Live, die, repeat. That’s the mantra of Returnal, the newest PlayStation-exclusive title from developers Housemarque. The game is an excellent showcase of the PlayStation 5’s capabilities but make no mistake: it is a hardcore roguelike that will test the player’s patience and skill. However, for those willing to brave its seemingly insurmountable challenges, it offers a brutal yet beautiful experience set against the backdrop of an awe-inspiring sci-fi world.
You play as Selene, an astronaut marooned on a mysterious and deadly planet called Atropos, and much like it’s distant cousin Hades, Returnal is a narrative-driven roguelike. As Selene, you’ll piece together the mysteries of the planet as well as her own fragmented memories while trying to go further and further… before something inevitably kills you. In true roguelike fashion, each death brings you back to the start to continue the loop once more as the planet itself shifts and changes around you. Returnal’s gameplay loop basically involves dying, exploring, fighting betentacled beasties and getting as far as you can before death resets the loop. Reaching certain checkpoints, such as beating a boss, lets you skip certain parts of the game and making further attempts slightly faster, but not necessarily easier as there’s always a tradeoff in skipping versus getting stronger. Although there are a few surprises later that are best left unspoiled.
Returnal makes no concessions when it comes to its roguelike design and in the beginning, it feels even more punishing than most games of its ilk as it offers very little in terms of permanent upgrades. Each run starts you with the basic pistol and almost all upgrades are lost upon death, save for a specific type of currency (which has several uses) and a few permanent unlocks that are few and far between. While exploring the randomly generated rooms, you’ll eventually come across Metroid-style unreachable areas, vines that you cannot cut through, platforms that you cannot reach, and so on. Progressing further unlocks tools that let you overcome these obstacles, thus making runs slightly easier as you’ll have access to more loot.
Unlike Housemarque’s previous games, Returnal plays like a third-person shooter but retains the bullet hell sensibilities of their earlier work. Avoiding enemy attacks is key when it comes to being successful at the chaotic encounters you’ll often run into. Thankfully, Returnal has some of tightest controls I’ve ever come across in an action game. The simple act of moving around the environments or jumping, strafing and dashing around using the jetpack feels extremely satisfying. Kill three enemies without taking damage and you’ll reach a new Adrenaline level (up to a maximum of five) which makes you significantly more powerful and even adds extra homing projectiles to your shots (and that’s always a good thing in a bullet hell game). I found the Adrenaline mechanic quite crucial as it not only makes you noticeably stronger, but encourages you to stay mobile and avoid attacks altogether, something that becomes more and more important as you progress further into the game.
Aside from the movement, the shooting feels great as well. Each gun comes with mods and an alt-fire attack which makes excellent use of the DualSense controller’s adaptive triggers. Pulling L2 back slightly allows you to aim like any other third-person shooter, but pulling it all the way back lets you use the alt-fire function. This felt extremely natural while playing and quickly became second nature after a while. All of the guns, which fit nicely into traditional shooter archetypes, feel nice to use. But over time, I settled on a few favourites, especially the humble pistol, which ended up being one of the most reliable weapons in the game. It’s a bit disappointing that you cannot really control which weapon or mod you’ll start with, which makes runs feel a tad unpredictable and being able to focus on specific weapons really helped me progress faster in games like Hades and Dead Cells compared to this. In fact, some of the randomisation simply may be a bit too much at times. It’s a staple of the genre, sure, but I certainly could’ve used a little more leniency on the permanency front.
That brings me to something which should be addressed since I imagine a lot of people interested in the game may be worried about the difficulty. To put it simply, yes, Returnal is hard, especially more so if you aren’t familiar with roguelikes. Death is extremely frequent and progress can be slow depending on how quickly you adapt to the combat and how lucky you get with drops during a single run. That said, it also does feel rather empowering once the flow of the battle and exploration clicks. The game is full of difficult choices that will either vastly increase your chances of success or prematurely end a run even though it may be going well up to that point. Take, for example, the malignant items that you’ll constantly run into. These will offer you a benefit at the cost of inflicting a negative effect on your character (such as increasing your alt-fire cooldown, or worse). These effects can often be cleared by finishing a simple objective (like opening two treasure chests), but the random nature of the game can sometimes make these even more challenging than they should be.
Then there’s the parasite system, a risk-reward mechanic that lets you attach any number of alien parasites that offer an invaluable positive effect in exchange for a debuff to Selene. They can prove to be hugely beneficial as long as you can creatively work around the negative effects and seeing these wriggly little critters on the character model is disgustingly amusing. While mastering its fast-paced combat is essential, Returnal is also a game about turning adversity into advantage, making hard choices and suffering the consequences, but every few runs or so, something will click and let you go further than you did previously. Its this random nature of the game that may turn some players off. I personally enjoy difficult games, but even as a fan of From Software’s library and roguelikes in general, I had several bad runs in Returnal that made me question my sanity at times, but never to the point of giving up. My first instinct after a reset was always to try again since the game is just so much fun to play.
There’s so much more I could write about Returnal, such as the PT-inspired interludes, the online mechanic of avenging fellow players, or the imposing bosses with their screen-filling attacks. But at its core, it’s all about the visceral gameplay and tough choices. Yes, it can be daunting at times and sometimes deaths can feel a little cheap, but the fact that a game like this exists in the AAA space is an achievement in itself. It’s technically flawless and mechanically satisfying in a way that simply must be experienced first-hand.
Beautiful, brutal and endlessly replayable, Returnal is a cult-classic in the making and one of the best games on the PlayStation platform right now. However it’s essentially a hardcore indie roguelike in the guise of a AAA game (including the pricing) and that may make it a harder pill to swallow for some.