Returnal (PS5) Review – Breaking the Cycle

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Game: Returnal

Release Date: April 30, 2021

Price: $69.99

Rating: Teen

Platform: PlayStation 5

Returnal, the new PlayStation 5 exclusive from developer Housemarque (Super Stardust HD, Resogun), is a game about second chances. And third, and fourth, and fiftieth chances. The fully 3D action-roguelike is like many other things, yet somehow as foreign and alien as the unexplored planet it takes place on. It’s also the best reason yet to invest in the new generation of consoles.

Do You See the White Shadow?

Returnal’s atmosphere is eerie and oppressive.

Returnal tells the story of Selene, an astronaut scouting the far reaches of space in search of the origin of a mysterious transmission referencing a “white shadow.” Selene’s ship, Helios, crash lands on the planet Atropos, which appears to be the source of the transmission. 

The planet is teeming with hostile lifeforms, but Selene has a bigger problem to deal with. She is stuck in a seemingly perpetual time loop in which she awakens at the site of the crash after dying. Unfortunately for Selene, death is a frequent occurrence on Atropos, and so she is cursed to die and return over and over until she can find a means to escape the planet. If you’ve seen Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, you know the deal.

While it is an intense action game, Returnal also has an unexpectedly compelling narrative. The story beats are few and far between and it prefers to show rather than tell through symbolism, but the densely-layered tale is worth the effort to unravel. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but one of the more nuanced and psychologically complex stories in a video game and sure to spark plenty of interesting discourse.

Live. Die. Repeat.

Art design is clearly influenced by movies like Alien and Prometheus.

The story in Returnal is an unexpected surprise, but the action is the real draw, and it does not disappoint. Make no mistake – Returnal is difficult. The action is relentless and frenetic, and not for the faint of heart. Each room provides a risk-reward conundrum that will leave you scrambling for consumable items while fending off enemies from all directions. You’ll often find yourself outnumbered and underpowered, but fitting to the theme of the game, you’ll get a little better with each attempt.

Housemarque expertly draws from their experience with twitchy shooters to create a near-flawless 3D action-platforming experience. Whether hopping from platform to platform, targeting an enemy, or dashing to avoid damage (or all three at once!), the controls are perfectly responsive. Selene controls like a dream, and she sure needs to in order to make the split-second maneuvers required to dodge the numerous projectiles that are almost constantly heading in her direction. It cannot be understated how important spatial awareness is to making progress.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

You’ll often have to deal with several different types of enemies at once.

Selene uses a wide assortment of alien weaponry to shoot and slash her way through hordes of relentless hostiles while dodging waves of projectiles. Every firefight is intense, and not every weapon is suited for a particular enemy type. Experimentation with weapons and the many different types of items such as artifacts that improve Selene’s stats is key. While individual room formats are constant, map layouts and item placement are random. Luck is a big part of a successful run.

As an action game, Returnal is darn near perfect, though your mileage may vary when it comes to the flaws. I unfortunately had a couple of hours-long runs entirely ruined by random game crashes. Since there is no way to save your progress mid-run, closing the game or having it crash means you have to start over from the beginning, with the exception of a handful of permanent suit enhancements that will help you skip ahead a bit. I admire the developer’s staunchness in committing to their decision to not allow proper saves. However, the hardware itself just isn’t up to the task of supporting that philosophy at the moment.

Bloom (Lighting) and Gloom

The lighting effects in Returnal are particularly impressive.

Returnal leverages the power and unique features of the PlayStation 5 console to provide a presentation like no other. The visuals perfectly create a moody atmosphere that alternates between an eerie calm and intense action in the blink of an eye. The particle effects on display are pure eye candy. The frame rate is consistently smooth, no matter how much craziness is going on. Between the constant stream of brightly-colored projectiles, exploding enemy bits, and bullets flying everywhere, the game looks like a New Year’s Eve fireworks show at any given time. 

Sound design is important to creating an effective atmosphere, and I’m happy to report that Returnal excels in that category. The game is best played with headphones. These help to provide an experience like no other, and 3D audio makes it far easier to identify hidden threats. Background music is perfectly ominous. Yet, it’s the sound of your alien weaponry firing away and enemies screeching before making a desperate lunge that will make you feel fully immersed in the experience.

The boss battles can be supremely difficult.

Special mention must also be made of the innovative use of the DualSense controller. Adaptive triggers make alternating between regular gunfire (a half press of the trigger) and alt fire (a full press) feel completely natural, with the trigger stopping itself before switching to alt fire mode. Haptic feedback for effects like rain and item scanning is also incredibly impressive, making the “rumble” features of previous consoles’ controllers seem laughably archaic in comparison.

A Roguelike for the Ages

Your choice in which items to pick up can make or break a run.

Returnal might seem derivative when you list its numerous influences. But it so masterfully combines elements from them all that the resulting product is a wholly unique and inspired work. The action is responsive and addictive. Even the most humbling death will have you itching for “just one more run.” It’s an excellent showpiece for the PlayStation 5 hardware. The intriguingly ambiguous story will keep you searching for answers in every nook and cranny of every room.

If you’re itching for a challenging action game, I cannot recommend Returnal highly enough. It excels as an action game first and foremost. However, its roguelike influences make each run unique and fulfilling, if a tad overlong. Selene’s journey through Atropos is immensely difficult, but the satisfaction that comes from completing an area makes it all worthwhile. It’s some of the most exhilaration you’ll ever get out of being frustrated.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Steve Wittkamp

Steve Wittkamp

I like bad movies, good video games (Dragon Quest, Castlevania, etc.), and all manner of trivia. ...OK, I like some really bad video games too. AKA Falion.

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