilisation that lived here before.
While exploring you may come across rooms filled with nanobot reconstructions of events from the past, such as a Xenotype species in conflict with a foe. These rooms haven’t revealed too much to me yet, but I am hoping that as I reach new areas I will see and hear more about what was on Atropos before.
A Roguelike First And Foremost
As I mentioned during the early paragraphs if you thought Returnal was going to be a watered-down roguelike built for the mainstream PS5 audience you are absolutely wrong. For better and maybe for worse, Returnal has all the tropes you would expect from a game of its ilk.
You lose everything upon death, all your upgrades and buffs that you gained in your current cycle will be dropped and you spawn back at your crashed ship ready to fight through the hordes and hordes of Geiger and Lovecraftian-inspired creatures waiting for you through each door.
In fact, players aren’t at all ready for how hardcore Returnal actually is. I have only made it to the second biome in the game so far, but as of now when you die you lose practically everything, only retaining your permanent upgrades which are mostly environmental tools and items that allow you to use equipment and fast travel within the world. All your weapons, upgrades, bonuses, abilities, consumables, and currency are all gone (except for Ether which allows you to obtain a random item at the start of your run or open some chests within the world).
But, the real kicker is that it doesn’t look like Returnal will give you a choice of weapon or starting ability when you begin a run. Instead, you wake up from the crash site of your ship naked and only holding a pistol at your side.
Initially, this is a shock to the system, even as someone who has played a fair few roguelikes. But, after about an hour or two, things start to fall into place and I picked up the combat loop, how to dodge projectiles and enemies, and get to where I want quickly. On top of that, once you beat the boss in an area you don’t have to kill them again to make it to the portal in the second area of the game. You can skip right to the portal, find where it is on the map and jump right to the next area of the game, which lessens the steep difficulty that is initially presented to you.
But, don’t be fooled, Returnal is still tough as nails and it will test you and your abilities. Enemies attack relentlessly and will swarm you, with enemy variety increasing as you get deeper into the biome you are currently in. But, this is all complemented by smooth gameplay that feels great to control. Dodging is quick and easy and shooting can be done while jumping and moving to avoid projectiles.
As with Housemarque’s other games, my deaths in Returnal were never because of a gameplay issue or an unfair fight, they are always because I made a mistake and that is by far the most enjoyable thing about the game right now. Learning from your mistakes, utilising the many, many upgrades, items and consumables to give you a leg up in a fight, and slowly learning how everything on Atropos works.
PS5 Power And Performance
When it comes to how Returnal performs, the game has been a pretty flawless experience for me. I haven’t had one crash or major gameplay disruption in the five hours I have played so far. The only issue I had was that I got trapped in a pool of acid and had to dash out of the way as I respawned to stop myself from getting trapped again.
But, the game looks and performs flawlessly. Running at an eye-watering 4K 60 FPS with ray-tracing enabled, Returnal might be the prettiest game I have seen on PS5, especially as the dark world of Atropos is excellently accented by the bright, neon attacks released by enemies flying and scuttling about.
By far the most impressive part about Returnal though is the DualSense controller and 3D audio in the game. Games have used these features since the PS5 launched but what Housemarque have done here is on par with Team Asobi’s work on Astro’s Playroom. Being able to walk around and feel rain hit Selene’s spacesuit in the controller is incredible and the rumble that emanates from the DualSense during specific world events really heightens the experience.
3D Audio does just a good job and it really feels like you are on Atropos when fighting enemies or just slowly making your way through the different corridors which have been pulled together in the current cycle you are in.
But, there is one baffling oversight that made me shake my head in disbelief when I discovered it. Most roguelikes have a built-in save feature that allows you to save at specific points or in the middle of a run, so that you don’t lose your progress and can pick back up from where you were, even if you had to run and complete an errand. Well, Returnal doesn’t.
Instead, if you quit the game or turn off your PS5 in the middle of a cycle you will lose all progress you have made in that cycle, starting back at your ship with nothing but the permanent progression upgrades you have made.
The only way to get around this is to put your PS5 in rest mode while you do what you have to do and then turn it back on, resuming where you were, but this is a colossal waste of power. I can’t quite believe this is a thing that exists but it is and is easily the worst part about Returnal. The game doesn’t even have a menu so as soon as you start the game, you see the cutscene of Selene crashing her ship and enter the game right from there, which gives it a nice cinematic feel, but I would rather be able to reload my game from the middle of a cycle.
A Roguelike With AAA Quality And Production Values That Has Impressed Initially
As most PlayStation Studios games do, Returnal has made a bold first impression and is the AAA roguelike many of us have dreamed about for years. It looks amazing, is a strong showcase of the PS5’s hardware, and has a unique setting and a mystery I am excited to discover in more detail.
Despite the alarming ability to not save mid-cycle the variety of upgrades, weapons, and modifiers on offer, and the way Housemarque have weaved together narrative and story is impressive. I still have to see most of the game but my initial impressions of Returnal are that it has the potential to be Housemarque’s best game and maybe the prettiest game on PS5, but newcomers may not find it particularly easy to get into.
Returnal releases for PS5 on April 30, 2021.
Preview copy provided by publisher.