Review: Returnal is the PlayStation 5's first essential game

Returnal is the latest and best exclusive for the PS5, offering a compelling premise, phenomenal art design and frenetic combat showcasing the power of this new console generation. 

After crash landing on planet Atropos, interplanetary scout Selene is mauled to death by aliens only to wake up at the moment of the crash. With each death she returns, forced to search through the ruined planet again for answers as to what trapped her in this cycle. 

Returnal takes the central conceit of the 'Rogue-like' genre, procedurally generated maps with a full reset on player death, and wraps it in a surreal sci-fi nightmare and addictive gameplay loop.

The world

The first thing which struck me about Returnal was how it felt to play, literally. As Selene stood in the rain during the game's opening, I could feel each droplet patter across my palm through the PS5's Dualsense controller. 

The haptics are no gimmick, managing to make sound tactile and giving the game a visceral dimension I've never experienced anywhere else. Combined with an eerie, skin-crawling score this is a game best played with headphones to be fully immersed in the world of Atropos. 

And what a world it is.

Returnal screenshot.
Photo credit: Housemarque / Sony

If Ridley Scott and HP Lovecraft somehow had a baby, I imagine their subconscious would resemble Returnal. It's a twisting labyrinth of ruined alien architecture, monstrous tentacled beasts and ancient eldritch secrets. 

Every time Selene dies, Atropos resets and a combination of stages is randomised for each new play through. You'll grow familiar with individual rooms but never the order in which they're presented to you. There's also an impressive variety of level design on display, with six unique biomes to explore, from frozen wastes to blood-red deserts.  

The death loop mechanic informs almost every aspect of Returnal's story with Selene constantly stumbling over her own corpse. Your first weapon is literally pried from your own dead hands. 

You'll also find eerie audio diaries from these other Selene's, who seem to have been trapped in the cycle far longer and gone hopelessly mad. 

Have you just crash landed, or were you always here? 

The most direct story beats come when exploring Selene's family home, which has impossibly appeared in the labyrinth of Atropos and appears at random during a run. 

When entered, the house forces a perspective shift into first person and, for a few moments, Returnal becomes an entirely different genre, less sci-fi action and more slow-burn horror. 

It took me many, many runs before I started to piece together something approximating a plot but that feels very intentional on Finnish developer Housemarque's part.

Returnal screenshot.
Photo credit: Housemarque / Sony

This is an unabashedly convoluted narrative which may frustrate some players but fans of cosmic horror and oblique, environmental storytelling will find a lot to love here.  

Players will also have plenty of time to puzzle over these secrets and soak up all this atmosphere, because they are going to die. A lot.

The combat

There's no way around this: Returnal is a hard game. 

Hordes of alien enemies deal punishing amounts of damage in seconds. You can take some consolation in that they look and sound amazing while doing it, but the punishing difficulty curve is unavoidable.

Returnal depends on a relentless sense of forward momentum to overcome player frustration and the gameplay systems align perfectly to create it. 

Selene is fast, with a rapidly recharging dash, jetpack enhanced jump and an infinite sprint. There is no stamina bar to slow her down and no fall damage to worry about, the game wants you permanently in motion. 

Returnal screenshot.
Photo credit: Housemarque / Sony

Seconds after each death you'll be on your feet again, hurling yourself at the maze, egged on by the promise that this time, this run will be different. As you progress you'll unlock the ability to traverse each stage even faster, with upgrades allowing you to fling yourself from one side of the map to the other in seconds. 

Selene also has an ‘adrenaline' meter which fills and unlocks significant bonuses for every three enemies killed without taking a hit. This adds to the frantic energy of combat, with some runs feeling like a barely controlled fall forwards through the labyrinth.

The weapons on offer are eclectic, from your standard assault rifle to alien rocket launchers and bizarre acid belching flesh sacks.   

Permanent bonuses for each weapon unlock the more you use them, encouraging players to mix up your guns frequently as you won't know what you'll receive on your next run. 

In gunplay the Dualsense's haptics give every gun a unique kick and the adaptive triggers add extra functionality. Pull down halfway for a standard shot or all the way for a devastating alt-fire which requires a cooldown. 

Returnal screenshot.
Photo credit: Housemarque / Sony

In Returnal, much of the combat balances on systems of risk vs reward, like the alien parasites which can be collected to provide both gameplay benefits and debuffs simultaneously.

Will you trade a slower dash for some extra defence? A more powerful melee attack but face fall damage? Even chests which might contain valuable powerful loot could also trigger a malfunction in your suit. 

If all this sounds too difficult when combined with a loss of progress on death, key elements do persist through runs. Selene's traversal abilities and gun upgrades are permanent as well as a slowly expanding number of power-ups scattered throughout the world.

This means if you commit, the game will inevitably grow easier as you expand the range of power-ups and weapon upgrades available while memorising individual level layouts. 

In both its story and it's gameplay, Returnal is a game that rewards patience, persistence and careful attention. 

Progress is earned in painful inches but finally overcoming the incredible boss encounters at the end of each section of the labyrinth had me genuinely giddy with triumph. 

Returnal screenshot.
Photo credit: Housemarque / Sony

The verdict

Returnal is the first truly 'next-gen' experience I've had since buying a PlayStation 5.

The game wears its inspirations on its sleeve but remixes those elements into something new, frightening and strangely hypnotic. 

At time of writing I've already experienced one delicious fake-out ending and I'm currently throwing myself at the brick wall of the game's (perhaps) final boss. There have been many moments I've thrown down my controller in frustration and stormed off. 

But like Selene, I just can't stop coming back. 

Five stars.