Returnal review – The first true must-play PS5 exclusive

Returnal gameplayHousemarque

Addictive rogue-lite action and immersive worldbuilding combine in Returnal as Housemarque turns in the first truly unmissable PlayStation 5 exclusive.

From their origins with the Super Stardust franchise to more recent indie success with the likes of Resogun and Matterfall, Housemarque has carved out a niche over the past 25 years: Arcade titles for a hardcore gaming crowd. So when the bullet-hell masters announced an ambitious third-person shooter for the PS5, it marked a clear step up for the Finnish studio. With Returnal now upon us, did they bite off more than they could chew? The answer to that is a resounding no. 

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Housemarque’s biggest project to date drops players into the role of Selene, an astronaut stuck in a torturous time loop. Having crashed into the alien world of Atropos, nothing is quite as it seems. Upon every reset of the loop, the planet morphs as new challenges enter the fray. Each step forward is a chance to progress that little bit further in an attempt to unravel the mystery and break the cycle. 

Through its extraordinary use of next-gen features, Returnal confidently asserts itself as one of the most gripping roguelite titles in quite some time. If you own a PS5, this is not one to miss.

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Returnal – Key Details

  • Price: $124.95 (AUD) | $69.99 (USD) | £69.99 (GBP)
  • Release date: April 30, 2021
  • Platforms: PS5

Returnal Launch Trailer

Power of the PS5 on full display

The second you step foot outside of your ship in Returnal, every little detail washes over you, all at once. Rainfall crashes into the gorgeous opening stage, bouncing through the DualSense controller as you feel every drop, all while 3D Audio places you right in the heart of it all.

Returnal is a feast for the senses at every turn as Housemarque makes use of Sony’s new tech.

Outside of Astro’s Playroom, it feels like the first game to properly realize the potential of these PS5 features. They don’t come across as mere gimmicks.

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Instead, these unique additions help to immerse you in the often-breathtaking Atropos. Whether you’re casually exploring a new area or blitzing through an intense fight, everything feels smoother with these systems in effect.

Returnal gameplayHousemarque
Returnal makes the most out of Sony’s flashy new hardware.

Didn’t notice an enemy spawn behind? You’ll be able to tell exactly where it is without even looking. Waiting on an ability to come off cooldown? A distinct vibration in the controller will indicate when it’s ready to go. In the heat of the moment, these next-gen features contribute to a fluid experience that never gets too overwhelming, even when combat ramps up to the extremes.

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Adaptive triggers are also utilized in a neat way throughout Returnal.

Every weapon you pick up comes with an alternate method of fire. However, you don’t activate these bonus abilities through the touch of a button. Holding the left trigger just halfway will give you a normal attack while a full press of the trigger unleashes a devastating alt-fire.

This may sound strange at first but, with some added resistance, pushing the trigger all the way feels like a different action. It becomes seamless in no time, helping you enter a flow state and take down some of the more demanding tasks throughout the game.

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Returnal gameplayHousemarque
When the challenge ramps up, Returnal demands your full attention.

One of the things Returnal does best is keep you in the action. Thanks to the PS5’s Solid State Drive, there’s not a single loading screen in sight. From booting up the game to knocking down the biggest foes, there’s never any interference.

Fast travel is practically instant, relocating Selene from one corner of the map to another in the blink of an eye. The same can be said when transitioning to entirely new biomes as well.

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In a matter of seconds, you can go from the dread of the Overgrown Ruins to the hellish mountains of the Crimson Wastes, all without ever losing control. Returnal shows just what the PS5 is capable of in the right hands.

Violent delights around every corner

Returnal gameplayHousemarque
New areas will consistently test your skills regardless of how many hours you’ve sunk in already.

Throughout Returnal you’ll come across a number of vastly different regions. Not just in a strictly visual sense either, the game’s unique biomes promote different backstories, stunning enemy designs, and some remarkable boss fights. All of which you’ll slowly uncover across multiple sessions. Even if you’re visiting a certain section for the 10th time, there’s bound to be a new secret waiting for you.

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It’s an impressive degree of variation as every element comes together to flesh out an overarching journey. Attention to detail is paramount from start to finish as no biome feels any less significant than the other.

