Returnal PS5 Review – August 21, 2017: that is when Housemarque declared “ARCADE IS DEAD” and announced that they would leave behind the genre they had loved for more than 20 years to pursue games that sold better and were enjoyed by a wider audience.
As of this writing it is April 29, 2021, and Housemarque has left that mantra behind to release Returnal, a game that expertly keeps the essence of the studio’s arcade roots, offering non-stop action, blood-pumping battles, and a visual kaleidoscope of colors, while incorporating those features into a package that is more marketable; a third-person roguelike.
After a journey that took them through highs and lows, ups and downs, peaks and troughs, I am thrilled to be able to say that Returnal is easily Housemarque‘s best game and an action-packed, visually gorgeous delight that is the first game to truly realise the potential the PS5 promised back at its reveal event.
Returnal PS5 Review
As mentioned above, Returnal is a roguelike, which means that each time you die you respawn back at the start of your journey, taking on the experience yet again. But, a big problem with this genre in the past has been incorporating narrative into the experience. How do you make a story which is engaging to see over and over, but also provides players with a reason to pay attention when they are on their fifteenth run?
Returnal does a solid job of resolving these issues. You play as Selene, a middle-aged woman who relives the moment her ship crashed on the planet of Atropos over and over again. With no memory of her past or why this is happening to her, she gets up from the ground every time she wakes up and traverses the six biomes on Atropos to discover whatever she can and hopefully find an escape.
But, each time Selene wakes up, she is greeted by glimpses of a life (unsure if it is her’s) and hints at a mystery she may or may not be embroiled in. These flashes take the form of moments that are seeping through her amnesiac mind, such as her home (which you can actually find on Atropos and go inside), a strange Spaceman figure, and the song (Don’t Fear) The Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult. None of it makes any sense to Selene or you initially and Housemarque manage to keep that mystery alive and enticing for the entire 20 or so hour journey you will take to see all that is on offer here narratively speaking.
But, while the mystery kept me engaged for most of the experience the payoff never really managed to satisfy me. Returnal is an experience like Arrival or Interstellar, where parts are disorientating and don’t ever make sense. And, despite the narrative ending not really grabbing me, I appreciate the shots Housemarque are firing here and just how utterly weird and alien everything is.
It has its charm, although I will highlight that when the credits roll the first time, that is not the end of the journey that you’ll be taking with Selene. Act 3 continues past the credits and has you finding a number of randomly spawning artefacts in the environment so that you can access Selene’s house one final time. The problem with this is the game never actually tells you any of this. Many people will hop off at the end of Act 2, not realising that Act 3 is where all the pieces start to fit together, at least somewhat.
I had to ask multiple other people playing the game what I needed to do to complete Act 3 and these issues definitely hold Returnal back when it comes to how it communicates with the player.
The Atmosphere Of Atropos
As you explore the world of Atropos, you will come across six different biomes. One is the darkened forest we have seen in most of the trailers, but as you get further you will explore a blood-red desert, frozen caverns, and even a monolithic citadel made out of ancient structures left untouched for years.
The world of Returnal is incredible and each new area has its own sights and unique atmosphere that you will become more familiar with each time you explore them. These areas are also spliced up so that the ones that are somewhat similar don’t feel too repetitive as you have to explore somewhere else before reaching them each time.
My one nit-pick here is that the first and fourth area’s overall template is mostly reused but given a fresh coat of paint. Once I reached the fourth area I was initially disappointed by this, but as I continued to play, it became less of a problem and the narrative reason behind this decision became more convincing.
What makes Returnal truly special though is how Housemarque has utilised the PS5’s 3D Audio and DualSense controller to truly make it feel like you are on Atropos. You will feel the rain hit Selene’s suit in the DualSense controller, which is an incredible feeling that never loses its magic. Combine that with impeccable 3D Audio and the Prometheus-like world of Returnal is one of the most atmospheric I have ever stepped foot on.
Hearing creatures caw in the distance and enemies gurgle and produce various other unintelligible noises make their tentacle-like figure and alien qualities even creeper. For a team that has never really built an environment as grand as Returnal, let alone one in full 3D like this, Housemarque has weaved a masterful tapestry and I would love to see them continue down this path of creating new, fascinating, alien worlds because their first try is one worth celebrating.
Complimenting Housemarque’s incredible world-building is a haunting score from Bobby Krlic that really captures the alien world of Atropos and makes you feel uncomfortable at every turn, with the music often jumping around, skipping and incorporating sounds you wouldn’t usually expect to hear within music. It all does a great job at making Returnal’s mysterious planet even more strange.
One incredible thing about the score I have to mention is that the aforementioned, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper and the catchy melody of the chorus in that song is actually incorporated into the ambient music in the world at points and realising why that is after completing the game was a chill-inducing moment. That is all I’ll say about that.
Getting To Grips
But, you are probably wondering by now, How Does Returnal play? Well, the answer is to imagine Housemarque’s classic bullet-hell arcade gameplay, but from a 3D perspective, with the dodging and movement mechanics in Control, and classic Metroidvania elements of obtaining new permanent upgrades that allow you to access new areas.
Yep, Returnal is a mish-mash of ideas squished inside a wrap of roguelike goodness that takes everything you love from the genre and adds a few ideas of its own to help new players push through the typical barriers those familiar with the genre will know all too well.
The hardest moments in Returnal are the opening hours, where you are adjusting to how difficult the game is and the fact that when you die you pretty much lose everything. Unlike in most roguelikes where you can keep some stuff, there are no skills that stay with you and the only currency you keep is Ether, which can be used to open chests containing valuable items. You also keep the Metroidvania-style traversal upgrades.
