Preview: Returnal

I’ve spent roughly three hours playing the exclusive PlayStation 5 title, Returnal. It’s been some time since we’ve had a first-party single-player game on Sony’s console and quite frankly, it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. And while Sony is going to work with deep dives, trailers, and building the hype for Housemarque’s next game, nothing compares to actually being able to play it. There are huge expectations here and I know a lot of people are watching Returnal closely but from my short time with the game, it’s sunk its hooks into me already and I feel like it could very well be another win for Sony.

I feel as if the last several years have led to this moment for Housemarque. The Finnish-based developer has been around for ages but it wasn’t until Resogun that they hit their stride I believe. Over the years, they released Alienation, Nex Machina and Matterfall. All of these games the studio developed paved the way for Returnal, you can feel bits and pieces of those games here.

Like I’ve said, there’s quite a bit to unpack but I’m fairly early into the game. Returnal’s a third-person roguelike – something the studio has never attempted before, but it’s certainly a great combination so far. It also comes across as the most ambitious title the studio has developed so far and it clearly feels like a bigger game than it is. Playing as Selene, the game begins as your ship crash lands on Atropos, a creepy, desolate planet that sends shivers down my spine. You’re alone and isolated from any other humans and you’ll need to survive in harsh climates that will push you to your limits. With your spaceship Helios in pieces and Selene without her sidepiece, the only option is to get out and explore your surroundings. As a Greek-Canadian, I’m beaming about how many references to Greek mythology the game has used to tell a story and according to the creative director, this is an intentional nod.

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As I move through the unknown in front of me, this sense of uneasiness will not let up. It’s clear the studio took inspiration from the Alien films and at best, I can describe Returnal as the perfect companion piece to Ridley Scott’s franchise. Exploring Atropos feels straight out of Prometheus and the statues and buildings draw inspiration from H.R. Giger, it’s hard not to see the similarities but it’s also easy to be creeped out by them.

Pressing forward, you head toward the White Shadow Broadcast but not before stumbling upon a corpse wearing a familiar outfit. The corpse is yours and you look at the helmet and panic a bit, before taking your sidepiece and pressing forward. This is a game with death as a theme, and because of the roguelike elements, each death comes with changes to the planet that force you to change your strategy each time you restart the time loop. The one good thing about restarting the cycle is you’re presented with different weapons and combinations to approach a situation each time you start over. I haven’t done more than a handful of loops so far but they feel varied enough to keep me invested.

Enemies in the short amount of time I’ve spent on Atropos feel varied and otherworldly in appearance. Many of these bizarre beasts that spew bullet-hell style attacks are often brightly coloured and powerful.

Combat is tight and eases you in smartly. You begin with a pistol but gain access to better weapons like a shotgun and assault rifle. You’ll gain proficiency by killing enemies and levelling up your weapons. A cool feature in battle is the Adrenaline level, a mechanic that stacks up to five levels, with each tier unlocking an enhancement. By successfully earning an Adrenaline level, you can increase weapon damage, mark enemies, strengthen your melee and so on. If you take damage then you lose your streak and everything resets.

Weapons, artifacts, resources are lost when you die. You return to the Helios crash site each time you die and the only thing that continues forward each playthrough are your weapon mods and Databank scans. Returnal requires a lot of scanning and it’s a great way to learn more about the planet and the fauna on Atropos. Scanning new weapons, items and clues left behind from a lost civilization build the narrative, helping piece what’s happened on the planet. This mechanic helps understand the world better and expands the map, which is reminiscent of Metroid and tells you when you need to come back when you’re better equipped to press forward.

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Housemarque worked with Sony on nailing the 3D audio and DualSense implementation. I’ve only begun my journey on Atropos but the way you feel the rain falling on Selene’s helmet to the way the controller vibrates when you discover a new plant to scan feels immersive. This is the first true exclusive that fully uses the PlayStation 5’s features. From the first time I picked the DualSense controller up, I knew it was a game-changer and the haptic feedback implementation here is the best yet.

Most games have a designated button for a weapon’s alt mode but Returnal smartly uses the Adaptive Triggers to activate it. By pressing the L2 button down halfway, your weapons tense up and triggers the alt mod of your equipped weapon, the second you go further than halfway on the L2 button, your weapons begin blasting out the secondary fire.

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And being the first true exclusive means that Returnal is absolutely stunning. The leap from last-gen to what I’ve played is astounding and bolstered by the lighting-quick SSD powering the console, this is easily one of the most impressive titles on Sony’s new console that fully utilizes the system’s potential.

I still have quite a bit to go as I make my way through Returnal but my short time with Housemarque’s debut game on PlayStation 5 is exciting and I can’t wait to get back to Atropos. Everything Housemarque has done up to this point has left a mark on the gameplay. Returnal offers a satisfying loop strengthened by a sense of discovery that few games like Metroid and Hades offer. Right now, I can’t stop thinking about the story and what’s to come.