Returnal Review

May 7, 2021

Returnal finally brings a new exclusive to the freshly-released PlayStation 5, courtesy of Housemarque, the Finnish developer behind many other first-wave titles for PlayStation, including Super Stardust HD for PS3 and Resogun for PS4. Returnal is a huge leap forward for the company in terms of scope and scale, showcasing the new hardware in a meaty rougelike adventure that puts the new console through its paces.

The concept of Returnal is simple, astronaut Selene crashlands on a dead alien planet filled with ruined architecture and corpses, many of which are alien, but some of which are her own. It quickly becomes clear that whenever Selene dies on this planet, she re-appears back at her crashed ship, as the planet shifts to present a completely new layout. Fighting feral animals, abandoned machines and corrupted ancient sentients, Selene slowly learns more about the history of the planet, as she also becomes confronted by her own past with dreams, hallucinations and inexplicable hauntings.

There’s a fantastically thick atmosphere of dread and ruin that pervades the six biomes of Returnal, and the environmental storytelling is impressive, especially given environments are procedurally generated (albeit from crafted room templates, I assume). There’s influences in the design from Prometheus, Alien and Edge of Tomorrow for sure, but Returnal crafts its own unique alien hellscape that’s electric to experience, not just through the detailed visuals but the immersive 3D surround audio, best experienced through headphones.

Returnal is also yet another showcase for the haptics in the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller, and the best one too since Astro’s PlayRoom. You’ll feel the varying impact and recoil of guns and even the gentle patter of raindrops on your character, while the Adaptive Triggers on the controller are used to control your weapons’ alt-fire – half-way down for regular bullets, but all the way for your charged super shots. It’s very cool.

The action in Returnal is incredibly fast-paced, taking inspiration from bullet-hell shooters, much like the NieR games, keeping you constantly on your toes avoiding volleys of spread-out alien fire, while taking out enemies with a range of weapons, like pistols, shotguns, carbines and plasma rifles. While there are few weapon types, there is a great variety within them, each coming with various side-effects and attributes, as well as different alt-fires that can make similar guns feel quite different in practice. The sheer speed of gunplay, with the game running at a smooth 60fps, is just a lot of fun to get the hang of, as while enemy numbers can feel unfair, they are all beatable with even the simplest of loadouts, provided you have enough skill.

As a rougelike game, Returnal is challenging, and even warns you of this fact upfront as you start the game for the first time. Every time Selene dies, barring some leniency with falling into pits which just knocks off some health, you have to start at the beginning of the game again. Only a few items are permanent, like a sword and a grapple device, and there is a permanent, but rare, currency in ‘Ether’, but for the most part you’ll be back to square one. Now, I got lucky with my first few runs in Returnal, breezing through the first few biomes with a great carbine loadout I fell in love with, rare bonus lives and plenty of regular ‘Obolite’ currency. Like all good things, these runs eventually came to an end, and given you have to proceed from the start of the game through each biome, my runs became less and less fortunate, and more than a little frustrating.

This is where you might find yourself taking advantage of the many risk/reward systems in place in Returnal. Selene can attach parasites to herself that give certain beneficial effects, while also introducing new negative ones. Certain high-value items can be found in ‘malignant’ variations, which have likelihoods of causing malfunctions to your systems, which have to be repaired through in-game actions. In my experience, I generally got the short-end of the risk almost every time, leading me to play more conservatively in search of health-bonuses and items, but there is a fair bit of depth in the gambling systems on offer.

Despite any frustration you’ll probably feel, Returnal is quite addictive, thanks to its snappy mechanics, and the story itself, which is mysterious enough to pull you through the action, told through translated writings Selene finds, logs from her previous dead selves, dream sequences and hallucinations. There are also daily challenges, accessible from Selene’s ship, which potentially offer even more replayability for players into that sort of thing as well.

Returnal is definitely one of the best PlayStation 5 games you can buy right now, and will undoubtedly impress anybody who picks it up with the speed of its gameplay, quality of its detailed presentation and the fun haptics. There is a fine line between satisfying challenge and frustration with your lack of progress, and depending on your temperament and history with the rougelike genre, your experience can vary wildly. When it’s firing on all cylinders and you’re on a great run, Returnal will keep you at the edge of your seat like almost no other game in recent memory, straddling that line between challenge and frustration just enough to keep you from giving up. When the RNG gods are not on your side, and progress is slow or non-existent, then Returnal‘s few permanent rewards can leave you feeling stuck like never before. Nevertheless, Returnal remains a fast, addictive showcase for the PS5, that despite its high price-tag is more-or-less a must-buy, even if you find yourself taking occasional breaks while playing to calm down.


-Outstanding visual and sound design, along with haptics
-At its best, provides tense challenge and immense satisfaction in overcoming it
-Involving sci-fi psychological horror story


-You can go a long time between permanent rewards for your efforts, and frustration is built into the game
-Only way to pause a run is to go into rest mode

Overall Score: