‘Returnal’ review: a fiendish sci-fi roguelike that’s the first truly essential next-gen experience

Housemarque’s PlayStation 5 exclusive is ambitious, gorgeous and unlike anything you’ve played

Following a console generation that landed with more of a whimper than a bang, it’s safe to say that Sony’s latest PlayStation 5 exclusive has something to prove. Five months after the giddy launch highs of Miles Morales, Astrobot and Demon Souls, lucky owners of the coveted console have had few reasons to actually turn it on. Now as millions of DualSense controllers gather dust, Sony is hoping that Returnal, its latest exclusive, will make the PS5 feel essential once again.

As if hearing PS5 owners’ grumbles, Returnal wastes no time proving that this is a proper next-gen experience. Launching straight into a dramatic cutscene, I find my mysterious protagonist, Selene, desperately wrestling for control of her plummeting ship. As her Helios spacecraft spirals dangerously out of orbit, the DualSense’s haptic feedback purrs into action, bombarding my wrists with a flurry of violent vibrations. With the Helios’ circuit boards frying before our heroine’s eyes, the ship bursts into flames, sending more powerful jolts cascading across my palms – and Selene nosediving straight into a mysterious planet.

Like everything else in Returnal, this immersive intro takes me completely off guard, transforming the traditionally passive cutscene into something that’s impossible to ignore. Yet it offers players a valuable lesson: in this world, nowhere is safe.

Once Selene clambers out of the wreckage and steps foot on the festering planet of Atropos, the camera snaps into an over-the-shoulder perspective – and the horror begins. The first thing I notice about this nightmarish planet is just how stunning it looks. Shifting the historically 2D roguelike genre into gloriously ray-traced 3D environments, Returnal shuns the cartoony look of genremates Hades and Enter The Gungeon in favour of HR Geiger’s skin-crawling Alien aesthetic.

As high-quality textures reveal the sickening sights lurking behind each corner and eerie lighting illuminates the glow of distant creatures, everything in Returnal feels grotesquely alive. Slime oozes from alien pods. Glowing ancient stones look authentically chipped and worn. Every inch of this stunningly rendered planet seems to be teeming with life – but for the most part, you won’t want to find it.

Returnal
Returnal. Credit: Housemarque

For those new to roguelikes, these procedurally generated playgrounds task you with making it through the entire game without hitting the ‘game over’ screen. This means that unlike traditional single-player experiences, your hard-earned progress isn’t saved after each level.

In Returnal, after you crumple lifelessly to the floor, a Groundhog Day-esque loop sees you reliving that opening crash, over and over again. In fact, death became such a constant for me, that even before Returnal’s hair-raising synths began reverberating around my ears, I found myself tensing up, readying myself for the hypnotic nightmare to begin again.

This level of repetition and ritual probably won’t be a surprise to hardened roguelike players. Yet unlike its peers, Returnal actually gives you a reason to keep persisting. As my shaken protagonist takes in her increasingly horrific surroundings, a mix of discoverable audio logs, cutscenes and narration slowly reveal an intriguing and surprisingly cinematic narrative. With each new bit of progress, I’m slowly drip-fed more information about this mysterious and deadly planet, discovering more hints as to why Selene is trapped in this hellish loop. It’s this subtle level of storytelling that keeps you wanting to persevere, even when Returnal is whooping your arse.

Yet, perhaps the most surprising revelation in this 3D roguelike is just how fast Returnal feels. Right from the off, Selene is able to sprint at full pelt, with a tap of ‘X’ and circle causing her to athletically leap into the air and then dash at speed. Starting each cycle with just a pistol, navigating Returnal’s biomes feels a bit like playing Gears Of War, but reimagined by Platinum Games. Thanks to Returnal’s silky smooth 60 frames-per-second performance, there’s a pleasing sense of pace to proceedings, even when you’re dashing around that rare peaceful environment. And you’ll need every single frame if you hope to survive.

Just like its endlessly satisfying movement speed, Returnal’s giddying skirmishes never fail to delight. The first hostile fauna you encounter on this gruesome rock are an homage to the house that Housemarque built. As three glowing dog-like foes start their attack, their brightly coloured lethal projectiles float towards you in slow-moving rows, like the old-school shoot ’em ups the studio made its name on. It’s a smart take on reimagining the genre’s 2D combat on a 3D plane, with the Finnish developer sensibly taking notes from Dark Souls and NieR:Automata.

