Live. Die. Launch controller into wall. Repeat.
There’s an old saying that goes “I could listen to them read the phone book” when talking about people with lovely voices, meaning whatever it was they did, you’d give it some attention. (For those of you under the age of 30, a phone book is kind of like the “Contact Details” bit of the internet, but printed on bits of dead tree). In terms of game development, Housemarque fit into this category for me. Having dragged some classic arcade titles into the 21st century with the likes of Super Stardust HD and my personal favourite in Resogun, they have decided to hang up the ‘indie’ hat and go all out into AAA development. And they’ve done so by creating a… A big budget rogue like?! It’s a bold strategy, let’s see if it pays off…
Allow me to start with the obvious statement. Returnal is tough. As in, really tough. As of the time of writing, I have yet to finish the game (as I imagine will be the case with a few reviewers), but this isn’t without good reason. For the preview, I was only allowed to discuss my time in the first two of the game’s six biomes. Thankfully, this wasn’t a problem, as I genuinely couldn’t progress past these areas due to repeated batterings at the hands of some of the Crimson Wastes’ flying tentacled beasts. If that somehow means that my opinions on the game are discounted, then feel free to stop reading right here, but I’ve got to say, I absolutely love this game.
There is a narrative that flows through Returnal, with your character, Selene, crash landing in the Helios on a strange alien planet called Atropos. Starting off in a weird jungle, things begin to unravel as you find your own dead body, before picking up a pistol and pushing your way through a series of enemy creatures that have no hesitation in firing off waves of energy balls that conjure up memories of Nier Automata. Within a few minutes, you reach a very fast moving beast that will (for most people) tear you a new one. The title screen hits, and you’re dumped back to the start with your pistol. Running back to the first area reveals that the entire layout has changed, and that this is indeed a Rogue-like in almost as true a sense as you can get. Areas are meticulously detailed and hand-crafted, but stitched together in a random way, enabling you to get a sense of familiarity while at the same time being surprised on every run you have. The frequency of item drops will vary from run to run, making some feel borderline impossible, with others allowing you to almost sprint through them. Power ups such as Parasites crop up from time to time, which give you a slight buff to one of your stats with a potentially devastating debuff if they get removed, and Silphium (the item to restore health) can be practically carpeting some rooms in one run, while next to non-existent in others. There are some permanent power-ups which allow you to access certain areas a la Metroid, but for the most part when you die, you’re back to square one again.
I can see there being a thousand and one comparisons to Dark Souls straight off the bat when it comes to Returnal, not least down to the way the online integration. But the thing is, I don’t like the Souls series. I’ve made no bones about it, and I’ve made my peace with it. There is something about the fundamental mechanics of those games that I just don’t get on with, but with Returnal, it all feels right. While Housemarque have stepped away from the smaller arcade-feeling titles, they have brought in a big chunk of the gameplay that made the likes of Resogun so deliciously moreish. There are slow paced bullet spewing enemies here, there’s pacey melee focused enemies, there’s turrets… In fact, there’s pretty much any kind of enemy you could expect that will undoubtedly throw you back to the Helios within a split second. That sense of jeopardy is coupled with a control scheme that feels responsive, fluid and easy to get to grips with, while not feeling so simplistic that it’s too basic to get through challenging areas.
That’s probably a good spot to bring up the impact that the DualSense has on Returnal. While Astro’s Playroom was a stunning example of “Oh that’s a good idea” and “Wait, this can do THAT?!” in short bursts, Returnal takes some of the ideas and turns them into some fantastic, unique moments that blend in with the sublime gameplay in the best ways possible. Not only are there individual haptic responses for each of the weapons in the game (ranging from the standard pistol, to a shotgun, grenade launcher and my personal favourite, the Hollowseeker), but things such as raindrops splattering on Selene’s suit rumbling in such a way that it feels like there are droplets running a ‘pitter patter’ on your own controller. Explosions feel suitably weighty, and when you get hit, the triggers go limp as if you’ve genuinely been knocked down. However, the coolest effect is the one dedicated to the left trigger. It’s something that Astro demonstrated, and something Call of Duty did as well, but when you pull the Left trigger halfway, there’s a definite “biting point”. Push past it, and you enable the alt-fire mode on whichever weapon you have. The best way of describing it is that it feels like a Gamecube controller, in that you have that secondary “click” from a trigger that will go limp a few seconds later if you die. It’s a moment that quickly becomes second nature, but never stops giving you a “wow” moment. It’s another brilliant, and incredibly satisfying demonstration of what developers can do with the DualSense.
