If there was only one word that sums up Returnal, it would simply be – exhilarating.
You play as the trigger-happy space pilot Selene, who crash-lands on the planet Atropos, a place where quite literally everything is trying to kill her. Isolated and alone, Selene must survive this hostile world, whilst also investigating the mysterious signal coming from deep within the planet that's calling out to her.
As a roguelike game, death is a central and core game mechanic to Returnal. When Selene dies, (and believe me, she’ll die a lot), she is forced to restart her journey from the crash-site. She’ll lose everything previously gathered, save but a few core pieces of equipment.
Littered throughout Atropos you’ll find previous 'Selene’ bodies, all of whom share audio files of their lived experiences, and are stark reminders of impending death.
And with every new loop Selene tries, the entire world of Atropos rearranges itself. No two runs of Returnal are ever quite the same. Locations change. Weapon drops change. But the goal will always remain the same – survive.
High-octane action: If it moves, shoot it
The explosive action found within Returnal cannot be overstated. Every fight and every escape will see you instinctively firing triggers, jumping, dashing (and hoping) in light speed.
As a 3rd person shooter, Selene can spray a volley of florescent bullets to defend herself, alongside some nifty consumable weapons. Enemies fire back in rhythmic patterns, and after a short while, you begin to learn their predictable movements.
Returnal plays like a 3D space invaders game except with stalking lizard-like creatures, sand dune dinosaurs, sentry turrets and more. My advice is simply: if it moves – shoot it. And then some.
Returnal is a showstopper when it comes to performance.
It's novel that Returnal uses an ‘adrenaline’ system in combat because fights are often high-octane, fight or flight scenarios. Chaining 3 kills boost your adrenaline up, powering your abilities. Keep chaining to stack more bonuses and become unstoppable, but get hit a single time and the gauge resets itself.
While the variety of guns on Atropos don’t require ammo, they can overheat when fired continuously. You’ll be faced with a skill-check to quickly reload. Miss it and have your gun jammed momentarily. Hit it and you can spray bullets again.
These few seconds between ammo refills could be all it takes from continuing or finding yourself back at the ship.
An undeniably difficult game
There are no two ways around it. Returnal is a straightforward, but incredibly challenging game.
With just one difficulty setting, you’ll have to plan your moves, ration health packs, and experiment with the game’s malfunction system to get stronger, quicker.
Powering Selene up is always a gamble. Whilst she can loot chests, attach parasites, and use alien technology across Atropos to access stronger abilities or suit upgrades, many of these come with corrupt malfunctions.
You might have more weapon damage at the cost of your maximum health. You could gain protection but your map becomes unreadable. Some weaknesses are worth the price, whilst others can ruin your level and send you – you guessed it - back to the ship.
Luckily, all malfunctions set a specific task so you can remove them whilst keeping the buff. And these gambles are often very worth it. Take it from someone who has died an embarrassing amount in this game, (too many to publicly admit), that some of the best success I’ve had is by taking chances, rolling the dice and hoping the onslaught I’ve subjected myself to isn’t too severe.
Returnal shows the power and potential of the PS5
Returnal is a showstopper when it comes to performance. As a PS5 exclusive, it demonstrates just how powerful the console is and what we can expect from future games of this calibre.
The graphics alone are spine-tingling and will make exploring Atropos feel worthwhile, if not that bit more terrifying. The signature DualSense controller is incredibly tactile and allows you to ‘feel’ everything from rain to the tug of your gun as you aim down your sight, to vibrations of Selene’s suit as she dashes.
Wearing headphones allows you to enjoy a 3D audio experience, where you’ll hear the gnarls and growls of vicious enemies above, below or behind you. Falling rocks has never sounded so menacing before.
And whether you’ve only booted the game up, are using a teleporter, or respawning for the 100th time, every cut scene, transition or map recombobulation is seamless and takes place in the blink of an eye.
Returnal - a Game of the Year frontrunner?
Returnal is a treasure-trove of action, strategy, and psychological fear. Its roguelike elements will undoubtedly frustrate and delight gamers in equal measure, and its risk-it-all attitude to survival is an incredible challenge.
But ultimately, it pays off. What you have in this game is a captivating story set in a world of hazard and terror. Jane Perry delivers the stoic, unphased heroine Selene brilliantly, and you’ll undoubtedly be just as curious about her backstory, as you will the new world you of Atropos.
Returnal is available to play on the Playstation 5.