You died – again. Returnal PS5 Review

May 5, 2021

Returnal is a horror roguelike game recently released on PS5, and it’s probably one of the coolest games I’ve played this year. It’s great to see a triple-A game come out that really takes advantage of the full capacity of the PlayStation 5, from sound to lighting to narrative design.

But does it live up to the high player expectations?

What is Returnal about?

Returnal is the story of Selene, an astronaut who crashes on a mysterious planet. She crashes on this planet and her spaceship is completely busted. While she’s on the planet, she makes a shocking discovery. Her own body. Cue dramatic music.

Selene finding her own body in the video game Returnal on PS5
Worst Groundhog Day ever.

Selene keeps dying and coming back to life, reliving the same day repeatedly. Except, with one interesting twist: the world here is not the same. Every time you wake up from death, the world has been reset into a new form. I absolutely love that Selene is a middle-aged female astronaut who is exploring this devastatingly difficult space landscape.

How hard is Returnal?

In case you were wondering how difficult Returnal is, it comes with its very own warning screen. Returnal is designed to be a challenging experience. And by the way, there’re no saves. Returnal is not for the faint of heart.

Returnal is brutal. With no saves, you die and then you start again. All that progress that you’ve made is lost. Now, for some people, this might be a massive turn off. But I really love this challenge. It forces you to be efficient. And in the terms of the souls games, get good.

Returnal's warning screen on PS5 which says Returnal is intended to be a challenging experience

Every single bar of health counts, because even if you build up your bar in one run, it won’t be there in the next one. In fact, there are only a few items that carry themselves across through each run. One of them is your main weapon, your pistol. But even then, trying to find better weapons in the game is tough.

You must be judicious about when you use items like health or the consumables, because there aren’t a lot of them to go around. One misstep and you might actually put yourself out of beating a boss. The difficulty isn’t necessarily the gameplay itself, which is fairly standard. It’s shoot, charged shot, dash. But a lot of the work you do is in maintaining your health and making sure you consume consumables when you absolutely have to.

Returnal’s gameplay

I really like a lot of the dynamism of the movement in this game. One thing I find though, is that the melee weapon is not as dynamic as some of the other movements you can make with your weapons and your guns. But the melee weapon is very useful when playing this game because it is absolutely lethal when dealing with low-level enemies.

Selene fighting a large tentacled monster in Returnal

One of the most exciting things in this game for me is seeing how the world opens as you develop new skills. Returnal bears a lot of similarities to the recent game Control. If you enjoyed Control, then you probably will like Returnal. Returnal is not an imitative game. But in terms of tone, the weird fiction element, and that element of slow burn mystery, these two games have a lot in common.

Returnal’s environment design and storytelling

One of the great things about Returnal is that the environment reflects the psychology of the protagonist, Selene. She’s going through a fragmentary memory loss. And so, there’re elements of surrealism in this world building. There are places which will trigger memories for you. But in the early days, you’re not sure the full story of why she’s there or why she keeps going and persisting through this planet.

The mysterious house in Returnal on PS5 in a science fiction landscape, with an astronaut out front

Returnal is one of the first games for PlayStation 5 that has taken full advantage of the platform. The lighting is exceptional. The game makes great use of the haptic controller. You’ll feel the vibrations of enemies or rain coming through the controller. It adds an authentic element to the world building.

Another fantastic element of this game is the sound design, and especially if you’re using the 3D headset where you can get that full experience of feeling like you’re on this alien planet. The chittering insects in your ears are incredibly creepy without having to show them. The sound does the heavy lifting in this game to set the mood and tone.

Final thoughts

Returnal is absolutely whoopin’ my arse. But I keep coming back to the game. And I need to know why, oh why, Selene is on this planet. For those with the tenacity to survive, Returnal is a compelling horror game with an exceptional approach to narrative.

I highly recommend Returnal for people who like souls-like games, rogue-like games, and anybody who just really wants a challenging video game that still maintains a compelling story. And for the rest of us diehard Alien fans, it’s a must buy.

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