Returnal was one of the big PlayStation 5 exclusives Sony went out of its way to announce before the console ever released, yet it went largely overlooked.
If we knew then what we do now, that would have never happened.
Developer Housemarque has unleashed the first truly next-generation-feeling game from seemingly out of nowhere, blending third-person action with stunning production values and a sci-fi psychological horror backdrop that paints an unforgettable tale. That story plays a critical role in the game's presence of permadeath features as players battle an endless, rearranging planet while attempting to solve the mystery.
Like that mystery, Returnal is an engrossing, surefire Game of the Year contender that requires closer inspection.
Graphics and Gameplay
It's the overarching package that makes Returnal feel like the first big next-generation game.
Visually speaking, the game is stunning. The color palette is diverse, there's detail oozing out of every crevice and plant on the hostile Atropos, and the shading and lighting work only heightens the sense of immersion—and horrific sense of overwhelming loneliness.
Returnal really sells the idea of an alien world both beautiful and terrifyingly dangerous, with a rather gigantic former civilization that used to inhabit it. Amazing little environmental details, like fluorescent plant life reaching for the game's protagonist Selene as she walks by, are a highlight of the experience. The gradual degradation of Selene's suit alongside her own composure sure doesn't hurt, either.
And things look great when the action gets going fast. Prominent colors fly across the screen, but it's never difficult to make things out. It's when the action slows down that a sense of awe highlights the experience.
Atropos isn't just gorgeous and varied. There are claustrophobic spaces, sprawling ones with jaw-dropping architecture and so much more, plus the simpler, major differences between each biome. But the game toys with this, too—returning to a spot a player remembers could suddenly result in something shocking, such as a floor falling out from underneath Selene that didn't on the last run.
The sound design is a contender for best-ever status, by the way, especially with headphones. Every little footstep, enemy and drop of water has directional tech to it, accentuating the experience in a way most games have never been able to in the past.
We—and pretty much everyone—have raved about the PlayStation 5's new controller vibration technology, and Returnal feels like the first game to use it to its full potential.
The game's opening cutscene is it merely flexing this attribute repeatedly, albeit in the best way possible. As Selene's ship comes to a gnarly end, every little impact it makes on the way down has a stunning, different vibration to it in a player's hands. It sounds silly, but it's a moment you truly have to experience.
There are some expected things with this next-gen controller tech. Pulling L2, for example, will aim down sights and enable the typical firing of a weapon. Yanking it all the way down past the sticking point, though, enables a secondary fire that is more powerful. Interwoven with this feature are things like unlockable additional fire rates and the ability to have the weapon jam up.
And then there are the subtle things. The patter of rain Selene herself might feel on her suit is stunningly reflected in this new vibration technology. Step into some cover underneath a tree and it realistically adapts.
There aren't really enough words to describe how amazing the controller tech adds to the immersion. Games have looked amazing in the past. Sound design, especially with headphones, has been something special in other games. But this adds a whole different dimension, the one true thing that feels next-gen about either new console so far.
Returnal's traversal has a next-gen feel to it, too. If a player thinks Selene can do it, she probably can. She can trot along or sprint, mantle on things just out of reach, use a dash to clear big gaps or pass right through enemy projectiles and quite a bit more once she unearths certain technology.
The free-form exploration—with almost-reachable areas just taunting the player until they stumble upon an upgrade—is where Returnal feels like one of the old Metroid Prime games. The game encourages backtracking to progress and even the slightest bit of exploration, with the twist that the order of the world changes with each run, of course.
Combat is always enjoyable and varied, which plays a big part in the potential GOTY status. There are a variety of different weapons to stumble upon and experiment with, never mind modifications to the suit or abilities. Aiming itself is intuitive enough, as there's a large bit of auto-aim working here—aim at an enemy while running-and-gunning and shots are more than likely going to hit. This isn't a precision-based shooter by any means, which just works given how fast things can unfold.
There's a helpful, if not ever-so-slight, immersion-breaking reticle that tells players where threats are coming from so Selene doesn't get caught unawares. Enemy projectiles are often bright and nearly impossible to miss. They fire in typically expected patterns not dissimilar to old spaceship arcade fighters, so it's sometimes easy to manipulate these to create an opening, take cover or even phase right through them with the dash.
Part of the sheer fun of combat is the Adrenaline system. It sounds basic, and maybe it is, but it's a fun compounding impact that adds tension and reward for smart play. Selene builds this meter, which has five levels, by dealing damage. But the moment she takes any damage, the whole thing resets. Each tier of meter offers another bonus, such as enhanced vision, more weapon proficiency or additional damage.
Not only does this add tension to what would otherwise be basic encounters with basic mobs, it's a blast to weave through a ton of enemy projectiles without taking damage, only to become even deadlier against a group because the enhanced vision now outlines enemies in red, even behind obstacles.
It's a nice way to flip the whole situation on its head. For the briefest of moments, despite being outnumbered, Selene can become the hunter and devastate enemies, even if she's really the lone human lost in this horrific sci-fi mystery.
And all of that was merely the simple stuff.
Ready for where it gets really complicated? Excellent, because complicated is good.
Factors like suit integrity and weapon proficiency play a big role in the structure of the game. The former is just what it sounds like and only replenishable through certain drops found or purchased throughout the world.
Proficiency is quite a bit more interesting, as it plays a key role in dictating what weapons a player stumbles upon next. The higher the weapon proficiency (upped by inflicting damage or through items) during a given run, the better chance of finding a powerhouse of a weapon that makes upcoming battles easier.
