Returnal Review: A Hostile Planet

Returnal is a PS5-exclusive roguelite shooter that is developed by Housemarque and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. The game might be the best demonstration yet of what the PS5 is capable of, but its extreme difficulty and punishing design might be off-putting to those who can't keep up with the horrors that await on its alien world.

Returnal stars an astronaut named Selene, who crash lands on a strange alien planet named Atropos. Selene's ship is ruined in the crash, so she ventures out in search of a mysterious broadcast playing over her communications device. Atropos is filled with hostile lifeforms, but that's not what scares Selene the most. Every time Selene dies when exploring the planet, she is reborn at the moment of the crash and must start over. Atropos is littered with the corpses of Selenes that failed in their mission, some of which have left audio recordings of their findings. Most disturbingly of all, Selene finds a house hidden in the jungle that resembles her own home.

Returnal is a roguelite, which means that the levels are procedurally generated from a selection of rooms that are shuffled around each time. Whenever the player dies, Selene wakes up at the crash site again. Selene's death and revival is a fantastic gimmick that helps create an in-universe reason for the game's mechanics. Selene can only keep a basic pistol, a few permanent key items, and a gem-like currency called Ether whenever she dies. This means the player has to gather fresh items, upgrades, and weapons every time she dies, which means that no two runs are the same.

Selene won't last long on Atropos with her pistol, so the player needs to scour each region for items and upgrades. Selene has an Adrenaline mechanic, where she gains special powers for killing enemies without taking a hit, but the meter resets and the powers are lost whenever she is struck. There are several currencies in the game, which Selene can use to buy Artifacts (buffs that last until she is killed) and Consumables (one-off items, such as healing potions). The player also has a Proficiency skill, which goes up over the course of a run and ensures that Selene finds better weapons.

The weapons in Returnal are a mixture of Earth firearms (shotguns, rocket launchers) and alien weapons. There is a lot of variety in how the weapons work, although they don't alter the player's tactics too much, as Returnal has a much bigger focus on defense than offense. Overall, there are a lot of interlocking systems in Returnal that work well together and never feel too complicated. The game is pretty stingy in how it doles out the currencies used to purchase items and upgrades, so there are always hard choices about what benefits are needed.

It's a shame that Returnal wasn't a launch title for the PS5, as it shows off the potential of the PS5 better than any game before it. The graphics are stunning, with incredible lighting and reflections, even when running at 4K at 60fps. The 3D soundscape created by the soundtrack is effective at making users feel as if they're in a hostile environment, with alien noises clucking and yelling from every direction. Returnal also makes use of the PS5's SSD for instant transportation between locations, with almost no loading between levels and none when teleporting to areas within them.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Returnal is its use of the DualSense controller. The various sensations the controller emits when exploring the alien landscapes help improve and immerse the experience in ways that are more commonly associated with VR. The adaptive triggers also have a satisfying crunch to them, especially when firing a weapon's special ability. Returnal is a demonstration of what the PS5 is capable of and how powerful the DualSense's design can be with the right game.

The alien landscapes of Returnal are incredible, with towering statues of faceless aliens looming down at the player from every angle. The enemies are more of a mixed bag, with most falling into the category of tentacle dog, squid, flying ball, and turret. The elite enemies that show up from time to time are more exciting to behold, as are the bosses. Returnal uses bright neon lights for many of its enemies, especially their bullets, and the foreboding world of Atropos can sometimes unproductively look like a disco dancefloor as a result.

This is all in stark contrast to the segments in the game where the player explores the house in the jungle, which Selene can do every time she defeats a boss. These segments shift to a first-person perspective and build a tense and scary atmosphere, as the familiar items of Earth are subtly changed to reflect the alien world. These segments are the highlight of Returnal and they act as a great break from its frantic exploration. Selene herself doesn't get much of a chance to shine as a character, but that's to be expected, considering she's trapped alone on an alien world and most of her dialogue comes from audio logs.

The gameplay of Returnal looks like a third-person shooter on the surface, but it's closer to a bullet hell game, with a dash of Dark Souls and Hades mixed in. The player only has access to one gun at a time, as well as a slow but powerful energy sword. The enemies in the game send massive volleys of laser fire at Selene and the only way to survive is by mastering the dash mechanic. Selene can perform a brief dash in any direction, which gives her a few moments of invulnerability but has a cooldown afterward. Mastering the dash mechanic is a must in order to survive in Returnal, as Selene cannot take much damage before dying and being sent back to the start of the game.

The bullet hell gameplay style has the potential for some electrifying combat encounters, except there is one major problem. In Returnal, the player can only see what is ahead of them at any one time, while enemies fire volleys of bullets and send laser shockwaves toward them from all angles - something that the top-down approach of many other bullet hell titles solves with perspective. Returnal has an issue with the player being struck by projectiles that hit them from blind spots, making it impossible to dodge enemy fire in areas with lots of foes.

This becomes a problem starting with the second level and only gets worse over time, especially as the damage output of enemies drastically increases over the course of the game. There are far too many situations where the player is killed by enemy fire that they didn't see and it takes a lot of enjoyment out of the game, especially when a long run is undone in a matter of seconds. Returnal doesn't have any difficulty options, so players who struggle with fast-paced shooters may skip this game as a result.

The frustrating difficulty of Returnal seems to be a way of extending the game's lifespan. If Returnal did have difficulty options, then its runtime would be greatly reduced, especially because it reuses enemies and levels with some frequency. The opening area of Returnal is compelling at first, but that diminishes a little bit every time the same early sections are repeated after a promising run is killed in a matter of seconds later on. Returnal is a brutally difficult game and the repeating cycle of the story can make some runs feel like a waste of time, especially when so little is kept between them.

Returnal might be the best-looking game on PS5, and it does incredible things with the DualSense controller and its soundscape. A version of Returnal that wasn't quite as punishing and had more content would be something truly special. As it stands, the game is fun, but it has a tendency to pull the rug out from under the player a bit too often. People who love hard video games will find a lot to praise in Returnal, but the haunting beauty of Atropos is surrounded by a harsh environment that will overwhelm those who can't keep up.