Returnal is a AAA rougelike third person shooter title from Housemarque, a studio who have come to be known for their arcade style games such as Super Stardust, Resogun and Alienation. Through partnering with PlayStation Studios, they present what is not only their first title of AAA scale and scope, but also their first truly 3D, narratively-driven adventure.

I am delighted to say that Housemarque have produced a thrilling, captivating and incredibly polished experience in Returnal, with a core gameplay loop so unique and satisfying, there’s nothing else quite like it on PlayStation 5. The opening moments of the game introduce Selene, an elite ASTRA scout, who has just crashed landed on a strange planet called Atropos. As you will soon discover, things on Atropos are not quite as they first appear. In fact, they likely won’t appear that way ever again!

Atropos has you stuck in a strange time loop, of sorts. Each time you die, you are returned to the crash site and must venture out again to explore the planet. This time, however, the entire layout of the planet has changed! Returnal uses procedural arrangement to produce the map; in other words, the locations have been hand crafted and designed manually, but they are stitched together in a random format. As a result, you will see many of the same major landmarks and key locations on each run, but the path between those will be completely different. The game does an excellent job of retaining its fantastic art direction and a high level of artistic polish despite the procedural arrangement, which is something which I was concerned about prior to playing the title. This randomisation is also deeply connected with the plot and Housemarque have meshed together these mechanics expertly to produce a truly enthralling experience and one which feels rather fresh on every single run. I never had quite the same experience on any two cycles in Returnal.

During cycles, you will regularly stumble across your own corpses, usually next to an audio log, or a ‘Scout Log’, as the game calls them. These logs are a brilliant addition as, not only do they reveal Selene’s experiences from previous cycles, but they also show her slowly becoming more distraught and mentally exhausted as you progress through the game. Plot hints are also dropped occasionally, with the logs allowing you to piece together bits of lore as you discover more and more of them.

The plot of Returnal is incredibly unique and thoroughly enjoyable, an impressive feat in itself, given that Housemarque had never before produced a game with a story anywhere close to as deep or fleshed out as this. The cycles of death in the game allow for what Housemarque call a ‘layered’ story; one which only reveals itself to you through repeated deaths and exploration of each of the game’s biomes. After achieving certain objectives, you will unlock new experiences in the house, a strange copy of Selene’s home which is sitting in the middle of Atropos. For a large part of the game, very little of what is unfolding, particularly in these house segments, will make sense, yet you will be so captivated by the mystery that you’ll be obsessed with finding out what happens next. Returnal strings you along and holds its cards close to its chest, revealing them in just the right ways with perfect pacing and in that, delivers a fascinating psychological horror narrative.

Speaking of biomes, the game has five main biomes in total, which must be unlocked sequentially by taking down a boss at the end of each. The first biome is the forest, which is the easiest one to clear, by far. However, after this, the game becomes quite challenging. Due to the fact that Returnal is a rougelike, you will have to return to the crash site after every death, losing almost everything you’ve collected, bar a few permanent unlocks. This adds a huge amount of risk to making aggressive plays, as you’ll need to navigate through the procedurally-arranged biomes again each time, before reaching the boss once more. There are some checkpoints, however. For example, once the second biome is unlocked, you will not need to explore deep into the forest biome to retrieve its key again, you will only need to take a short trip through the first few sections to reach the portal to the desert biome. After completing the third biome, you will have finished Act 1 of the game and this will also act as a permanent checkpoint. In terms of the overall level of difficulty, while I would say the game is not for the faint of heart, I did not find it as difficult as Demon’s Souls, for example. The most important factors in succeeding are: play patiently, utilise walls and objects for cover and learn your opponent’s attack patterns. Some cycles will also be easier, as you’ll be blessed with good RNG drops of weapons and other items.

To delve a little deeper into your arsenal of tools, the game has a good selection of weapons which can be found at random in the world. The level of dropped guns are linked to your weapon proficiency, which you must build up during each cycle. The higher the level, the better the weapon stats. Most of the weapons also have some additional effects or abilities which you can permanently unlock for that weapon by using it enough. Once the ability is unlocked, subsequent drops of that weapon in every cycle will have it. Artefacts are non-persistent items which are also dropped at random, often offering beneficial effects such as allowing you to sustain a hit and buffing your health or damage based on various factors. Some of the best artefacts even allow you to have a second wind on death, which have saved me twice during boss bottles which I then went on to win after being revived.

The two main ‘currencies’ of the game are obolites (non-persistent) and ether (persistent). Both of these allow you to do a multitude of things including buying stat buffs for your health or damage and generating random items from strange alien technology. These usually only last for the current cycle, however. Parasites are another extremely interesting mechanic, each one having a positive and negative effect, which are known before picking one up, so you can decide whether to equip it. The best parasites in the game are the ones which restore health, as health is an extremely limited resource in Returnal and there is no automatic regeneration of your integrity. Consumables are the final main mechanic of the game. These are one time use items which can restore health, convert picked up obolites to health for a limited time, temporarily buff damage or cooldowns or even grant additional combat abilities for a short period. This roster of mechanics actually adds a huge amount of flexibility in terms of how you approach Returnal and getting a good run where you find good items and parasites and make the right spending decisions with your obolites can really make an incredible difference in your chance of success.