The word "run" was used with purpose. Returnal can classify as "Roguelike," meaning an ever-refreshing experience upon each run. When Selene dies or the player quits, she's routed back toward the ship crash again and starts over. Even wilder, the format of the world has changed.
Playing into this is a set of items besides weapons players must juggle. Artifacts deal buffs for the current run only, whereas Consumables are single-usage items. Timing the usage of these or playing more aggressively or conservatively based on losing key items and starting over is part of the fun. And like these items, weapons reset, too.
There are also parasites to discover and use, which Selene not-so-cautiously attaches to her body. These can provide bonuses at the cost of detriments elsewhere.
It all equates to a staggeringly immersive experience, never mind one that is consistently tense. All of the above just grabs a player and refuses to let go. So far, most deaths don't feel cheap or undeserved. Early on, Returnal isn't as hard as one might expect for a game that slots into these genres, but boy does that change in a hurry.
Wildly enough, one might suggest the character work and story itself trumps the above.
Story and More
The name should say it all, right? Returnal, a smooth mixture of returning...eternally.
That's the fate that befalls Selene, an ASTRA deep-space scout lured to the unknown planet dubbed Atropos. She crashes, and away players go.
The opening cutscene absolutely nails the sense of horror right out of the gates. It's not just a shipwreck that leaves her without weapons and a way to communicate with anyone off-world. While under assault from hostile aliens, Selene quickly stumbles upon what appear to be her own corpses and voice messages she doesn't remember recording—all before waking up and realizing the world changes every time.
Selene is just a big part of the equation. This isn't Halo's Master Chief or Amos Burton from The Expanse or some gung ho marine ready to trailblaze through a new planet. She's more Samus from Metroid in her determined, yet cautious attitude—and she's just as lost as the player.
The way Selene clearly starts to question the recordings of her past self as the mystery unravels, especially as the voice captures get stranger and hint at more danger, is simply engrossing. It takes a game like Red Dead to organically develop a main character in a way that marches nicely alongside the player's feelings, yet Returnal has done just that.
Returnal is a long single-player experience, too, and rest assured this mystery doesn't just up and unravel in the opening hours. Selene realizes early on that the opening cutscene was far from the first time she had experienced or even been on the planet. Narratively, it feels like it can slug it out with The Expanse, to use a modern example.
Along the way, like everything else in the game, there's a nice risk-reward when it comes to the currencies. Oblities disappear when Selene dies. Ether doesn't. But the latter goes into Artifacts and otherwise that can be lost on death, so players have to pick and choose when to get risky with hard-earned drops.
Speaking of risk-reward, that's true of the rewards found throughout the game. Chests with potential upgrades have a chance at making Selene's suit malfunction. So do certain keys, which could unlock critical places but cause malfunctions such as longer recharge times for dashes or weapons.
It must be said that Returnal strikes a really, really good balance between a hardcore Roguelike and everything else. Yes, the world changes with every run and weapons can reset, etc., but Selene does get to keep some permanent upgrades and bigger biomes remain unlocked. So while it can be punishing like some of its contemporaries, the balancing act here should have others taking notes.
That said, there are some hurdles to the game's structure. An unexpected game crash, power outage or something else kills off a run instantly with no way to get it back. Leaving the console in rest mode when an update automatically triggers might do the same. To say that could be a point of frustration would be an understatement.
Believe it or not, there is an interesting online component to Returnal, too. On Helios, players can take on a daily challenge that tasks them with performing a certain scenario with specific weapons and modifiers. Out in the world, players can stumble upon other deceased players and tackle whatever felled them for big rewards.
On the technical front, Returnal runs like a charm with solid framerates. The lone exception was multiple hard crashes, especially early in the game. That's frustrating in any video game, but especially one with a structure like this. But in the quick-updating landscape of today, it's hard to imagine issues won't get rooted out quickly. Otherwise, it's a bit of a technical marvel on the performance front.
Returnal should end up having a really healthy speedrunning community in large part because of the skill it takes to navigate the platforming and combat challenges spread throughout the course of the story.
And the fact it will never be the same playthrough twice makes it appealing to viewers on platforms like Twitch.
So how best to go about it? Early around the game's release date, it seems the best approach is memorizing each area as much as possible so that a new run can't throw out too many surprises. That will assist the majority in where players can possibly find upgrades or big bosses to advance things.
Otherwise, being uber-aggressive with enemies, especially by phasing through attacks, is the way to go. In the interest of the fastest run possible, so is simply picking up all the risky items that could cause malfunctions and using some farmed currencies to buy further upgrades or remove negative debuffs.
Keeping in mind that Selene dying is literally part of what progresses the plot, it should be thrilling to see how speedruns evolve over the years. Accomplishing a task, then flinging her off a platform to her death just to start another run should be both hilarious and quite strategic.
No matter what ends up being most viable, it looks like there is serious potential here for any-percent and 100-percent runs.
It's really hard to poke a flaw in Returnal—and it's not like it is just benefitting from zero expectations.
The combat gameplay is precise and intense, the stakes are always huge and the production values and technological innovations only amplify what is already an engrossing story featuring a main character and setting that won't soon be forgotten.
Zooming out even further, Returnal has managed to strike a balance few releases in the genre have before. Future games, be it in the genre or otherwise, will draw from the lessons learned in terms of a symbiotic story and gameplay feature set with tremendous immersion.
It should go without saying, but Returnal won't be for everyone, whether it's because of the horror elements, escalating difficulty or something else. But it really is a marvel worth experiencing at least once, as Returnal really feels like the start of the next generation of gaming.