We’re almost six months into the next generation of gaming consoles, but there are already very few high-profile exclusives that demonstrate what the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are capable of. Since completing the initial wave of launch games, I spent the majority of 2021 playing Sony exclusive on my PS5. Returnal, a PS5 exclusive with several caveats, will be released this week. It’s difficult and complicated, making it the kind of game where you’ll die repeatedly. However, it could be the biggest showcase for Sony’s latest console to date.
Returnal immerses you in the spacesuit of an alien suffering from the worst case of déjà vu imaginable. She soon learns she’s trapped in a loop after crash landing on a strange alien planet; every time she dies, she returns to the crash site to start all over again. Any time you explore, you learn a little more about the earth and the astronaut, as well as the game’s rules. With more knowledge and practise, you should be able to advance marginally further each loop.
The game is a third-person shooter, but it is also a mash-up with several various influences and styles. Regardless of your point of view, Returnal always looks like a bullet hell gunman, with alien beings vomiting endless energy balls for you to stop. You will also get points for missing being struck. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Returnal was produced by Housemarque, a company best known for games like Super Stardust and Resogun.)
Returnal is also famously difficult, merging two notoriously difficult genres — roguelikes and bullet hell shooters — into a title that does nothing to make itself available. Aside from the opportunity to increase the target assist, there are no difficulty options. As a result, you’ll have to get used to death and loss, as well as learn from your mistakes.
It can be aggravating, but it is worthwhile to persevere for a few reasons. For one thing, the gameplay is fantastic; zipping about whilst shooting octopus birds and slashing at evil tree-creatures with a massive sword is a lot of fun. Returnal, on the other hand, is a game that is only overflowing with atmosphere — and it’s only improved by some of the PS5’s exclusive features.
The dark world you’ll discover feels straight out of an Alien film, complete with towering, collapsing ancient ruins and a slew of unsettling bio-engineered technologies. This is all made in exquisite detail, and Returnal shines especially in terms of special effects; there are hypnotically stunning bursts of light and colour, and I especially love the rapid travel effect, which makes your character dissolve away into nothingness.
However, there are already a plethora of visually appealing PS5 titles. And games from the previous generation look fine on the latest hardware. What distinguishes Returnal is the use of sound and the DualSense controller. So far, I’ve spent the majority of my time with the game wearing Sony’s Pulse 3D headphones, and it’s the first game that I’ve actually enjoyed the 3D audio that the company has touted so much. I was able to identify predators based on the sounds of their cries and growls, which was immensely useful since there is always so much going on on screen that it can be difficult to keep up. The sound design also adds to the creepiness of the game; the alien creatures make eerie noises when they approach, and it always made me nervous when entering a new, unfamiliar room.
Meanwhile, I’d go so far as to claim it’s the best DualSense game since Astro’s Playroom, which is included with the console to demonstrate the gamepad’s specific capability. The gentle sensations allow you to feel the patter of raindrops on your hands, and each weapon’s burst has its own distinct sensation. There are also some very creepy sounds coming from the mic (though you may miss them with headphones on). My favourite function, though, is how Returnal makes use of the controller’s adaptive triggers. The left button has two functions: halfway down, you can zoom in to fire your main weapon, and all the way down, you’ll unleash a special attack.It essentially adds an additional button to the controller in a very normal manner.
Returnal is unquestionably an acquired taste. Because of its looping structure and unforgiving atmosphere, many players can get irritated as they go through almost similar situations over and over. Death isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience. But it still seamlessly and purposefully combines so many interesting elements, from the vibe of Alien to the excitement of a great arcade shooter. And if you’ve managed to get your hands on a PS5, this is the kind of game you’ll want to play to show off what the console is capable of.