Another thing that’s being brought into the fore with this title is the Spatial Audio. While the PS5 doesn’t yet support Dolby Atmos at this time, if you plug a set of standard headphones into the DualSense, you get an incredibly wide and immersive soundscape, truly immersing you in the world of Atropos. The audio feedback of an enemy appearing above you compliments the visuals in a genuinely impressive way, especially if they’re behind you. Hearing the projectiles whizzing just above your head is exhilarating, and at times, utterly terrifying.
Honestly, that just about sums up the entire premise of Returnal. The Rogue-like nature of it not only has you on the edge of your seat while playing, knowing that the last area you enter could be your last, but it also has one of the most impactful atmospheres I can remember of recent times. The creepy nature of the unknown lays the pressure on as thickly as the fog that exists in the first biome. That is until you come across a pristine suburban house in the middle of it, because… Well, why the hell not? No spoilers here, by the way, but it helps to weave back into the narrative thread in a way that feels as satisfying as it is haunting, conjuring up memories of PT in places. Another Souls comparison will undoubtedly come from the online integration.
Technically, the game is really impressive. Particle effects are on display in abundance here, with glowing embers floating around everywhere, fog obscuring the floor and swirling when enemies land in it. The glowing neon outlines of your foes really pop with the HDR, as do the spires of light emanating from collectibles, allowing you to find them a little bit more easily. At the time of writing, there are a few moments where the frame rate dips to below the magic 60, particularly in the Crimson Wastes area, but I’ve been told there is a day one patch which should rectify this, so stay tuned for a performance video. Loading times are practically non existent, and jumping from one biome to another is instantaneous, as is respawning into a brand new run. During my time with the game, I had one crash out to the dashboard, and a bit of a frustrating issue where some trophies weren’t popping for me after clearing some of the bosses, which could prove to be a pain for some, but I’m assured the Day 1 patch should clear these up as well.
So then, we come to the real bone of contention that people have seemingly had with this game in the build up. Is it worth the asking price? Honestly, I think it is. I saw some comments aimed at a preview that stated they got to the end credits in 6 hours, but let me tell you, this game will take a LOT longer than 6 hours to see everything. Heck, it took me triple that to get past the point I was embargoed for with the previews! As I mentioned, at the time of writing I have yet to finish the game, making it to the fifth of the six biomes. However, this is no mean feat with the run-based nature of it, and the sheer brutality at which enemies will come after you. There is a slight black mark here in the lack of permanent upgrades available (you can only carry across “Ether”, which is a form of currency), and a couple of upgrades such as the ability to hold extra consumables, as well as certain fire modes for the weapons, but for the most part, you’re on your own. The splash screen at the start of the game states that Returnal was designed to be a challenge, and they’re not lying. After all, if you’re not fussy about multiplayer, a Call of Duty campaign can be completed within 6 hours, and that costs the same if not more. Returnal has so much more to offer than finding that “perfect run”, although when you do find it, it feels absolutely brilliant. I punched the air and shouted after finishing one of the bosses, which is something that very few games manage to coax out of me. However, just be aware if you are interested in this, it will test you. You will have moments where you want to hurl your controller into your plasterboard, but when everything clicks? Magic.
In addition to the standard mode, there is a daily challenge mode, which gives everyone the exact same layout, weapons and specs, to see how well you can stack up against your friends. It’s really engaging, and had me coming back for more every day, despite not being anywhere near the top of the leaderboards sometimes!