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Returnal Review: Endless Sci-Fi Horror Is A Phenomenal PS5 Showcase

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Returnal Review: Endless Sci-Fi Horror Is A Phenomenal PS5 Showcase

Shall we get right down to it? Returnal might just be the best PlayStation 5 title yet. It's certainly the most interesting. Housemarque's curious blend of sci-fi horror, arcade shooter, and Metroid-inspired roguelike is a phenomenal showcase for Sony's next-gen hardware, and a gripping, often deeply disturbing adventure in its own right, even if its attempts to marry narrative and gameplay don't always quite work out.

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Returnal puts players into the battered spacesuit of a character known simply as Selene, whose ship has crashed onto the surface of an inhospitable planet called Atropos. Exactly what's happening on Atropos and why Selene has come here is a mystery to both the player and Selene herself. Her past, as well as the history of Atropos and the ancient civilization that once lived there, slowly reveals itself through environmental storytelling, audio logs, and the occasional first-person sequence that perfectly evokes the corridor horror of P.T.

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Atropos itself is a twisted Lovercraftian labyrinth full of nightmarish alien monsters, deadly fauna, and shifting environments. It soon becomes clear that Selene needs to track a mysterious signal to its source and, hopefully, get home. The catch? Our hero is stuck in a time loop, and the planet rearranges itself every time she's killed.

The basic structure of Returnal will be familiar to anyone who has played a roguelike before. You'll get as far as you can exploring Atropos, equipping yourself with new items and gear as you go. Inevitably, you'll eventually come across a powerful enemy, die, and start the loop over from your crashed ship.

The frenetic bullet-hell gameplay that Housemarque has long been a master of is a revelation in 3D, with Selene making use of a variety of powerful weapons to take on fearsome foes. Dashing through enemy hordes and evading hails of projectiles while returning fire at a constant silky-smooth 60fps is as thrilling the first time as it is the hundredth, thanks in no small part to a steady drip-feed of new items, guns, and unique weapon traits that can unlock with each run.

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Returnal / Credit: Sony
Returnal / Credit: Sony

Returnal will kick your ass mercilessly, by the way. An awareness of your surroundings is crucial, as enemies can quickly gang up and take you down if you aren't able to take cover or dodge the more devastating melee attacks. Bosses also provide an incredible challenge, though in typical bullet-hell fashion, victory is often a case of staying calm, memorising patterns, and keeping your focus.

Easier said than done, I know, but finally taking down a formidable boss you've been stuck on for multiple runs brings with it the exact same feeling of elation you'll be familiar with if you've ever played a Dark Souls game. And while there will be plenty of deaths, each one brings with it a new lesson about how not to meet a sticky end. I should also point out that the PlayStation 5 SSD is a huge boon here, enabling ultra-fast loading that throws you straight back into the action with each failed attempt.

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Where Returnal differs from most other games in the genre is that Selene is aware she's in a loop, and Housemarque uses this to build the story in clever and unexpected ways. Much like last year's Hades, Returnal uses each death as an opportunity to advance the story, although the sense of progression between each run is noticeably leaner than Supergiant's 2020 masterpiece.

Returnal / Credit: Sony
Returnal / Credit: Sony

Selene may experience three or four runs in a row before stumbling across anything truly new, but there are usually cryptic alien glyphs to be found and audio logs to uncover that keep the story moving forward. In a macabre twist, audio logs are found near the decaying remains of versions of Selene from past attempts. You can also locate these corpses and avenge them by hunting down the eldritch abomination that killed them in the first place for valuable loot, if you decide it's worth the risk.

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There's a nice and unexpected focus on providing the player with shortcuts, too. While most of the items Selene unlocks will be perishable items that have a chance to be discovered on future runs, there are a handful of permanent tools, including a teleport device to better zip around previously uncovered portions of the map, and a translation device that unlocks further secrets etched onto the walls and caverns of Atropos. There's a hearty dollop of Metroid Prime in the way you're encouraged to revisit old areas with new gear to reach fresh secrets and dig up new information about the world around you.