Returnal
Returnal. Credit: Housemarque

It’s fitting that Returnal is Sony’s first PS5 exclusive since Demon Souls; both games share a controller-smashing difficulty curve. Per roguelike law, each cycle offers a different hellscape for you to navigate, spawning a randomly selected assortment of enemies, buffs, items and locations. Unlike its more forgiving forbearers (Hades, Loop Hero), however, there is little consistent progression here. Whether you find that perfect gun, reach an admirable level of weapon proficiency or even nab that much-needed health upgrade, when Selene reaches her bloody end, you’ll have to mourn your loadout, too.

For the game’s first few hours, this can be utterly devastating, a blow made worse by the PS5’s extremely unreliable Rest mode. Unfortunately for me, while attempting to keep my progress during a particularly prolific cycle, my console hard-crashed in Rest mode, losing the run entirely. Rest mode ended up betraying me the same way a further three times during this review period, so I’d suggest avoiding it.

Dodgy PS5 firmware aside, as you advance through the game’s six biomes, you soon discover that Returnal does offer a small degree of permanence after all. As it turns out, there’s one aspect to Sony’s latest that ends up being more merciful than its peers: its bosses. While said fearsome brutes are just as challenging as expected, once defeated, they can be bypassed entirely, earning you a permanent suit upgrade for your troubles and ensuring that you’ll never have to face them again. It’s an incredibly welcome design choice, especially when merely reaching the bosses can take hours and many attempts.

Returnal
Returnal. Credit: Housemarque

Like any roguelike worth its weight in tears, a crucial part of each cycle is figuring out a winning loadout. In Returnal, players find themselves upgrading their weapon proficiency as they go, equipping ‘artefacts’ to their suits that give them a cycle-long buff, merging with a parasite that offers both a buff and de-buff. And, there are three types of resources to collect. Unsurprisingly, this is all initially hugely overwhelming. Yet after countless deaths, the intricacies of the game’s clever risk/reward systems and combination of modifiers suddenly begin to click, and I begin to discover a new cadence.

And that’s what makes Returnal so brilliant. While it shares Dark Soul‘s unrelenting difficulty, Returnal rarely feels like a slog. Where the Souls titles happily send you trudging your way through increasingly harsh environments before bludgeoning you to death, Returnal’s speedy, acrobatic combat always ensures that you feel like a badass. Once you know what you’re doing, even your pathetic starting pistol becomes a glorious instrument of death: with well-timed jumps and dash, I was able to rain bullets down on enemies like a gun-toting gymnast.

It’s this pleasing sense of pace that makes Returnal a game that’ll keep you coming back after every increasingly frustrating death. Even as the hours go by and a sensible bedtime impatiently beckons, I often find that I simply had to give Returnal just one more go. Sure, that was a bad run, I may reason, but next time I’ll definitely find favour with the procedurally generating gods.

As someone who finds themselves easily frustrated with Dark Souls, I’m as surprised as anyone that I find myself so smitten with Housemarque’s PS5 debut. There’s just something about Returnal’s bizarre little world that brings me back to it time and time again. Sony and Housemarque have indeed pulled it off – they’ve made the PS5 feel essential again. It’s everything you could have hoped for from a next-gen exclusive. Fair warning, though: it may consume your life.

‘Returnal’ is out April 30 on PS5

The Verdict

After rumours of PlayStation abandoning experimental games in favour of safe AAA blockbusters, this wonderfully weird release sticks out less like a sore thumb and more like a defiant middle finger. Part old-school arcade shoot ’em up, part Hideo Kojima-esque narrative opus, Returnal is a bizarre, ambitious and utterly enthralling ride. While its brutally unforgiving nature means Returnal might not make the roguelike truly mainstream, it’s still an utterly alluring and essential gaming experience.

Pros

  • Incredible 3D Audio and DualSense implementation turn PS5 ‘gimmicks’ into genuine game changers
  • Visually stunning
  • Some of the most satisfying combat we’ve ever experienced
  • A rich and intriguing world keeps you coming back for more, even after hours of punishment

Cons

  • Lack of persistent upgrades can be extremely annoying
  • Certain sections can be scream-inducingly frustrating
  • I can’t stop playing it
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