Returnal First Impressions: Getting Beat Down Hard

All of us are very excited to see what games Sony are going to pull out of the magic hat this generation. With games like Horizon and Ratchet & Clank on most people’s immediate release radar, Returnal may be one that has slipped by. Sometimes a lack of hype can be a good thing and from the few hours I have spent playing this game, it is most definitely going to take people by surprise.

For a studio best known for smaller indie style titles, Returnal is a big step up and team Housemarque have really outdone themselves. This title comes at you with all guns blazing and will land more than a few surprise punches. This game is a big surprise that is going to squash the less than exciting news about another Last of Us remaster.

For those unfamiliar with what the roguelike genre is, you are essentially dealing with randomly generated levels where you lose everything and have to start again when you die. The vast majority of roguelike games will be lower budget indie titles with a top-down or side-scrolling camera angle. A 3rd person shooter with AAA level production values is an incredibly rare event in this genre and is sure to stir things up a bit.

The opening scene sets the tone incredibly well. You crash land on an alien planet after receiving a distress signal. A jungle-like environment with lots of dense fog making it feel like something straight out of the Alien franchise which undoubtedly had some influence on the artistic direction. You find a dead body, which turns out to be you and so begins the live, die, repeat cycle. Think of Alien and Edge of Tomorrow having a video game baby and you will know what to expect.

returnal forest
You won’t find Nathan Drake searching for treasure in this jungle, feels like a face hugger will get you any minute

For those of you really looking to flex the new haptics in the Dualsense, your wish has been granted. As soon as you gain control, you feel the raindrops falling on your helmet through the controller. This is further enhanced with great use of 3D audio which lets you pinpoint all the sounds of the storm and crashed ship nearby. It may be a gimmick to some but for the gunplay, the haptics offer some unique immersion to the situation that I am really enjoying.

The pace of gameplay is a make or break for a game like this. You are going to die a lot, as with any roguelike. You don’t want to be stuck wasting time with dialogue, cutscenes, picking up items and waiting for doors to open. Returnal gives us a taste of what to expect from the SSD as there is absolutely no loading at all. You can teleport across the level in an instant.

The lack of loading allows you to get stuck right into the thick of things the moment you die with no time wasted. The controls are just as nippy as the loading times. You can sprint, jump, dash and attack without any input lag. The game does not hold your hand with the combat because it does such a good job at giving you full control of everything.

The story offers a heap of mystery with cryptic messages and moments peppered throughout the randomly generated levels. You are drip fed information through audio diaries you find from your dead body and it is never enough to quench your thirst. You will keep wanting more and more but you will be held back by your level of skill.

The game is pretty tough. At least for me anyway. I have gotten to the second world (by the skin of my teeth) and this is where I have been stuck the past few hours. Death does get a little frustrating when you are on the cusp of a story event but this is the crux of the genre. The game can’t be a walk in the park. With that being said, death rarely goes along with a “that’s bullshit” moment. Generally, you die because you made a mistake, not because of cheap suckerpunches from the enemy.

With a little over 6 hours of game time put in so far, I am beginning to worry that I may not be able to beat this game. This is painful as the story has me gripped tight and I really want to know how it plays out. Who knows, with a little more time, I may be able to refine my skills to start wiping the floor with the alien scum!

Edit: A mere hour after writing this, I managed to beat the second world, I may go into cardiac arrest any moment!

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