Do not buy Returnal.

This beautifully-crafted, bullet-hell, third-person sci-fi, action-horror adventure game from the masters at Housemarque is carefully crafted. You play Selene, a scout who crashes on a mysterious, hostile alien planet. Selene is seeking the source of a mysterious signal called “White Shadow”. The game begins where Selene’s ship has crashed and she finds the body of another scout – only it’s hers.

What is this place? Why are there corpses and audio logs of herself from different times? Why does she keep returning to the crash site upon death? Why is there a 20th century country house in the middle of an alien planet? And why is everything trying to kill her? This is the mystery at the centre of Returnal.

And as someone who loves mysteries, particularly those set in space with elements of cosmic horror, this would all otherwise be perfect.

But I cannot recommend this game.

This game feels like you’re in a ballet of chaos and beauty, in a world lovingly designed with layers of interest and intrigue; mysteries are stacked within mysteries. Combat encounters are fast and terrifying, with alien creatures dazzling the screen with lethal lightshows, your character dancing between their attacks, setting your TV on fire with what I can only describe as gorgeous but chaotic deliberation. This is, after all, a classic bullet-hell experience.

Your character is a determined, driven female scientist-warrior, with a penchant for exploration and careful documentation of a hostile alien world: Ellen Ripley meets Jane Goodall.

But you shouldn’t buy this game.

It’s a PS5 exclusive, showing off the incredible technology built into the latest next-gen console hardware from Sony. More pertinently, it fully utilises the ignored DualSense controller features: You feel the rain, wind, sand in your hands – tiny taps and thuds in your hands emulate the world around you. It’s almost magical. You can feel the adaptive triggers… well, adapt, to the scenario you find yourself in. There are no loading times and the game launches almost instantly from the main screen.

But it’s not worth the price of admission.

Returnal is a roguelike/lite, which sees your character return again and again to the beginning of the game (until a certain point, then it’s starts at a midway point). All you’ve accumulated disappears: no weapons, no common currency, no upgrades. You retain some aspects like a rare currency and traversal upgrades (like grappling hooks). But everything aids combat is gone. The maps for each level change, too, so you cannot memorise areas that much – meaning you also need to navigate new paths.

Some people enjoy this, take pleasure in live-die-repeat formula of these game. And blessings to them.

I am not one. And no one I know is. I cannot recommend this game to anyone to purchase.

The reason for this is that other roguelikes rarely have runs that last north of an hour or so; or they have clever systems for saving. Returnal’s runs, from beginning to the only continue point, can last up to 5 or 6 hours. That means you cannot quit, turn off the PS5 or load up another game. Returnal will sit, occupying your machine, keeping it alive, demanding you… return. And this is not a forward journey, after all, since there’s a high chance that all your hours of progress will vanish because of a split second decision – an arrow or explosion you don’t see coming from off-screen (which is why bullet-hells tend to give you a view that lets you see the whole level, like Housemarque’s other titles Resogun and Alienation).

There’s no denying the game is beautiful, has high productions, gorgeous music and sound, shows off the PS5’s features and is dazzling to behold; it’s also, in its moment-to-moment play absolutely incredible and like nothing else I’ve ever encountered. I’ve never had to wipe down the controller and wash my hands every hour or so, due to the intensity of the combat. There’s a massive sense of accomplishment at reaching the end, finding great powerups and weapons. Do not be deceived: This is a very difficult game but that does not negate the enjoyment.

You even get into a kind of meditative mindset, especially with boss battles. It seems impossible to prevail but somehow – you do.

But this is not a game I recommend.

It demands too much time, does nothing to save your progress and, by the time you’ve restarted for the 10th time, everything is basically the same. Too much depends on the luck of draw: Will your next run give you the right items and weapons that will aid you in winning, or will you luck out and get almost nothing or useless items?

The game’s procedural levels alter the world – but there’s only so many tilesets the developers can use and eventually you get used to where things are.

If you can’t dedicate 5-6 straight hours to this game, per session, it’s not for you. And given time constraints, that’s asking a lot from adult players who have other commitments. The game seems determined to not let me play it; it’s like a gorgeous cat that won’t let me near. I get close but then it scratches.

And to be clear, the levels are unique and fascinating in and of themselves. I wish I could, you know, actually get to them. But good luck moving through each one – given how long it takes and the high chance you’ll have to start from nothing again.

I simply do not have the time nor the patience to get through something like this, especially given how hard it is. And though I adore the moment to moment play, love the world and Selene, am fascinated by the story and am the world’s greatest fan of cosmic space horror, I cannot tell anyone to buy this game.

