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)