Returnal is good. If you want to know why then keep reading but I need you to know that the game is fantastic and if anything, a much-needed change of pace in 2021. Not only does the game fully utilize the DualSense controller’s features in so many great ways but Housemarque has finely tuned the game’s audio to be some of the best I have experienced in a long time. Then we have the gameplay that is extremely addictive and terrifying all while being super fun to play.
I have made great progress in Returnal over the past few days but I can only really talk about the first two areas that you explore. My initial run of Returnal was great at first. I took things slow, explored every single area possible in this massive connected and procedurally generated forest, and of course had some gear, parasites attached to my arm and artefacts that buffed specific stats on Selene.
I did so well in the first run that I legit got through the whole biome without dying and killed the boss at the end in one session. I thought to myself “hey, this isn’t that hard. Piece of cake”. Boy was I wrong. Returnal seems to ease you into the game lightly and then bam! You’re running around like a lunatic using every single platform there is around to kill the ferocious enemies that have all been carefully designed to make your life difficult.
We are talking about floating cubes that literally shoot bullets in the shape of a square at you. While this sounds easy to miss, the AI found a way to get under my skin. Hiding around a pillar did not help. They go around it or fly over it. Then just when you think it is safe, you get hit in the back by some enemy who spawned while you were looking away.
Returnal will make your rage. I have not stopped cursing since I started the game. You see, because of its roguelike nature, every shot and every tiny bit of health lost feels like it will ultimately decide how well a run in the game will go. So even if the weakest of enemies hit me, I hated it and I made sure my household knew about it.
It is daunting, to say the least. Returnal’s world and enemies feel overwhelming all the times. This is mainly because of the game’s risk and reward system. Housemarque managed to bring this to life with some excellent sound design. So much so that the sounds and screams heard in the game made me feel uneasy – all in the best ways of course.
I often entered a new area very carefully only to hear the bellow of a massive creature in the distance and quickly ran out with a big “nope”. The monster sounds hit you in the chest as you feel helpless and the thought of this new area being your doom makes it even more terrifying. The game just feels so creepy and there’s no happiness around to keep you calm. It is one terrifying event after another and the “horror” aspect of Returnal is its strongest feature.
Of course, Returnal is a roguelike game so you will die a lot and I did. Sometimes my cycle was so bad within the first ten minutes that I reset it myself. It is just what you can expect here. The game hates you, and you will feel it and hear it and you will die.
It is not impossible to get become powerful in Returnal but as soon as I thought I was a badass, I entered a challenge room thinking I was the best thing since sliced bread and got my ass handed to me. The risk and reward factor feels so great and it is natural to stand looking at an item for a minute weighing up whether or not you should pick it up.
Returnal’s equipment and combat are layered across some incredible detail. Items are once-off things I could use in the game. Some are healing, some add attacks to Selene when she jumps for thirty seconds and some even restock Fabricators if you aren’t happy with what they are selling. We then have the artefacts that grant some cool buffs to Selene. Some give her extra perks like increased Weapon Proficiency (a level system that determines the power of weapons found in the world). Others help with healing and even damage reduction.
There is a lot to take in when it comes to the equipment system in Returnal as most of the time, items and gear let me create a “build” by counteracting other things I had equipped. For example, a Parasite I had on my arm would give me health back when I removed another parasite. So I made sure to look out for more and find ways to get them taken off. I can tell you that this saved my life a few times.
Parasites also have a negative side to them. Some may deal damage every time I picked up an item but at the same time granted me weapon damage. It all works like a well-oiled machine and add in crazy enemies, weapons that are awesome to use and a world that makes you feel helpless and that is full of denger, and you have yourself a pretty impressive experience.
A big part of what makes Returnal so great is that it is a PS5 game and it looks gorgeous and plays like something out of this world at the same time. The DualSense controller is the hero here as it brings the game to life in a whole new way. Weapons feel so great to shoot and the adaptive triggers let me hold down the one side halfway to shoot my primary fire and push it down fully to utilize the secondary fire.
We then have the haptics that touches on everything happening in Returnal. The vibration even simulates sound! Yes, the motors move in a specific way to alert me when my secondary fire was ready and even smaller details like picking up health. It is remarkable. Just standing still for a few seconds in the rain had my hands being tapped by drops of water. While these features sound simple, you have to feel them in order to appreciate the joy.
I will have a full review of Returnal up next week but so far the game is looking great. I love spending hours on one run to see how far I can get. Even when I feel helpless and keep dying over and over again, that one special cycle comes around that works for me. I then get really far, level up quite a chunk and even manage to kill a boss. I then die and the whole thing starts from scratch. Often these deaths are my own fault. I get brave and decide to enter a challenge room or avenge another player’s death that results in a showdown between a crazy powerful creature that can kill me in a few hits. But hey, you gotta risk it!
Returnal is set to launch only on PS5 on 30 April 2021. You check pre-order the game today on the PlayStation store.