Returnal Review

returnal review

It feels like it has been quite a while since the launch of the PS5. For most of us, the time has been spent playing PS4 games that occasionally have patches to take advantage of the PS5 hardware, but very few really take advantage of everything. This makes the release of Returnal a lot more exciting for those lucky enough to grab a PS5. Housemarque has been working hard at creating a brand new IP that is not only optimised for PS5 but finally makes great use of the Dualsense haptics.

Returnal is a roguelike game set on an alien planet where you find yourself stuck in a time loop as you try to uncover the secrets of a mysterious distress beacon that is being broadcast from on top of a mountain. For those unfamiliar with the genre, the two main elements of roguelike games are permadeath and randomly generated levels.

random level
What is most impressive about the random generation is how lush and detailed each area is. It is one thing creating 8bit blocky levels randomly, Returnal creates rich, detailed levels at random every time

Returnal is a rare exception as it has the polish and production values of a AAA title. It is not often a roguelikes story will attempt to explain the reason behind the fact that your character keeps coming back to life every time they die. Returnal makes a pretty good stab at it and if you are a sci-fi nerd, the story is sure to grip you from the moment you set foot on the planet.

There is absolutely no doubt that the Alien franchise had some heavy influence on the artistic direction. As you frantically dash through the dense fog that obscures the ground below, you expect a face-hugger to jump out at you any moment.

A lot of the architecture in later areas of the game are reminiscent of the buildings constructed by the engineers. Returnal is by no means a complete rip-off or anything, but the similarities are uncanny and it is a credit to the designers who have made such a richly atmospheric setting that the aforementioned franchise has never come close to achieving in a video game setting.

alien like areas
The dense ground fog and the alien technology feels so familiar that you feel like Ripley exploring a xenomorph infested base.

The combat is the most impressive aspect of this game by a long shot. The reputation of the developer precedes them in this regard. Everything is incredibly energetic and high paced. Sprinting and dashing your way toward an enemy to unleash a melee attack to destroy their shield makes you feel like some kind of superhero. Your ability to have full control over all elements of combat is largely attributed to the responsiveness of the controls which give you precision accuracy when it comes to all elements of combat.

One of the greatest parts of the PS5 is the Dualsense controller. The haptic feedback is something that has been frustratingly ignored or underutilised by many games that have gotten a PS5 update. Returnal is without a doubt the best example of how haptic feedback can be used to enhance gameplay. The trigger button has two zones of pressure. A feather touch to aim and a harder touch to enable alt-fire aim. For those of us who are in the habit of squeezing the aim trigger to within an inch of its life, it does take some getting used to but when you do, you will appreciate how much it does to simplify the combat.

The haptics are also used to provide some additional ambient immersion. If you are fortunate enough to have a good headset to take advantage of the 3D audio, you will be blown away during the opening scenes. The 3D sound of the rain around you is also reflected in the controller which genuinely feels like raindrops falling on your hand. If you have audio turned off, the controller actually sounds like rain is falling on top of it. It is a peculiar sensation that is one of the standout moments for the Dualsense.

Procedurally generated levels can be looked at a little negatively sometimes. You may have experienced some wacky stuff in Minecraft and feel that nothing can mimic the feeling of a level that has been entirely crafted from start to finish by a developer. Returnal does a flawless job at ensuring this is not a problem. Every time you die and start again, the new random world feels like it fits together perfectly. After a few hours of gameplay, you will begin to notice patterns and areas that are familiar. Familiar enough to remember where the secrets are but put together in such a way that the world never feels the same twice.

The idea of losing all progress and starting over every time is going to be frustrating for some. While it can be frustrating at times, there are shortcuts that you can unlock to make it a little quicker to get back to where you were when you died. A grapple style object and some special portals for which you obtain the key after completing specific story events allow you to quickly bypass some of the boring repetition and get back to where you were without too much grief. This is not to be confused with fast travel on demand though, you still have to find the random location of the portal in the first biome to take advantage of the shortcut.

fast travel portal
The one-way journey through a portal will bring you to another biome instantly. To use it, you need to have the item that activates it and must also find its random location every time you die.

Although the shortcuts are helpful, sometimes it feels like the game could do with a bit more intelligence when it comes to the procedural generation. When you are getting your ass handed to you over and over, it would be nice if the game would throw you a bone. Sort of like how Mario Kart gives you the best power-ups when you are doing the worst. After several deaths, you finally reach the boss but the only random weapon that you have found does not have enough power to give you a chance in the fight. You must accept death and try again. It is a facet of the genre but one that could have done with a little bit of tuning so as not to keep kicking you when you are down.

The biggest concern people may have with a game like this is the difficulty. How hard is Returnal? The answer is very much one based on the player. Speaking personally, I got the platinum in Demon’s Souls after a lot of persistence and I found the game to be bordering the point at which I don’t enjoy the challenge. In Returnal, I beat the second boss after 6 hours of stressful attempts and a further 6 hours of trying to get through the third biome. This isn’t really a critique of the game as it is clearly designed to be this difficult. Maybe I just suck but it is a hell of a lot harder than Demon’s Souls. So that’s my 2 cents on that!

enemy attack
Enemies do not hit quite as hard as they do in the Souls games but they come at you with a lot of firepower and it can be difficult to defend yourself from a barrage of bullets

When you die, everything is lost. There are some permanent upgrades but these do not give you an advantage in combat. These permanent upgrades are simply tools and items. All stat-based increases are reset when you die and you respawn with a fairly weak pistol. The drive to try again is really hard to summon after you have managed to survive for a long period of time.

If you are one of those gamers who is a glutton for punishment, this game is definitely going to be for you. Housemarque has taken a risk with this title and it has really paid off. It is a unique direction for a PlayStation exclusive and a rather exciting one. There will be no killing boars in the woods to grind XP to become overpowered for a level, you will not find this game holding your hand like other PlayStation blockbusters. Returnal wants you to suffer and it does a damn good job at it!


Returnal is a whole lot of fun to play. The adrenaline-fueled combat is complemented with flawless controls. The Dualsense haptics further amplifies the action, absorbing you into the game. The story contains more than enough mystery to catch the attention of any sci-fi lover. It drives you to discover more and does a great job at trying to explain the mechanics of a roguelike in a more mature and detailed way. The randomness of the game can be a little frustrating at times when you just can't find the items you need to survive. The inability to apply any permanent upgrades that impact your combat strength makes it very hard to stay engaged when you are faced with an obstacle that is proving to be a real challenge. Difficulty goes hand and hand with the genre and despite making your blood boil from time to time, Returnal is a masterpiece for the roguelike genre and was a worthwhile risk for the development team that really paid off. It doesn't matter how much you get your ass kicked, you will keep coming back for more.
  • The use of haptic feedback brings the game out of the TV and into your hands
  • The dark, detailed level design really makes you feel like you have landed on a planet that is so far from home
  • The visuals are some of the best we have see on the PS5 so far
  • The random world generation works flawlessly
  • The game can punish you a little too hard at times
  • Some weapons and items are far too weak and others far too overpowered.
  • There is no way to apply any permanent upgrades to your character. Luck is all you have to help you survive