REVIEW: ‘Returnal’ Is a Fantastic Showcase for Next Gen, But Is Far From Perfect (PS5)

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Returnal

Returnal, a third-person shooter roguelike from Housemarque, is the first real PlayStation 5 exclusive that has caught the attention of gamers worldwide. With stunning graphics, an intriguing premise, and a promise of addicting gameplay, Returnal looked to be something truly special. With Housemarque normally focusing on top-down, twin-stick shooters, many questioned if they’d be able to make a real showcase for the power of the PS5. In many ways, they did, though some large issues hold Returnal back from true greatness.

Returnal puts players in control of Selene, a deep space explorer for the ASTRA corporation. After her ship crash lands on the planet Atropos, Selene is left with next to no resources and is forced to explore her surroundings. What she finds shocks her: her own body. Selene quickly discovers that she is stuck in a time loop on Atropos, as she wakes up at her crash site each time she is killed. Using strange technology, alien parasites, and more, Selene must find out why she is stuck in this loop, uncover the secrets of her own past, and more.

With most of Housemarque’s past games being largely gameplay-based, it was a surprise to see how heavily Returnal leans in on its story. This is for the game’s betterment, however. Selene’s story is an incredibly intriguing one, with each new revelation and audio log putting me on the edge of my seat.

The planet of Atropos also introduces its own interesting story that rivals Selene’s. The planet has an undeniably Alien feel, with remnants of an ancient race almost everywhere. As players progress, they’ll slowly be able to translate messages left behind by Atropos’ previous inhabitants.

Though Returnal never really gives definitive answers on Selene’s story or that of Atropos, it gives just enough to make players come to their own conclusions. We’ll probably be seeing features and videos discussing the game’s ending for years to come and, while definite answers would be nice, Returnal’s cryptic plot still works.

Atropos is a joy to explore. Each new area players encounter is teeming with personality and is absolutely beautiful (in a creepy, unsettling kind of way). While it could be argued that the environments in Returnal are technical showcases on their own, it’s the game’s particle effects that truly shine. Enemies exploding into light or breaking down into dust never ceased to make me go “woah,” and the quick travel animation is simply far more gorgeous than it has any right to be.

Returnal is also proof that the DualSense may be more than just a throwaway gimmick. The DualSense shines in Returnal, with the game making great use of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. Feedback is incredibly detailed and really makes the experience feel next-gen.

Fans of Housemarque’s previous titles will be pleasantly surprised by Returnal. The game feels just like a classic bullet-hell game in 3D, from the enemy projectiles to the gunplay. Housemarque is truly the king of this genre, and Returnal is just further proof of that.

Returnal is one of the most addicting games I gave played in years. The team at Housemarque has mastered the roguelike experience, with each run feeling more enjoyable than the last. Not much carries over from one run to the next, but simply learning more about the game’s enemies, environments, and puzzles gives the player a concrete feeling of progression, even on runs that end poorly. Plus, finding a new piece of equipment that carries over permanently feels incredibly rewarding.

Returnal

There’s only one issue with Returnal’s gameplay loop, but it is a pretty big one. There is no way for players to save mid-run in Returnal, and there is no autosave feature. This means that if your game crashes during a three-hour run or your PS5 updates while you have the game in rest mode, tough luck; everything you did in that run is gone.

This doesn’t make Returnal feel more difficult or add to the experience in any way, it simply makes it incredibly frustrating. Not every player can commit to long gameplay sessions, so if you actually want to make it anywhere in Returnal, you better have some time on your hands or hope to dear god that your game survives rest mode.

Technically, Returnal is a marvel (when it works). It stays at a steady 60 frames per second for the entire game, with load times so quick they’re barely even noticeable. I say “when it works” because Returnal is held back from true greatness through every game’s worst enemy: crashes.

Since I picked the game up last week, Returnal has crashed on me four times, two of which were deep into great runs. With no save system or autosaves to speak of, these runs were basically completely wasted. Pouring hours into something with no real return feels like a massive waste of time, making booting up Returnal feel like more of a risk than it should.

Almost everything about Returnal is working towards making it the premier PS5 exclusive. Stellar graphics, a great story, and amazing gameplay make it a joy to play, but a lack of saving and the constant fear of crashes make it hard to recommend at the present moment. At the end of the day, Returnal is a fantastic game, but whether or not you want to risk wasting hours of your life on potential crashes is really up to you.

Returnal is available now exclusively on PlayStation 5.


Returnal
7.5

TL;DR

Almost everything about Returnal is working towards making it the premier PS5 exclusive. Stellar graphics, a great story, and amazing gameplay make it a joy to play, but a lack of saving and the constant fear of crashes make it hard to recommend at the present moment. At the end of the day, Returnal is a fantastic game, but whether or not you want to risk wasting hours of your life on potential crashes is really up to you.