A PlayStation 5 game!
I know, pretty wild right? But this was always going to come. Things just need a bit of time, especially when time is high in value during these ‘unprecedented times’. After the due is paid, we see the arrival of Housemarque‘s Returnal. If you don’t know who Housemarque are, I’d love to think you know some of their works.
Just a handful of titles they’ve released over the years, each outstanding in their own ways. These games should also give you an idea of what to expect from Returnal.
A solemn ship flies toward the horizon, descending upon what we discover as the alien planet Atropos. Our pilot, Selene (Anne Beyer), tracks the signal ‘White Shadow’, which directs them to a location on the planet. Then sh*t goes DOWN (and also the ship). Waking up on the alien world, they proceed to say my nick (Xeno) too many times, as they explore and hope to find a way off Atropos.
Heading into a lush, yet heavily overcast biome which resembles Auckland on a good day in Winter, Selene plans their escape through exploration. Discovering their own body and weapon, they take the gun cause I guess if you find yourself dead already, something wicked this way comes. And wicked is just around the corner, as Selene encounters ‘savage fauna’, which is apparently very different from Savage Garden, yet equally aggressive. This moment introduces what Twitch stream-tagged the game as being, which was;
Action. Shooter. Roguelike.
But I believe ‘bullet hell’ should also be included. When the action starts to open up, it becomes hell on the screen, thanks to the many bullets you’ll run into. Because you will run into them, and you will die.
Yes, Returnal is a play on ‘Eternal Return’, as Selene wakes up after death, back at their crashed ship. Instead of waking up and saying “WHAT THE ACTUAL F*CK”, they instead continue with the exploration; The nature of this driving them to solve the riddle of their eternal rebirth.
So you go rogue.
Roguelike games are essentially session-based. This means your current playthrough, and any changes made to the character, only occur in that session. You die, you return. And when you return, the game procedurally generates a new layout to your current biome to rerun. Doesn’t sound all that bad eh? Well it isn’t until you lose 10 levels of weapon proficiency, a weapon that pretty much cleans out any enemy thanks to artefact buffs, and Parasite friends who may be killing you, but give you cool things in return.
How do all of these work? They’re found on the journey. Artefacts are rare items, which will grant you buffs to currency, attack and defense. Calibrators provide upgrades to your weapon proficiency, which makes you shoot good and always helps in a fight. These also apply to all weapon classes. Parasites are tiny pals, who can sometimes have great buffs with terrible nerfs, which can also be cancelled out by other mates. Healing is found in silphium and silphium resin, which restores suit integrity and increases it when you have a certain amount of resin. The currency is set by obolites, spawned from enemies or chunks found in the world, along with ether (FOR THINGS) and Atropian keys for chests.
Did I mention malignant wares?
Some of these items you’ll pick up along the way, will be malignant. These pass over to your suit as a malfunction, which can be cleared by consumables you find, parasites who will then nerf future malfunctions in conniving ways, or by completing a task appended to the malfunction, such as clearing a certain amount of hostiles. All of this is controlled and comes together thanks to the DualSense controller. If it wasn’t mentioned at the start of other reviews, I suspect it will come up here, because;
“THIS FEELS LIKE A PLAYSTATION 5 GAME.”
Other critics will salivate at the opportunity to disclose this notion, titillated by their exceptional observation and participation in the game. And look, they’re not wrong. “Feels like a PlayStation 5 game” is a play on words in this case, as the game not only looks, and plays as such, but thanks to the DualSense controller it LEGITIMATELY feels like a next-gen game. The haptic feedback providing the steady sensation of rain that pours on Selene. The adaptive triggers, used in the most ingenious way I’ve seen yet, provide a way to shoot your weapon 2 ways off ONE trigger. Yes, you engage the trigger to halfway to aim down sight, then fully to use your weapon’s alt fire. Simply brilliant, yet confusing as your muscle memory tells you that the trigger does one, and one thing ONLY.
The game runs beautifully in 4K at 60FPS, providing the means to move fluidly through the world. This is required for the ways you’ll need to manage some of the fights. Returnal goes from steady walks in the park, to screaming at 120db while moving between multiple platforms, as you constantly dash and attack. It may sound repetitive, but it has yet to bore me after all this time. These lush visuals also lend to the beautiful environments, and hyper colour lightshows which regularly occur thanks to the savage fauna (again, not Savage Garden).
Difficulty scaling is, dare I say, “very epic”, as the first 3 biomes condition you to the difficulty ahead. While some boss passes can set you back a few (a lot) times, like my experience with Phrike, others will be completed with ease! Unless you’re fellow reviewer and Podcast host Finn, who apparently keeps running into a brick wall of trouble named Nemesis.
The soundtrack also does an exceptional job of helping further the tone and mood of the world. Composed by Bobby Krlic, it flitters with pulsing beats, underscored by alien harmonies and strained strings. All fitting of their previous works (such as 2019’s Midommar), but also of the game itself.
But is it good?
That’s the crux of a review, right? It’d be dishonest of me to not disclose that I haven’t finished the game yet. I have passed an INCREDIBLE turn of events with the title, which bound me further to Selene’s journey. But I have also, thanks to said scaling, run into a peak I’ve yet to climb. Even with this task ahead, I know I will pass it. It’s just going to take a more efficient run to do so, and I am completely fine with working toward that. I also feel confident in the sheer enjoyment I’ve had playing the title. While it has its moments, such as animation cancels or specific interaction requirements which hinder motion, it is a journey I have been loving, even if the cycle keeps starting anew.
And I didn’t even touch further on the psychological horror aspects.
It is GOOD. I like it A LOT. And I am confident in the number I’m going to give it. The story, and daily challenges (yes! that’s a whole other thing too!) and how it plays, along with the notion that the ending won’t really be the ending until the cycle plays out a few more times, captivates me to no end. Fast load times for a game which is about speed and motion, helps you cycle and cycle until you can cycle no more.
Returnal is a GOOD GAME exclusively for the PlayStation 5.
It shows where the console is going, and how it’s going to get there. And Returnal is only the start for new releases in 2021. If this is the start, then I can’t wait for the future.
If I get there.
The cycle may eventually end, but as it repeats, RETURNAL begs you to become harder, better, faster and stronger.
While somewhat endless, the procedural nature of the biomes and items, keeps it refreshing each time you return. The action is chaotic, yet sensible, with the small fries outweighing the one-shot beasts that can turn up.
Will it sell the PS5? That depends on the gamer. But is it a good game FOR the PS5? Absolutely, and I can't help but recommend you check it out.
XENOJAY.COM was supplied with a digital copy for review by Sony, played on the Playstation 5 console, through a 4K 60FPS capable television.