Returnal Review — I Guess I'll Die Now
From the moment it starts, Returnal is unrelentingly challenging in a way that begs the player to try just one more time.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Review copy provided by the publisher
Leading up to its release, just about everything I had heard about Returnal was turning me off from it. A bullet-hell roguelike with light Metroidvania elements is almost the perfect combination of game genres that don’t appeal to me—if it was also part realistic racing simulator, developer Housemarque would have completed the anti-Peter Hunt Szpytek gaming cocktail. Imagine my surprise, however, when I discovered that Returnal manages to be the kind of game that, even after a long play session, I was itching to get back to for more.
Returnal starts simply enough. You play as Selene, an astronaut who’s crash-landed her single-pilot spaceship on the deserted planet Atropos after receiving a mysterious broadcast signal from her past. When exploring the planet, she discovers her own dead body along with an audio log explaining that she is caught in a time loop. After being killed by a mysterious hostile life form, she wakes up at the site of the crash to begin the cycle anew. This became a very familiar location for me as Selene returns to the downed ship after each and every death. As I soon found out, Returnal is a game where I was going to die a lot.
To be blunt, Returnal is a very punishing game. Before the opening cinematic even begins, text comes onto the screen reading, “Returnal is intended to be a challenging experience…adapt and persevere to progress further.” I imagine that plenty of people will be comparing it to Dark Souls because both are intentionally challenging games that put the ownness of success in the hands of the player. However, unlike Dark Souls, Returnal isn’t purposefully obtuse. Every single item, weapon, and gameplay mechanic is explained with clarity which gave me a greater understanding of what I was doing when I was doing it. For this reason, I couldn’t blame anything other than myself every time I died.
As frustrating as starting at the beginning again might seem, Returnal paces itself well by adding story moments in between every few runs. After every death, the game map scrambles itself around. By playing the beginning sections over and over again, I quickly noticed that each “room” stays the same in terms of architecture and layout, however, the order of rooms is rearranged every run. Some rooms are full of enemies and hazards, while others provide a brief respite from the constant barrage of bullet-hell madness. This provides both feelings of familiarity and unease at the same time which is something I really liked. After getting to know the starting environments, I was usually able to breeze through them with relative ease without simply committing each room to muscle memory. It kept me actively practicing the game’s mechanics while also speeding through things to regain my progress.
The third-person shooting is some of the best I’ve experienced in a long while. Because it isn’t a cover-based shooter, Returnal ensures the player is agile. Jumping over and dodging through incoming projectiles turns into second nature. A part of it that I appreciate is how the game wouldn’t allow me to play any way other than aggressively. Enemies are constantly pushing forward and repositioning making it impossible to stay back and try to pick them off one by one. Additionally, I was often saying goodbye to the cover I was sticking to early on as most projectiles destroy any environmental obstacles in their path. Without learning these skills, there would be absolutely no way to beat any of the major boss fights throughout the game.
The boss fights are incredible. And extremely frustrating. Every boss fight takes place at the end of each of the many biomes across Atropos which means trekking through extremely hazardous terrain and enemies just to get the chance to fight them again. Dying to a boss means losing all your gear and sometimes upwards of 20 to 30 minutes just to try again and get immediately steamrolled. While I was definitely frustrated at first, having to replay sections actually taught me more about the mechanics of the game preparing me further for each fight. The lows of waking up at your crashed ship after being killed by a tough boss are extremely low, yes, however, the highs of taking a boss down are even higher.
The individual mechanics of the game all add up to make the moment-to-moment gameplay feel really good. For example, Selene gains adrenaline after getting consecutive kills without taking any hits that makes her attacks do more damage and gives other stat boosts. There are a handful of weapons to find throughout the world that each have their own advantages and disadvantages, but remarkably, each individual weapon feels like a viable option. It’s so rare to find a game where every weapon seems useful for every playstyle, but Returnal manages to balance each in a way that feels meaningful.
Speaking of feel, Returnal is the first game since Astro’s Playroom to properly make use of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller. The 3D audio and enhanced controller rumble truly help build subtle immersion. From the feeling of rain dripping on your head to the punch of taking heavy damage, the controller helps bridge the gap between onscreen action and real-life perception. The absolute stars of the show, however, are the adaptive triggers. Pulling the right trigger to shoot has a satisfying click to it and the left trigger serves two functions depending on how far you pull it back. Pull it halfway to the firm stopping point and Selene aims her gun but pull it past there and it changes her weapon’s firing mode. It’s an interesting use of the controller because it essentially adds another button without taking up any more surface area. Returnal’s use of the DualSense is stunning and almost serves as a selling point for the game alone. Now that the bar has been set by Astro’s Playroom and Returnal, the future of the DualSense is looking very bright.
At the end of the day, Returnal is a game about player resolve. Every time Selene wakes up at her ship, she says something akin to “I have to try again, harder.” Through every frustrating death, that reminder served as a great reason to keep playing: I can do this, I just need to focus and try harder. Encouragement from a challenging game is something I feel is undervalued. There were times playing Returnal where I had to walk away for a day because of a setback, but hearing a positive affirmation reminded me that, despite the setback, I can do it. What also helps is that, as you unlock more and more powerups, shortcuts between each biome are unlocked as well. Yes, starting at the very beginning after each death is a blow to morale, but making it back to certain areas again doesn’t mean repeating the entire game to get there.
My frustrations with Returnal pretty much exclusively stem from the genres it falls into. Exploring the first area was interesting when I was initially getting to know the game but returning to it every subsequent death proved to be tedious and would kill the pacing. The boss fights are challenging in a way that tests my skills with each try, but the walk back to them after my inevitable death did more to test my patience than anything else. These things aren’t deal breakers for me by any means, but they certainly remind me why I often stay away from the roguelike genre.
Up to this point, there certainly have been games that act as selling points for the PlayStation 5, however, Returnal isn’t just a tech demo or optimized version of a PS4 game: it’s a must-play for anyone with a PS5 who isn’t afraid to work through the frustrations of dying over and over again. From the incredible use of the DualSense controller to the intriguing way the story is told overrun after run, to the addicting and satisfying combat, Returnal begs the player to hold off going to sleep for just one more try. After all, as Selene constantly reminds, “you can do this. You just need to try again.”