Yep, when you die you return to the first area of the game and lose all the artefacts, all the upgrades, any weapon you have. For all intents and purposes, you are pretty much starting fresh. The game also bombards you with a lot of terminology and nomenclature without really explaining a lot of it. This is definitely going to be a barrier for a lot of people and I reckon a lot of the general gaming audience who just pick up the biggest game every month will jump off after about two hours.
But, I urge you to stick with it as once you get to the third area of the game and get into the flow of how Returnal works as a roguelike it all starts to slot into place and you realise how to play.
That loop in Returnal is by far the most enjoyable I have played, mostly because of how it respects the player and doesn’t throw unnecessary challenges at you if you don’t want it. Whilst you go out and explore, grabbing new weapons, materials, currencies, and more to spend on items to craft at the Fabricator, you can choose to follow the main path, indicated by a blue square door on your map, or explore further into the side areas of the randomly generated environment, shown by dark blue triangle doors on your map.
This agency is something I really appreciated as it allowed me to choose exactly where I wanted to go and didn’t hand me a death I wasn’t prepared for. Challenge rooms, which offer intense combat sequences are completely optional and indicated with a yellow door, while the boss rooms are given large, intimidating red doors.
One thing I also enjoyed about Returnal’s roguelike setup and something that will make it more approachable to new players to the genre is that the game is effectively split in two, with biomes 1-3 being separated from biomes 4-6, meaning that can only play through three biomes at once. This makes Returnal far more enjoyable than most head-bashing roguelikes because you don’t have to play the whole game to complete the story, only the second half. But, I would have liked to see the ability to play each section back to back after you have beaten the game and this won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
One major issue I have with Returnal’s roguelike structure is the fact that you cannot save in the middle of the cycle. The only way to pause your game in the middle of the cycle is to leave your PS5 on or put it into Rest Mode. Exit out of the game, or turn your PS5 off and when you open the game back up you will find yourself back at your crashed ship. It is one of those head-scratching decisions and feels like a pointless restriction on players’ choice.
But, whilst all the roguelike elements might fit together well and offer a captivating experience, a roguelike is no good without combat that compliments it. Thankfully, Returnal’s is practically perfect.
Returnal’s combat is a perfectly choreographed dance where you and your enemies each have their part to play in the routine and it all comes together perfectly every single fight you engage in. Dodging and jumping around as you avoid brightly colored beams and balls of energy coming at you from all directions is a frenetic, exhilarating feeling.
But, while you do have a lot to keep track of on the screen I never felt overwhelmed and every death was because I made a mistake or didn’t dodge at the right moment. Returnal works so well in the moment because you are in control at all times.
Even against giant foes, like a squid-like tentacled creature that sends upwards of 100 balls of energy at you at once, upon working out the rhythm of the combat against that foe I was having such a fun time and this is easily the strongest part of the game. Where you just submerge yourself in the dance and move, dodge, and shoot without really processing each decision. All of it is instinctive.
Complimenting these enemies, of which there is a wide variety, is a collection of bosses that are all fun to fight and spectacles in their own right for different reasons. Everything I mentioned above applies to these fights, but the bosses are where Returnal just utterly blows anything it has thrown at you out of the water.
Whilst not as overwhelming as some of the arena fights, these bosses are a true spectacle all wildly unique. One boss will have you dodging his attacks as he flies through an arena, sending shockwaves at you, while others have you doing completely unthinkable things that I don’t want to spoil. All of this includes a cascade of colorful attacks coming at you that you have to dodge.
These moments are just incredible and I can’t really put into words how much I love the boss design and gameplay in Returnal. It is one of those things that you have to play to truly understand, because Returnal uses the DualSense controller to really heighten the tension in combat through its haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, triggering your weapon’s alternate fire.
On the subject of how Returnal uses the PS5 and its hardware, this feels like the first game that quite literally couldn’t exist on PS4 or wouldn’t be nearly as impactful or memorable. The aforementioned 3D audio really adds a lot here and so does the DualSense, with you being able to feel Orbolites (a currency in the game) literally enter your controller as you pick them up from a chest.
Alongside running smoothly at a gorgeous 4K resolution, with 60 frames-per-second gameplay that does drop, but doesn’t cause any major issues, you have a whole that really is made up by each part working and serving its purpose.
As for the additive features on PS5, I am sorry to report that the game doesn’t have any trophy progress tracking and Activity Card support is weak with them often glitching and not showing the correct information or not even appearing at all. When they are there, they do help, especially when it comes to finding everything in an area, but I have seen better from PlayStation Studios games on Sony’s new console. Though it’s entirely possible that this could be wired up better when the game launches proper.
Proving The Potential Of The PS5
Returnal is Housemarque’s best game and I would argue one of the best pure action games PlayStation has ever released. It is a completely harmonious experience that utilises everything the PS5 offers to craft a dark, alien world that you want to dive deeper into and meshes that with some of the best arcade action I have ever experienced.
In my view, Returnal is the perfect encapsulation of how an indie studio can elevate itself to a AAA level. It offers a unique blend of existing ideas and gameplay mechanics on a big-budget level and combines that with the spirit of the studio’s previous work, keeping the heart of why people loved their games in the first place.
People questioned whether this would be worth $70, but Returnal is absolutely worth your time and money. If it wasn’t for the narrative missteps here Housemarque’s latest would be a masterpiece. Even still, Returnal is a masterclass in how to craft a AAA third-person action game and there is nothing like it on the market right now at this level of quality in every pixel. Returnal is a must-play for every PS5 owner and, I hope, the start of a new franchise for Housemarque and PlayStation.
Returnal releases for PS5 on April 30, 2021.
Review copy provided by publisher.