Returnal is hard as nails, beats you down to a pulp and makes you question if you’re even any good at video games.. also it’s bloody brilliant! 

I’ve seen a lot of talk that maybe Returnal is too hard. Well after spending my first long weekend with the game, I wholeheartedly agree that Returnal is too hard, but it’s all the better for it. Before we dive any deeper into this review I just want to reassure readers that this is a complete spoiler free review and the majority of the images you’re seeing is only from the first biome. Also if you don’t fancy a long read today then feel free to check out the video version of this review in the link below. Right on with the review..

Yes, Returnal kicked my ass and it will kick your ass too. Did I get overly frustrated with it from time to time? Sure, but I was never mad at the game as much as I was mad about the mistake or wrong decision I had made on the lead up to my latest death. That’s what makes Returnal great, it’s incredible gameplay and intriguing story keeps you going back again and again for more punishment.

For those unaware, Returnal is a third person rogue-like shooter meaning every time you die, you are sent right back to the beginning. If you were one of the millions of people who fell in love with Hades last year just like I did, then chances are you’ll find a lot to love in Returnal. 

The gameplay is the driving force of the game and is what has made me truly addicted. Trapped on a hostile alien planet, you play as an astronaut named Selena who must shoot her way out of six biomes and try to break the loop that sees her wake up at her crashed ship every time she dies. 

It’ll be no surprise to anybody who has played a Housemarque game before to find out that the gunplay in Returnal is unmatched. Every weapon feels unique and is a blast to use. Each room filled with enemies quickly becomes a firework-like display as a hail of bullets and alien projectiles light up the screen like bonfire night. It’s not just mindless chaos however. In my first few hours I felt overwhelmed and taken aback by the light show that was destroying me time after time. After a few hours though, I felt like I was in complete control of the chaos and every slight movement or misstep could be the difference between success and failure.

There’s no doubt that more skilled players will find Returnal much easier than, well, people like me. Having said that, even the most skilled players will need a bit of luck on their side in the form of different weapon drops, parasites and consumables. Weapons are completely random and you only start with your side arm in each run (for the most part anyway but I don’t want to spoil too much), you also find a sword early on which will stay with you in every playthrough. Aside from that, you just need to pray you come across the weapon you enjoy using most or get better with the ones you do find. 

Parasites which strongly resemble the Alien facehuggers, act as different buffs which come with some sort of sacrifice. So for example, one parasite may offer you stronger suit protection but will come at the cost of suffering fall damage. It’s not just parasites where you need to make tough decisions, chests will often come with the risk of giving you a suit malfunction. This resulted in me having to completely change my mindset as a player. I’m so used to just opening every chest I find in a game or collecting every item that I find lying around. Returnal however made me question everything as opening a dodgy chest in the middle of a great run could shaft me with some serious downfalls. The same applies for the hundreds of secret rooms as you never know if you’ll be getting a room full of new weapons and health items (known as resin) or a deadly death pit with a mini boss waiting to ruin your latest run. It adds uncertainty and constant unease to the entire experience which some people will love and others may see as a turn off.

There’s been a lot of controversy over Returnal’s price point of £70 given it’s the first proper PS5 exclusive we’ve had for a while and some people are finishing the game in as little as 10 hours. This will be completely subjective depending on what you see as value for money but in my experience it feels like a proper AAA title, therefore I think that’s okay. The price of new games is a seperate debate for another time but at the end of the day this deserves to be counted as one of those regardless of the price. A big part of that aside from the outstanding gameplay is the Returnal’s game changing use of the Dualsense controller.

This is the first game since Astro’s Playroom to properly utilise Sony’s sexy new controller and now it’s down to everyone else to keep up with what Housemarque have achieved here. If you enter an area with rain then be prepared to feel every individual raindrop. They’ve even managed to find an extra controller input by having the player slightly pull down the left trigger for a normal aim and fully down for alt fire which acts as a special projectile. All of this is nearly impossible to praise properly without you trying it for yourself but these features alongside the excellent 3D audio really makes Returnal a proper next-gen experience.

Visually Returnal is a feast for the eyes. The spectacular chaotic light shows I mentioned earlier look gorgeous and the game runs at a steady 60fps with only a few frame rate dips here and there but it was never too noticeable, and for the most part looks amazing. Taking a closer look at some of the environments makes it obvious the game isn’t running in full 4K, rather an upscaled 1080p but given how amazing these locations look, this is a fair trade off for me. Unlike most next-gen titles, there is no option between a performance or graphics mode, instead Housemarque have made the decision to have players play the game the way they envision it and it really works. 4K or not, you can’t deny just how stunning and impressive the particle effects are in this game, I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. Whether it’s a hail of bullets, enemies bursting into a thousands pieces or my personal favourite, the teleport effect.. the particles are genuinely jaw dropping at times and needs to be seen to be believed.

One of my biggest worries going into Returnal was a potential lack of story given how hard they are to tell in rogue-like games. Hades set the standard last year for this style of unique storytelling and Returnal have stepped up and matched that for me. Going back to why dying a lot isn’t all that bad, the more time you spend stuck in this loop, the more you learn about Selena and the planet she’s stuck on so don’t worry if you’re restarting a lot, you may just be getting a better experience for it. The P.T inspired house scenes you’ve likely seen in the trailers work as a really original way to tell a story as well as adding some proper horror elements that are sometimes lost elsewhere thanks to the exciting fast paced gameplay.

I need to quickly address an issue I’ve seen complained about a lot and that’s the lack of save features. Basically you can’t save game progress mid run and given some runs can last for over two hours, this is a real issue. Sure you can put the PS5 into rest mode and the game even recommends you do just that. That’s all well and good until there’s a new update that forces a restart that loses everything. I see why the developers did this as it makes you more likely to actually finish a run in one sitting which is kind of the point of a game like this. Plus I’ve always made sure I have time to spare before starting a run so this has only been a minor inconvenience for me and not the game breaker some are making it out to be.

Overall Returnal is going to hit different for everyone. Soulsbourne players will revel in the punishing difficulty while players like me who were only recently turned on to rogue-like games will see this as a great new challenge. New players who just want to experience the latest PS5 exclusive and don’t usually play games like this may be in for a rude awakening, especially as you can’t change the difficulty. My advice though would be to stick with it as the satisfying feeling of finally slaying that boss that’s been destroying you for hours is something that’s worth all the pain. Besides, the gameplay is so fun that I don’t mind dying to have another go at it! Is Returnal the best rogue-like on the market? That’s hard to say but is it the one with the best production with proper next-gen features you won’t find elsewhere. It’s been hard but I’d be lying if I didn’t say Returnal is already an early challenger for game of the year.

I give Returnal

9.5/10

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