Returnal Review | Sony's New Hope

This PS5 exclusive is a testament to the future of video games. The first true next-gen game. (Credit: Housemarque / Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Returnal is fun. At least for those who can laugh a little at their own failures. Those who can say "I'm really going to make it this time" even at three o'clock in the morning. Those who have learned to love the roguelike genre. This love is put to the test in this gloomy world, where tentacled aliens with energy balls lurk around just about every corner, always looking to crack your spacesuit.

Returnal is the new PlayStation 5 Triple-A exclusive coming from Sony, and has been marketed as a third-person shooter roguelike psychological horror game. Well, that's one hell of a combination, so when we received our review copy here at EarlyGame, I was insanely excited. Then I played it, and my shouts of frustration resounded throughout the EarlyGame editorial offices with colleagues calling on me to make sure that I was okay. Almost everything about Returnal is good: The smooth weapon control, the will to continue after each death and a wholesome artistic vision.

Note: This review of Returnal contains no spoilers!

Returnal Review: The Basic Story

Returnal revolves around the crash landing of astronaut Selene on the planet Atropos. After tracking a mysterious signal back there, she crash lands her ship. On the planet, she discovers another female astronaut and audio logs with recordings of her own voice. After realizing she never recorded that message, Selene is trapped in time loops from then on, waking up again at her crash site every time that she dies. Welcome, friends, to Returnal.

Returnal Review: The Next-Gen Roguelike

Launching through the planet's numerous cave systems to the surface, there is a ton to see in Returnal. Among those things are monsters, dead ends, and clues that can be unlocked later on. Along the way, you'll also collect upgrades for your spacesuit, items for more damage, and very alien-looking alien blasters. With these in your possession, you can easily go into battle. The thing is, once you die you will be sent back to the beginning, without even a single item in your possession. The game does let you keep a few important suit upgrades, but that's about it. Onto the next round!

Returnal tries to get around the difficulties of the genre with classic methods: every time you start a new run the map changes. That is, individual rooms remain the same, they are just shuffled through and randomly distributed. This remains exciting because even on the 20th run there might still be an audio log somewhere that you haven't discovered yet. Again and again, very small elements of the bizarre (but involving) story are drip-fed to you. It is clever, engaging, and most of all: a lot of fun!

The problem is, the ever-changing room layout becomes frustrating as it approaches the 50th attempt. I often had the feeling of being unlucky, having my 'I hate them'-rooms put in front of me again, and again, and again. The very clear representation of the map doesn't help either, as it already shows everything important, including which rooms are ahead of you (glowing gates) and which ones you've already entered (grayed grates).

Returnal review 1
Returnal is a pretty nuts experience, and a feast for the eyes... oh, and it has a lot of tentacles... (Credit: Housemarque / Sony Interactive Entertainment)

The world of Returnal itself is very reminiscent of Mass Effect or perhaps The Expanse. Just, it's a bit darker and a lot more mystical. In fact, Ridley Scott's Prometheus is kind of the unofficial visual movie adaption. Gradually, as you make your way through the biomes of Atropos, you record the history of an ancient civilization with statues and runes. From the depths of a slimy-toxic jungle to the aridity of the deserts, your path will take you.

The PS5-exclusive title lets you dash through the area without any lagging or loading times, at a smooth frame-rate. Even the heated and sometimes chaotic battles are no problem, at least not graphically – there is no dip in visual performance. The whole thing is rounded off in 3D-style by the DualSense controller, which supports the action quite discreetly, and lets you really immerse yourself in the game. Returnal brings out all the PS5's big guns!

Horror atmosphere comes up for all of you who like it atmospheric, at least during the first few runs. The tentacled alien opponents glow in neon colors through the night and spit their acid balls or lasers. The difficulty is high, as I said, precisely because there are very different critters crawling all over the planet. And I repeat again: they have many tentacles! At times the game feels like a AAA-Hentai in hiding: Tentacles suck you up when you walk through the jungle, follow you in your dreams, or swarm around the loot chests. They are all over the 10 biomes that exist in Returnal.

Returnal white shadow
Returnal is a beautiful and ambitious next-gen experience. (Credit: Housemarque / Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Returnal Review: Gameplay - An Eternal Fight

The main element of a roguelike is its combat, something that Returnal nails for the most part. Right at the beginning of each round, you start with a classic pistol. Here again, a bit of the randomness factor plays into it. Sometimes you just can't find another weapon, and have to send bigger monsters to hell with a pew pew. However, the developers at Housemarque have confirmed that there will be a total of 10 different weapons, with a total of more than 90 traits! Each weapon here has its own alt-fire, which is distributed differently from round to round. Sometimes you'll fire a few target projectiles, sometimes an explosive grenade, sometimes a Pelpetine bolt.

It can take you quite a while to get all the weapons together. You can only carry one weapon at a time, something that became increasingly frustrating as the game progressed. The game is equipped for different types of playstyles, but not for a match adaptation mid-fight. The two-stage L2 operation was my personal favorite, with normal focus on the one hand, and boosted alt-fire shots on the other.

The combination of roguelike and third-person shooter is certainly debatable, however. It definitely makes Returnal more atmospheric, but also more chaotic. Due to the sometimes convoluted rooms, and unfortunate enemy spawn points, I often took damage unexpectedly. That hurts twice and three times as much when every death means the end. Greater implementations of the same genre, like Hades or Dead Cells, offer a much better overview from a different perspective. Dodging projectiles is also a real challenge from this third-person perspective, especially when you have to eliminate enemies at the same time.

With this, you will have some assistance in the artifacts that you can scan and collect in Returnal. Whether you want to increase your stats, shields block the next attack or you create pressure waves when landing, their uses are versatile. With the in-game currency "Obolites" you can buy additional ones. You get Obolites either when you kill enemies, or when you find it lying around in the environment. Additionally, Malignant Items and Malignant Chests are infected with alien DNA, which means that you get some pretty cool stuff (bonus damage, for example).

Returnal combat
Combat in Returnal is visceral, fast, and unbelievably impressive to behold. (Credit: Housemarque / Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Returnal Review: The Verdict

Returnal is the first roguelike next-gen game and one that should have fans of the genre excited. It is tough, but fair, and a lot of fun. The somewhat impractical third-person perspective, and the sometimes-long search for the right path, is a minor stain on an otherwise fantastic experience. Everything else works well, however, the combat is insanely fun and versatile, and sci-fi fans will certainly get their money's worth. Look, it's probably not Game of the Year (that bad-boy is probably still Persona 5: Strikers – at least for me), but it is a must-play if you own a PS5!

  • Release Date: 30 April, 2021
  • Developer: Housemarque
  • Genre: Roguelike, Third-Person-Shooter, Psychological Horror
  • Single Player
  • Platform: Playstation 5

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This article was originally written by Eric Ganther, and translated from German.