Returnal Review

Matt Lorrigan

Gasping back into life, her mind pierced with memories that may not be hers, the subsequent revival of space-faring ASTRA scout Selene feels nearly as violent as her inevitable demise, likely at the end of a crackling laser beam or the claws of an alien titan. Beyond a few fleeting moments after death, before you set off back into the hostile wilds of the planet Atropos, pistol in hand, there’s little reprieve to be found in Returnal. Even outside of combat, when you’re not being pursued by the local fauna and flora at every turn, the atmosphere is thick, and heavy. A constant pressure, one that threatens to pin you down entirely, if you’re not careful. Even when the game allows you time to breathe, you might find yourself struggling for breath.

Outside of VR, it’s difficult to remember the last game that successfully drew players so thoroughly and wholly into its world as Returnal does. Developer Housemarque is best known for its pedigree of arcade-style action, in games such as Super Stardust HD and Resogun, and, while its latest title offers few surprises in this regard, it's Returnal’s mastery of atmosphere and tension that truly makes it an unforgettable experience.

This trick is pulled off through a wicked combination of excellent sound design, gorgeous visuals, and exceptional use of the PS5’s DualSense controller. The haptic feedback demonstrated here is outstanding, the best found on the console since Astro’s Playroom. Partnered with some utterly unsettling and alien sound design, using the PS5’s 3D audio, the two conspire to suck you deeper into the game. Sometimes, it can even feel like the world of Returnal is, instead, creeping into your world, its tendrils worming their way into your living room, as the line between game and reality begins to blue. Add in some visually stunning environments, with distinct biomes to explore, all running at a smooth 4K / 60FPS with ray tracing, and Returnal looks, sounds and feels truly next-gen.

All of this would be nothing but a shallow veneer, however, if the game didn’t also play well, and luckily, it absolutely does. Returnal feels like a natural evolution of that classic Housemarque style, with slick and responsive shooting that will have you dodging and weaving between a hell of bullets, as waves of foes attempt to take you down. While you’ll start each fresh run of the game, roguelike style, with your standard pistol, you’ll quickly find a variety of alien weapons throughout the game’s environments, locked away in chests or dropped by tough foes. Most of the early weapons fill your standard archetypes - a carbine, a shotgun, a rocket-launcher - each with a random and powerful alt-fire, that runs with a cooldown.

The deeper into the game you venture, the more abstract and interesting the weapon types get - there’s elements of Ratchet & Clank inventiveness in the designs of weapons like the Electropylon Driver and Rotgland Lobber - but it's to Returnal’s credit that the more standard weapons still feel fantastic to use. Each firearm found out in the world comes with its own little deviations, such as a wider spread on the shotgun, at the expense of a lower range, or a carbine with a slower, more powerful rate of fire. These little additions are unlocked through use, meaning there’s always the temptation to drop your favourite armament and grab a new gun to level up, with the aim of unlocking an upgrade like ricocheting bullets or explosive shells for a future run. Add in a satisfying melee attack and a dash that grants some brief invincibility, and you’ll have everything you need to take on the deadly foes the game throws at you.

Even once you’ve carved yourself out a nice little loadout, you’ll still need to be on your toes in Returnal. Right from the off, enemy attacks can hit hard, wiping out your health bar pretty swiftly with a dazzling array of projectiles, if you’re not careful. You’ll come across some health-restoring items on your journey through Atropos, but Returnal does everything it can to encourage you not to take a single hit. At all. Killing enemies without taking any damage yourself builds up your adrenaline, with five levels to be gained. Each level supplies you with a boost, such as increasing the window for a weapon’s Overload (which is basically active reload from Gears of War) or allowing you to spot enemies through walls. Avoiding fire and not taking damage also means you can increase your maximum health faster, and you’ll want to be in tiptop shape when facing one of the game’s excellent (but brutal) boss fights.

The game might encourage you to avoid damage at all costs, but it's easier said than done, and death is all but inevitable for first-time players. It’s here that Returnal’s roguelike structure comes into play, as protagonist Selene awakens at her ship’s crash site after each death, only to find the layout of the world has shifted and twisted. Individual rooms will be familiar in structure, but with their order and contents moved around. During the game's early hours, this can be very disorienting - the goalposts constantly moving - but the longer you play, the more you settle into the rhythm of Returnal. You’ll begin to recognise rooms and patterns, and soon the planet of Atropos doesn’t seem quite so alien.

A player adjusting to their surroundings like this could have easily been an atmosphere killer, but Returnal cleverly mirrors your increasing comfort in an alien world in protagonist Selene. She, too, begins to descend deeper into the madness and the chaos, and you find yourself along for the ride. The story is all about Selene - about the trauma of her past - and the plot has been structured near-perfectly for Returnal’s gameplay loop of death and rebirth. Each new run offers up new audio logs to find, new alien glyphs to translate, and new sequences set inside a mysterious house (inexplicably found on the planet’s surface) to explore. The disappointment of a death is quickly punctuated with the knowledge that, this time around, you’ll find something new. There’s a mystery hidden deep within the core of Returnal, constantly drawing you back, and asking you to sink a little deeper.

Even once the credits roll, after 20-25 hours, there’s plenty more to discover on the hostile world of Atropos. More mysteries, more secrets, more weapons, more data logs - and I was more than ready to jump straight back in. Developer Housemarque has achieved a seemingly impossible task, balancing fast-paced action with a slow-burn story and an incredible atmosphere, and done so with a flourish, at that. Returnal is an utterly essential addition to the PlayStation 5 library; a game that will creep and crawl and whisper its way into your brain, staying with you long after you’ve put down the controller, dragging you back for more, again, and again, and again.


Returnal is an essential addition to the PlayStation 5 library, offering up sharp gunplay, challenging combat and an engaging narrative, all wrapped up in an atmosphere so dense that you risk getting lost in it.

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Returnal boasts some of the best sound design we’ve ever heard, utilising the PlayStation 5’s 3D audio, controller speaker, and DualSense haptics to absorb you into the game’s world. The voice acting is also superb, with Anne Beyer excelling in the role of Selene.


A real showcase for what the PlayStation 5 can do, Returnal runs well and looks fantastic, combining next-gen fidelity with an alien but cohesive art design.


Returnal gunplay is tight and well balanced, offering up a strong challenge, but giving players all the tools they’ll need to overcome it. The fact that the game also nails PT-inspired horror sections and its Metroidvania-style exploration in a roguelike structure is all the more impressive.


Returnal pulls inspiration from so many different games and genres, that it's incredibly impressive that they all coalesce into a cohesive whole, that feels fantastic to play and runs brilliantly. The game delivers an unsettling, alien atmosphere very well, and marries arcade-style thrills with a mysterious story to great effect.


For the most part, there’s a great list to be found here. Unfortunately, the game’s roguelike structure and shifting world make finding all the collectibles (which is required for six of the game’s trophies) a lot more difficult than it sounds, with luck and time playing too big a role to not be frustrating.

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