You'll also be glad to know that keys to new areas and boss rooms stay with you upon death, meaning you can head straight to your next objective most of the time. You'll still have to explore a bit to find the new locations of these areas, of course, and it's encouraged to find as much gear as possible and get kitted out properly before heading into more dangerous zones. Still, being able to get around Atropos that much quicker when you've already conquered one area countless times is something I seriously appreciated.

Returnal / Credit: Sony
Returnal / Credit: Sony

The DualSense will absolutely blow your mind in Returnal, by the way. If you thought Astro's Playroom was an impressive demonstration of the next-gen controller's abilities, just wait till the first time you step out of your ship and feel the alien rain pattering delicately in your hands.

The haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, and 3D audio work beautifully together to provide the kind of added texture that we've never before seen in a video game. The controller almost constantly clicks and whirrs in your hand during combat as bullets fly past, and you dodge oncoming attacks with a boost. One of my favourite features by far is the way in which the DualSense distinctively springs to life as if suddenly full of energy every time your weapon's powerful secondary ability is ready to use. In a game with so much going on, it's brilliant to have a tactile reminder that a cooldown has run its course without having to look at an icon in the corner of the screen. It helps keep each run all about the action, and brings you that much further into this terrifying alien world.

As fantastic as Returnal is, it's not without a few downsides. As you may have seen, there are would-be customers out there who are already raising the difficult question of whether or not this game is worth £70. This is an understandable concern to have; £70 is not a small amount of money.

Returnal / Credit: Sony
Returnal / Credit: Sony

Even if you beat the game - something you almost certainly won't manage in the space of a weekend - it's not the kind of title you put away forever. Returnal lends itself to quick blasts of bullet-hell action just as easily as it does longer playthrough, and there are plenty of online challenges to keep the more hardcore players happy.

As with any game, ultimately, mileage will vary depending on tastes. Just be very sure you're aware of what Returnal is and what it's offering. The difficulty level won't be for everyone, and it can at times feel like you're pushing ahead without having made much progress. This, I fear, is where the experience will start to fall apart for many users.

Patience is definitely key in Returnal, and you should know that you can go through multiple runs without bumping up against any significant story developments. Where Hades offered something new to see after each death - be it new dialogue from other characters or some other, minor breakthrough - peeling back the layers of Returnal takes dogged persistence. Failure doesn't always drive the story forward, and that can become frustrating after repeat doomed runs.

The amount of permanent upgrades are few and far between, too; don't expect Selene to become an absolute powerhouse right away. I found myself wondering why Housemarque couldn't have taken a cue from Hades and included easier difficulty options for those that just want to explore the game's gorgeous, terrifying world and experience its unique story. It's okay to want people to play your game a certain way while also offering the option to make it a little easier. Aside from some aim assist options, however, the challenge is very much set in stone.

Returnal / Credit: Sony
Returnal / Credit: Sony

Returnal is the first PlayStation 5 game I've played that feels truly next-gen. Demon's Souls looks phenomenal and Astro's Playroom had some neat DualSense tricks to share, but Housemarque's offering manages to deliver on all the promises Sony had made about the console and controller in the lead-up to launch and then some.

It's an impossibly slick game that's bound to delight fans of Housemarque's previous work and anyone looking for a substantial new roguelike to sink their teeth into. But for everyone else? The difficulty paired with the sluggish sense of progression may prove to be a major turn off. What I will say is this: If you're even slightly interested in Returnal, consider checking it out. Some games are worth fighting for.

Pros: Best use of the DualSense so far, runs beautifully, combat never stops feeling incredible

Cons: Sluggish sense of progression, narrative unfurls itself a little too slowly

For fans of: Metroid Prime, Resogun, P.T

9/10: Exceptional

Returnal is available April 30 for PlayStation 5. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here

Featured Image Credit: Sony

Topics: PlayStation 5, Review, sony

Ewan Moore
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