This however does not mean you shouldn’t play it. When it comes on PS Plus or gets a large discount, then definitely give it a shot.

But at the current asking price and what it demands of you in return, this is not a game deserving of many people’s time.  

(Review code provided by Sony / Available only on Playstation 5)

31 thoughts on “Returnal Review: A gorgeous, incredible game you should not buy

  1. I’m just getting into the game today and I’m not sure how many hours you’ve devoted but you can save your spot If you put your PS5 on sleep mode. Honestly I’m kinda glad the game sets you back because forgetting the controls after leaving a game for months because I didn’t have the patience the first time is annoying. The game wants me to complete it and it’s begging me not to walk away. I played dark souls and sekuro and those games are unbearably difficult to the point it’s not fun. At least this game has an intriguing story right off the bat. And the first few fights even after a few resets only get easier as your proficiency goes up. I’m only 3hrs in but so far I haven’t been completely turned away.

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    1. Unless you get an update or one of many other things that will disrupt that. Not to mention my best run ever and after 90 mins the game crashed.

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  2. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you. I agree that 70 is just too rich a price for any standard edition game, but I’m enjoying myself like I haven’t with a game in so so long. I actually finding myself lost in a game world again….
    But there are all just opinions right 🤷🏻‍♂️
    Do your research and make an informed decision

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    1. If the game never crashed i would agree with you. Or lock you in the stone chest room with no means of exit and you have no choice but to restart. Save function would be pretty nice then.

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  3. The fun of roguelikes is winning DESPITE non-optimal items. I’ve also not had single run take the time you’ve stated and I’m currently at the “midpoint” and exploring biome 5 after beating the 4th boss (hardest so far but only took two tries). Each area unlocked lets you travel there immediately on successive playthroughs and compensates you with weapon proficiency so you aren’t outclassed. If you took 6 hours, you went to every room in every biome before moving on.

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  4. The game is, without a doubt, incredibly difficult as in the way a Dark Souls game would be if there was a permadeath feature as standard for the game. I also understand the logic for having such a system in place, given the narrative involving a time loop that the protagonist cannot escape from. At least you don’t have to battle all of the bosses after each failed run, and the only way I can see a fix for this that doesn’t ruin the narrative is if the developers “nerfed” the game to allow easier runs. I’ve completed 2 of the biomes and while it is frustrating at times, the feeling of accomplishment after a successful boss battle is unmatched by most games today. I think an outright refusal to recommend it is a bit harsh, but a strong warning that this game is for dedicated (read stubborn) players is definitely recommended. This is easily one of the best looking and playing games on system. I’m guessing most people know their limitations when it comes to skill in video games. Knowing that, I would easily say that any one sitting on the fence about whether or not to gives this game a try should jump in…over and over again 😁

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  5. Agreed agreed agreed 100% agreed….this game is not player friendly at all.Hard just for the sake of being hard is bulls**t .Hate to pay to be frustrated beyond belief….not fun at all.I dont game to get pissed off.

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  6. Check out my YouTube Channel, GamingbyTheRook. I’m an adult and I don’t have time either, but I ran through the whole first act in 2 hours. I will do the 2nd act soon!

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  7. I’m going to respectfully disagree with most of this. Game is absolutely worth the price of admission based on the story telling alone. Combat and exploration also feel great. This is the type of game that makes me go with Sony time and time again.

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  8. This is what original games were about. You needed to beat the game or start from the beginning. You had to endure the pain of getting your ass kicked and start all over again. That, besides building character, is what life is all about. Everything is now handed over to people. Let’s save my progress so I can go from there…as infuriating as it can be, it builds persistence and character…even in gaming terms.

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  9. Wish I’d read this BEFORE I bought it. It’s spot on! No saves, no carry overs, beautiful to look at but gets incredibly boring with having to constantly redo every room to only get wiped out by the boss. Love the idea of this game but simply to time consuming, repetitive and difficult. Gutted I paid 70 quid the same rooms over and over and over again

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    1. That’s what I thought too before I beat the first boss, but once you do you can skip right to the next zone by finding the crimson gateway room. There are other short cuts as well.

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  10. Finished the game in less than a week and i understand the complaints. Do your research and decide if it’s a game for you. If you’re a busy dad with 3 kids you might not have the time for it, and that’s ok. Games should not cater to the average consumer or we’d get nothing new. People who are interested already have the others should give it a go in a year. You’ll either love it or you just won’t get in to it. To those struggling it does get easier in act 2 if you get the right guns. It’s going to be a cult classic. It’s AAA quality but it’s not mainstream. Good luck breaking the cycle to anyone who wasn’t put off by this review

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  11. I agree I have a family I can’t devote my life to this game. If it had a save or check point I would most likey attempt to keep playing.

