What are the odds that we get the first great game on the PS5 only eight months into its life cycle? Pretty high, thanks to Returnal. Sam Brooks reviews the new PS5 exclusive.
A gaming generation takes a while to get going. The first games that come out in a “generation” – the term for a group of consoles that come out at around the same time – are less invested in being great than they are in showing off what the console can do. They’re the sales pitch to get the new console into your lounge, but these games are rarely great or stand the test of time. It takes time for developers to work out what these new consoles are capable of. The two Last of Us games are peak examples of this: Each game came out in the last year of the lifecycle of their consoles – the PS3 and PS4 respectively – and are held up as the killer apps for both consoles. The first year of a gaming generation rarely brings out the best of it.
That’s why it’s so surprising that Returnal, the new game from Finnish developer Housemarque for the PS5, makes a strong case for being the first great game of this generation. Not only does it arrive just eight months in, but it comes from a developer whose previous work has flown mostly under the radar. Housemarque is beloved by critics and a niche group of fans, but is definitely not a household name. That’s largely down to its chosen arena: “bullet hell”, a genre characterised by screens filled with overwhelming numbers of enemy projectiles, making it one of the most stressful gaming experiences around. The other reason Returnal’s success is so surprising? It’s actually a “roguelike” – part of a genre in which dungeons are seemingly randomly generated, and are intended to be played over and over. This is not necessarily a genre that lends itself to the blockbuster treatment Sony has given it, but man, does Returnal pay off that investment in spades.
From the jump, Returnal is an experience designed to overload your senses. The game opens in first person; you experience Selene, an astronaut-soldier hybrid, as she crashlands on an unfamiliar planet, Atropos. The planet is shrouded in darkness, and you hear every footstep, every crack of a twig. Even though the game isn’t full-on horror like, say, Silent Hill, there’s still a shroud of dread over the entire thing. Every step could be your last, every growl could belong to the creature that ends you. It’s an experience that makes great use of Sony’s Pulse 3D headset – technological synergy, y’all – and the PS5 controller’s haptic senses. Although the game is largely in the third person, you feel as overwhelmed and deeply invested in Selene’s journey as you should be. Whenever you put that headset on and grip that controller tightly, you’re immersed so much more in this horrific tale.
And by journey, I mean journeys, because Returnal’s twist is what makes it such a unique, and addictive, experience. Before long, you will miss a jump or get hit by one too many shots from the various flora and fauna of the planet, and die. Instead of returning to a checkpoint, you return to the beginning of the game. Selene is caught in a time loop, and every time she dies, she returns to her crashed aircraft, the planet reforms around her, and she has to begin again. All pieces of equipment – whether guns or the bizarre Atropos parasites that give Selene her special powers – are gone. She has to approach the horrors of the planet again, unarmed.
If it sounds repetitive, that’s absolutely by design. Repetition is not necessarily a bad thing though; there’s a genuine sense of achievement every time you push Selene a little bit further, beating that boss, and getting down to the mystery of what’s behind the planet, which involves some sort of past trauma that Selene experienced on Earth. It’s all very Solaris, which is just one of the many sci-fi and horror touchstones for the game. The use of so many reference points does mean that the plot doesn’t go anywhere especially new or deep, but that’s not really the point of Returnal. The point is to get you into the brain of Selene.
At some point well into the double digit hours of gameplay, it’s not just about surviving any more. It’s about beating the planet, and its near-sentient desire to choke the light out of you. The fact that you will come across Selene’s corpse from your previous runs on a regular basis adds to the suffocating horror of having to relive the same trauma, the same enemies, over and over again.
It’s that active desperation that keeps the game from ever feeling like a drag. Each run through the loop involves multiple choices – do you take this parasite, which gives both a buff and a debuff, or pick up this gun? – that the player has to make quickly. These aren’t inconsequential choices either, because Returnal is hard. Thankfully, it’s the right kind of hard: the sort where you die because you messed up, not because the game did.
In fact, Returnal never messes up at all. As well as creating the first great game of its generation, Housemarque has also created the first great shooter. The series it resembles most is Metroid; like that series, Returnal is more about movement and exploration than gunning shit down. Selene moves fast, and the game is more about remembering the patterns of enemies than it is about ducking behind cover and then out again when it suits you. Combined with the fact that it feels incredibly good and visceral to play, thanks to the haptic controls (and the 3D sound), Returanal is an experience that you can marathon over a weekend, or jump into for a quick shot of adrenaline.
A great game is exciting – a generation’s first great one especially so. But what makes me really enthusiastic about Returnal is how experimental it is. Returnal is a roguelike. It’s punishingly hard. The narrative is willfully obtuse. It doesn’t feel like any of the other blockbuster games that have claimed the early title of “greatest”. I don’t think it’s a game that the Sony of the past would have put its weight behind, but if this is the kind of stuff that Playstation is pumping money, time, and talent into, we’ve got a lot of bloody weird, great shit to look forward to. For the time being though, I’m more than happy to be stuck in Returnal’s addictive loop.
This game was played on a PS5, using a Pulse 3D headset provided by Sony.