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)

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

  1. Reviewer never played battletoads for snes I guess.

    Loving Returnal so far. Just beat the first boss, and you obtain a key that instantly teleports you to the second world. Not sure how 1 run needs a dedicated 6 hours, when MANY other sites are claiming an hour and a half with unlocked shortcuts to finish.

    I suggest having another game on the go. Do a few runs of Returnal, and jump over to something else for the rest of your play time.

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  2. So basically because he doesn’t like the genre he won’t recommend it, personally I haven’t had any crashes like some people have and while I think $70 is a bit exorbitant playing it on my days off I can do a few runs and really get lost on the world and mystery, as a fan of the souls games and rogue likes in general I absolutely love it. I do wish there was a way to save, even if it was like right before or after bosses just to be able to come back later. As a side note I have a six year old and work a 50-70 hour work week every week and still find time to play a few runs so it’s not that bad that the runs last so long. To me it’s no different than a good binding of Isaac or enter the gungeon run which I have had last 1-2 hours in some cases. Aside from the known issues with crashes and lack of save functionality it’s an amazing game.

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  3. Another typical: “I’m bad at this game therefore it is the game itself at fault.”

    This article is full of misleading rhetoric that praises the game for just about everything it brings to the table, which is all immediately invalidated by the incessantly repeated statement that you should: “…Not buy this game.”

    What a load of rubbish that contradicts itself at every new paragraph.

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  4. The biggest issue I have with this review is 90% of it is “Don’t buy this game because it’s a rogue-like, and I don’t like that genre much.”

    As someone who plays a lot of them… the only real criticism I saw that was valid is what could be 5 hour runs wth no way to suspend your game. Other than that it just sounds like a harder than average game.

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  5. I’m just gonna say, do what you want with your time and money.😐 Im not gonna let an article tell me why I should or shouldn’t buy a game. 🙄I’ll be the judge of that myself. So if youve got your eye on a game and think its something you want to invest in. Go for it.👍 Worst you gotta do is return it (if you get a physical copy). 🤷

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  6. The reviewer is someone who doesn’t play or like rogue style games…I’ve wasted my time reading a biased review. Sounded like they were bitter they were assigned the game to review. It’s reviews like these that bring down the overall rating of otherwise good games. Maybe apologize to the creators at the very least for likely deterring people from purchasing their work of art.

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  7. I appreciate the honest and well-written review. It sounds like the game isn’t for you, like it wouldn’t be for me for the same reasons. Otherwise, it sounds like an amazing game that I would have loved when I was younger and a big fan of the early Souls games. I hope it does well and encourages the studio to keep doing amazing work.

    I wish I had the time to put into these types of games, but like several others here, I’ve got a wife, 2 young kids, a house, and 50+ hour / week job consuming all my time. Im lucky if I get 3 or 4 hours in a month to play video games, and that would be spread over 4-6 sessions, so something like this is a no go. It still sounds amazing though.

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  8. What this guy has described is literally any rouge like game, and with what he described, he probably wouldn’t like any rouge like games, so aside from his point about the price I don’t think this holds any Merit.

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  9. Yo is this guy even playing the same game as me? The teleportation allowed you to go far ahead back to where you were last and my runs into ever last 45m maybe. I skip from area to area and level up as I cross into the next zone

    I play when I know I have an hour and can do a run or 2. Have fun, and maybe make some progress. Some times I dedicate more time. But there are casual and hardcore gamers. Just because a game isn’t “casual” to you, doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. I love live-die-repeat games. Plenty last just as long. My deadcells runs last waaaayyy longer than my Returnal runs. I bought the deluxe edition and have no regrets and suggested it to all my RogueLike lovers.

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  10. Did you just say nobody you know is into rogue likes? Hades was nominated for game of the year lol. Man this article is such bullshit, for once sony actually does something new and there’s people putting out shit like this. Hey buddy I got a tip for ya get good.

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  11. “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?”

    Fyi “luck out” means to have good luck.

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  12. Good GRIEF I regret clicking on this article. Your writing style drives me up the wall, you say not to buy it 4-5 times between flowery paragraphs about the game before you FINALLY get to the goddamn point, and it’s just to say you don’t like roguelikes. What an absolute shitshow, I won’t be back.

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  13. Awful, misleading review. Pure clickbait with a weird headline that doesn’t actually reflect the content of the review. Removed this website from my news feed.

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  14. Hit the nail on the head – I WISH I had read this before spending 70 bucks. I was so excited for this game – I like a good challenge. I play all games on normal made and do just fine. This game is frustrating. I love it – great graphics, nice frame rate but cannot get past the 1st biome. I’ve played for 15+ hours … I guess I suck suddenly at video games after 30 years of gaming?

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