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    1. It does have checkpoints, each time you beat a boss and make it to the next biome you unlock an area to teleport to it meaning that you can basically get to the next biome in 10 minutes from a new start. That then becomes it’s own trade off, do you speed run to the next biome but miss health upgrades, currency, augments etc. Or take longer but upgrade more. If they added quit when you like there would be no real contest, you’d just clear your way through every room each time. Having to make that choice is itself part of the challenge in my opinion.

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  12. Would you recommend buying Returnal if/when they add a way to save in the middle of runs? Do you think that would solve the majority of problems you have with the game?

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  13. This is why I quick resume on the Xbox series X & S is amazing because this wouldn’t be an issue of those systems. With that Xbox series X & S you can stop play, play other games and use Quick resume to pick up where you left off

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can save progress by putting the PS5 in rest mode, then pick up where you left off 🤷‍♂️

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    2. Quick Resume is not at all reliable yet and it’s not available for every game (even some new games it isn’t available). Some how I think the Returnal Devs would not have allowed for Quick Resume if it was on Xbox. They probably would have been against suspending the game in PS5 rest mode but didn’t have a choice.

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  14. I know this is a personal opinion piece on the game, but damn. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but this has been the best exclusive so far on the 5 for me, and outranks most of what I’ve played the past 2 years. It’s challenging, but not THAT hard, and while it would open the game up for more players to have some sort of save function outside of a few permanent upgrades or objectives, the runs do not take 5 to 6 hours unless you want them to. You can get through a biome in an hour or less and still feasibly have a solid build most runs.

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  15. Buy it if you want, simple as that. It is not because the author does not like you will not like either. Anyone has their own interests and tastes. So, please buy it and have fan. I do not even want to say about all the specs for the PS5 with this game, it is clearly visible by all.

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  16. I agree with pretty much every word. Super fun, but a very time hungry game. With a 40 hour a week job and a 2 year old baby….its frustrating to feel I have wasted 70 dollars. I bought a game that I cant play the way it wants to be played

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I agree to disagree. When I purchased this game I was amazed with the onscreen asthetics! The lighting, the feel of reality, and rugged but comfortable terrain beneath your feet of your high class space jump suit. I absolutely love the storyline, and the creatures even more. When I play a game like this, a challenge is what I want To experience to the fullest, and that’s what’s given in Returnal! Though it’s really difficult to give props towards dying, and reporting back to a familiar checkpoint in the same suit, the same weapon, and the same non working space craft. Oddly enough though I have Pleasure out of this. If you watch your position of your map, and run like hell through each gate, you will reach your destination swiftly. But even still undergo difficulties with the enemies trying to stop your stride in achievement. My progress of this game right now is a high earned 85%, I’ve learned so much about how to minipulate findings throughout each level that benefit Selena as well as objects to stay away from. There’s never a dull moment to say the least. Short and sweet; suggestions right now is to make sure you’re in her original suit due to glitch attachments of suit 2 and 3 for pre orderers. Read each item description of every treasure box and finding carefully, and Last but not least, watch the edge of tomorrow before playing. It will make things easier to understand 😜..
    Game on people!!!!!

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  18. I have to agree. As a middle aged adult with kids that still enjoys games, I cannot handle these roguelikes. Don’t have time or patience to start things over and over again, no matter how nice looking terrible they are. After a while redundancy, frustration and a feeling of waste of time since I don’t have time for that anymore in my life

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  19. I think you definitely have to have a love for roguelikes and games like dark souls.
    I’ll see you going to have some patience and be willing to pay attention and learn from every mistake.

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  20. FINALLY! An honest review…
    I got stared at like a freak when I said almost verbatim what you wrote, haha! I bought this on day one with high expectations and ended up super disappointed. Literally spent 8 hours, REPEATEDLY giving this game a chance and finally decided by life was too valuable. (Ended up coming back 2 more days 4-6 hours each to play again)
    Beautiful game with great game play, but just not my style.
    I get why some people love it, but this game really should’ve had a demo or at least been in the 40 dollar range.

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  21. It’s interesting that this review almost exactly covers my feelings. The major aspects that make it a roguelike just mean that it’s not worth the time investment. I don’t often like roguelike and they need something to keep me hooked, but I was disappointed by this game’s handling of the genre. If they just allowed for one thing to carry over, like weapon proficiency, then it’d be much easier to tolerate. I hope they release some QoL updates in the future that do just this so I can get back into it.

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  22. Thanks for an honest review as a 42 year old parent who works a full + time job my gaming time is limited and 5 hours is not an option i have and i like hitting a finish line.

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