The first run of Returnal on PS5 didn’t last long. The crash of a spaceship on an alien planet. A swift attack by tentacled creatures. A fumble of buttons.
The second run, thankfully, went a little better. Selene, the game’s protagonist, wakes up repeatedly after each death, doomed to repeat the same cycle of crashing her spaceship on Atropos, exploring its randomly generating labyrinth, and battling hordes of shrieking enemies.
Returnal is many things. It’s a third-person PS5 shooter with the structure of a roguelike. It’s an exploration Metroidvania game, but an arcade shooter at heart. It’s a horror game with cinematic trappings. And it’s really, really hard.
Hostility is at the core of the experience. Almost everything on Atropos is out to kill you. You are clearly not welcome on this planet.
But it’s a planet you’ve been to before. Selene discovers corpses on her journey – her own corpses from previous lives – with audio logs of discoveries. She’s seemingly chasing a broadcast signal, but where is the message coming from? Who sent it? And why is she trapped in this endless cycle of…
It’s a horrifying experience. The creep of tentacles slick with rain. The screeching of monstrous enemies. Isolated in a vast desert, but not alone. A replica of your family home plonked disturbingly on an alien world, tantalisingly filled with secrets of your past.
There’s more than a hint of both Alien and its later prequel Prometheus in Returnal’s retro-futuristic world: the fizzing of neon-green technology, the oppressive darkness, the eerie beauty of its vast landscapes. And there’s Metroid here too, a woman stranded in unfamiliar territory, seeking suit upgrades to allow for further exploration through back-tracking.
If Hades made the roguelike genre more accessible and story-driven, Returnal leans into difficulty and exploration. The planet Atropos is no linear path to glory, but interlinking areas dense with secrets. There’s risk-reward in every boon you collect – will this help or hinder your journey? – and it’s your choice whether to explore further to improve your chances of progression but risk an early death, or jump quickly to the next biome potentially under-equipped for what you might find.
It means that each run of Returnal lasts far longer than in other games of the genre, which is all the more frustrating when you’re unable to save mid-run. With more time to explore, there’s more time to soak in the game’s unsettling atmosphere, lose yourself in its world, and a huge reward when you best its overwhelming bosses on the umpteenth time. But there’s also far more at stake when you inevitably…
There are interlocking systems at place and, tying into that sense of hostility, the PS5 game does a poor job of really explaining things. Weapon proficiency; suit malfunctions; parasites; varying currencies and upgrades. You’ll need to understand these if you want to survive. It means Returnal is a real investment of time, but its highs are all the more rewarding.
Combat largely takes its cue from the arcade roots of previous Housemarque games (Resogun, Super Stardust HD), albeit now in third-person. Selene is an agile heroine, able to leap and dodge vast distances as she outpaces her enemies, collecting new abilities to explore further and increase the odds on each run. Gradually you’ll unlock new weapons, from the human to the alien, with which to dispatch enemies. And you’ll need them: Returnal is a bullet hell shooter where you’ll need to learn patterns of glowing fire and develop fast reflexes to survive.
It’s a real showcase for the PS5, too. Yes, it looks pretty with its detailed particle effects and each cycle loads instantly. But the game makes great use of the DualSense controller and its haptic feedback too. It’s in the pitter patter of rain in your hands; the resistant squeeze of the left trigger to initiate alt-fire mode; the unique clicks of the rumble to signify the opportunity to reload. Between controller feedback and the zen-like calmness needed to succeed, Returnal is a game you feel as much as see or hear, or else…
Returnal isn’t a game for everyone. It’s obtuse and punishing, relies a little too much on luck of the draw, and its lack of mid-run save features feels unfair as you tirelessly trudge through each biome, the intensity increasing as you near a new surprise – or death.
But you’ll keep coming back to your PS5. The draw of Returnal’s beautiful yet hostile world is too strong, its snippets of narrative intriguing, its combat clicking into place that little bit more each time.
Just one more go. Is this the time you get a little further? Or will you…
Returnal is available now exclusively on PlayStation 5.