'Returnal' Is a Stunning Showcase of the PlayStation 5's Prowess

The PS5 exclusive is a must-play if you're up for the challenge

Key Takeaways

  • Returnal is the latest game from Housemarque, the studio behind popular PlayStation entries Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, and Resogun.
  • It organically mixes an oozing atmosphere with absorbing storytelling and addictive combat.
  • Its stunning presentation and sky-high production values will pull you in, but the faint of heart might be put off by its steep difficulty.
Returnal character Selene fighting an alien creature

Housemarque

PlayStation 5 exclusive Returnal is a visual stunner with polish and production value to spare, but it's also a brutally challenging entry that could alienate less-seasoned gamers.

The latest from Housemarque—the Finnish studio that's previously blistered thumbs with arcade-style shooters Dead Nation and ResogunReturnal combines rewarding combat, absorbing storytelling, and haunting environments to deliver one of the PS5's best exclusives since the console launched last fall. But while it might look like a straight-up sci-fi shooter on the surface, it's actually a "rogue-like," an increasingly popular genre that strips players of most of their progress upon death.

The formula encourages you to get better and gain more knowledge with each playthrough. It's a potentially rewarding loop that fuels a desire to dive back in after dying, while also making slow, steady progress toward the game's narrative conclusion. Returnal represents the genre at its best, but it likely won't sway those who've previously sworn off its steep challenge and repetitive nature.

A Presentation Worth Fighting For

The first thing that strikes you in Returnal isn't a fiery attack from some tentacled foe, but its jaw-dropping presentation. As Selene, an astronaut who has crashed her ship on a mysterious planet, you're immediately treated to some of the most immersive sights and sounds to ever grace a console game.

Oozing with a dread-building atmosphere, yet endlessly enticing, the world is an absolute treat to explore. Each of its six varied biomes are brimming with detail, packed with secrets, and filled with imaginative baddies just begging to meet the business end of your arsenal. 

"Returnal is a visual stunner with polish and production value to spare."

It also doesn't hurt that the PS5’s DualSense controller more than carries its weight, ratcheting up the immersion in a world that could've spawned from Ridley Scott's mind. From light rainfall to ground-pummeling attacks, the gamepad communicates a gamut of satisfying, tactile sensations.

More than just placing you in Selene's boots via clever vibrations, though, the technology also assists in combat. Feeling a very specific rumble in your palms when a weapon's powerful alternate fire mode is charged is a feature I now want in all my shooters. 

But even without this welcome feedback, obliterating evil extraterrestrials would be a blast in Returnal. Thanks to super-responsive controls, shooting, evading, and striking up-close is a pulse-pounding, smile-inducing affair. Toss in a variety of inventive weapons and an equally diverse line-up of ugly aliens to unleash them on, and the game's lightning-quick combat is matched only by its polished presentation.

Prepare to Fail...a Lot

The quality gunplay is a blessing, too, as you'll be spending plenty of time behind Selene's high-tech hardware. Returnal's strict rogue-like leanings ensure you'll be fighting—and dying—a lot. Each death brings you back to the game's starting point, even if you've spent several hours trying to progress.

Returnal character Selene discovering a new area and statue

Housemarque

But while you'll no doubt feel the frustration when a lengthy run comes to an unceremonious end, Returnal somewhat tweaks the punishing formula, making it more tolerable for those who don't appreciate the cycle. 

For starters, some progress is retained in the form of unlocked weapon upgrades and traversal gear. Once you've acquired the grappling gadget, for example, you don't need to hunt it down again. And while levels and enemies remain the same, their locations are randomized with each run.

Even more impressive, Returnal does a fantastic job organically weaving its story into the rogue-like template. Selene's experiencing this strange, Groundhog Day-like loop at the same pace as the player, so rather than coming off like an arbitrary gameplay mechanic, the repetition feels like a mysterious part of the journey.

"Oozing with a dread-building atmosphere, yet endlessly enticing, the world is an absolute treat to explore."

Returnal uses this concept especially well through creepy audio logs Selene finds on her past selves, as well as disturbing, playable flashback/nightmare sequences. In fact, the game's horror/sci-fi storytelling is a highlight on par with its presentation and gameplay.

Returnal isn't just one of the best reasons to own a PS5, but a finely tuned entry that could see the niche genre gain more mainstream appeal. That said, newcomers to the inherently challenging formula should know its difficulty can be as frightening as a hungry xenomorph.

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