A similar variety is felt across just about every facet of the game. Weapon types, ability modifiers, consumables, and everything in between help to keep Returnal fresh whenever you kick off a new run. Even 20+ hours into the title and brand new weapons were still popping up. If you’re truly looking to master Housemarque’s first PS5 title, prepare to lose yourself to the time-loop for a good couple of weeks.

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Returnal gameplayHousemarque
Variation is the key to any good roguelite and Returnal has it in spades.

In terms of sheer volume, Returnal is astounding. There are dozens of completely different enemies that are all lethal in their own right. From towering monsters that launch across the map to tentacle ridden critters that parade the skies, there’s always something lurking around every corner that feels like a brand new threat.

That level of detail is never more apparent than in the game’s multiple boss fights. It’s here where your skills are truly put to the test as Housemarque throws insane bullet hell sequences your way. All of your knowledge to this point will be challenged in Returnal’s most triumphant moments. No two boss battles feel the same, yet they’re all equally memorable.

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Keeping you on your toes

Returnal gameplayHousemarque
Impressive variety will keep you coming back for more.

As a roguelite, Returnal does a great job of shaking things up. Not just with each fresh run, but throughout individual runs as well. One of the more unique ways Housemarque accomplishes this is through forced weapon variety.

While you might find your ideal gun of choice early into a run, something that helps topple the first boss with ease, you’re never able to rest on your laurels for too long. Upon clearing any given room, there’s a good chance you’ll be leveling up your Weapon Proficiency. Instead of boosting your equipped tool of destruction, leveling this stat does the exact opposite, evolving all future weapon drops.

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Therefore, your current gun will quickly become outdated as every new-found weapon gets progressively more powerful. A level 12 carbine may carry you through an entire biome, but by the time you face new enemies, a level 15 pistol would be much more effective. This all but forces you into mixing things up and changing your playstyle a number of times throughout every run.

This refreshing approach to variety in the genre is a welcomed touch and one that extends beyond more than just weapon systems. Everything from map layouts to enemy spawns change with each attempt, meaning you’re always finding new secrets and learning new tactics.

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No two experiences will ever feel the same, luring you back to discover more no matter how good you might feel, or how far through the story you’ve progressed.

The better your run, the bigger your headache

Returnal gameplayHousemarque
Just four deaths throughout the core experience led to some ridiculously lengthy runs.

For a genre that all but necessitates death, Returnal was never challenging to the point of frustration. With just four failed attempts throughout the experience, enemy attacks, room layouts, and boss patterns all became second nature rather quickly.  As a direct result, certain elements of the game’s storytelling became a little convoluted. 

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Without delving into spoiler territory, various narrative beats are only triggered upon dying and venturing through fresh runs. If you happen to make it through big chunks each go around, the game can struggle to keep up. 

While much of the story is conveyed through the environment, letting you digest the bigger picture at your own pace, the most crucial moments come through unique first-person sequences. Gameplay takes a backseat here as these chilling P.T.-esque experiences unfold. However, you can only advance a certain amount with each run. 

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Doing well almost feels like a detriment in that regard as pushing through certain aspects of the narrative all at once can leave other areas lagging behind.

Returnal first person gameplayHousemarque
First-person sequences provide a break from Returnal’s intense combat, allowing the story to take center stage.

To that point, perhaps the biggest issue with Returnal in its current state is simply the length of individual runs. While it’s obviously great finding a synergistic build and tearing through room after room, taking your time in each biome can often lead to five or six hour sessions. This may not seem like a huge downside in and of itself, though without a proper way to save or pause your progress you have no choice but to keep going.

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Compared to many of its counterparts that allow for bite-sized playthroughs, it can definitely feel quite restrictive at times. If it’s already getting late, starting a new run never feels like a good idea. You’ll either regret staying up to see it through or regret having to quit at the halfway point and lose all your progress.

These lengthy journeys through Atropos can also lead to some extremely frustrating moments if your console happens to crash at any stage – which fortunately only happened once throughout roughly 25 hours with the game.

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Rating: 8.5/10

If you’ve been looking for a title to really showcase what the PS5 is capable of, Returnal is arguably the most stunning game yet to make use of the beefy new hardware. Gorgeous visuals complement polished third-person mechanics in an endlessly replayable combat loop you’ll want to continue mastering long after the story comes to a close.

Through their first AAA title, Housemarque has done more than just deliver the first unmissable PS5 exclusive; the Finish developers have positioned themselves as a key studio to watch throughout the generation.

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