As I mentioned before, Returnal has stunning art direction and that is expressed nowhere better than in the enemy design. The game features around fifty different unique enemy types, each having their own distinct design, behaviours and attack patterns. Many of the enemies you face will be extremely threatening if you don’t take note of their attacking sequence and play cautiously. For some examples of enemies, the Kerberon is one of the first enemy types you will encounter in the first biome. This enemy attacks by shooting energy balls in specific patterns, or by leaping at you if you get too close. The Mycomorph is an extremely dangerous enemy which firstly spits spores at the ground near your location. These spores have a sticky, slowing effect, which you must dash out of. In terms of damaging projectiles, this hostile launches a large number of fast moving particles which have a semi-homing behaviour, curving in towards the user on approach. The Mycomorph can also move across the map by disappearing and reappearing, often behind you. Many varieties of turrets are also present in the various biomes of the game, with attacks such as lock-on beams, highly damaging single-shot beams and fast firing explosive projectiles. These turrets can also sometimes be shielded, meaning that you must use your melee katana weapon to destroy them at very close range. The enemy design present in the game is absolutely spectacular and really amps up the tension and pressure of playing in an environment which truly makes you feel in danger. While I won’t go on to spoil the boss battles, these are incredibly challenging, epic encounters which are sure to get your adrenaline pumping, particularly if you and the boss both reach extremely low levels of health near the end of the battle.

Visually, Returnal looks really impressive on PlayStation 5. While this game isn’t going for a next-gen showcase level of visual fidelity, the game looks very sharp and crisp and runs at a rock solid 60 frames-per-second, with some beautiful lighting and particle effects. HDR is a standout feature, as the tone mapping and black levels are astounding, particularly on an OLED display. The framerate in Returnal being so smooth allows for the level of fast paced, intense and responsive combat which Housemarque are experts at producing. While you can see the arcade roots shining through in some of the combat design decisions, they have created combat which really feels fluid, fun, awesome and extremely inventive. The core gameplay is Returnal’s biggest hook and will leave you craving more, with the solid 60FPS framerate being a key factor in this.

There are two final aspects of Returnal which I have to gush about and the first of these is sound design. In terms of audio, Returnal blows it out of the park. Not only is the haunting, enthralling soundtrack a perfect backdrop for your exploration of the game, but the in-game audio design is truly up there with the best which games have to offer. Housemarque have used ray casting for accurate simulation of acoustics in the environment and you can definitely hear it when you play the game with a pair of headphones. Whether it be the raindrops falling around you, enemies off in the distance behind a corner, or your weapon’s satisfying firing noses, the audio really brings the game to life in an exceptionally immersive way. If you’re playing Returnal, I highly recommend using headphones to take advantage of the PS5’s 3D Audio, as this is one of the best uses of it.

Speaking of PS5 features however, 3D Audio is not the sole perfect implementation of one in Returnal. The DualSense usage in this title is undoubtedly the best I’ve experienced since Astro’s Playroom. The raindrops mentioned previously don’t only have highly realistic 3D audio, but they also have a very convincing haptics effect throughout the DualSense controller. Almost everything in the game, from menu navigation, item pick-ups and your ammo charge running out and locking up your weapon’s ability to fire, uses the DualSense’s haptic feedback to convey information to you in a really intuitive, helpful and immersive way. If you’re looking for a title where the DualSense controller really shines, Returnal is it. The adaptive triggers are also used to allow you to choose between primary and alternate fire. Weapons in Returnal can have a variety of different alternate fire modes, which tend to be very powerful and take longer to charge than your primary fire. The left trigger of the DualSense locks into place with resistance around halfway down and this allows you to fire your primary attack using the right trigger. However, if you push the left trigger all the way down, you’ll activate alternate fire, which will be fed back to you using both the haptics and the DualSense’s speaker. In practice, this mechanic actually works extremely well once you adjust to it initially.

Overall, Returnal has truly surprised me. I had no doubt that Housemarque would nail the combat and setting of the game based on early showings and their history, however, I did not think that they would produce such a polished, compelling experience with their first foray into AAA, 3D story-driven games. The only negative thing I can say about the game is that the lack of difficulty options will likely drive some players away, as the game is quite challenging, though with enough persistence, you’re likely to get an easy cycle through being lucky with random drops. Despite this singular drawback, Returnal is yet another PlayStation Studios hit and is one of the most unique and enjoyable new IPs which we have seen debut in quite some time, sending the rougelike genre soaring to new heights. I highly recommend checking this one out!

DISCLAIMER: This review was carried out on PlayStation 5, using review code kindly provided by the publisher.