Returnal is one of the strangest games arriving in 2021, but also one of the most familiar. Its combination of old-school shooting mechanics with new-age roguelike elements makes it an incredibly unique package; however, as gorgeous and fun as it is, there are some notable deterrents that newcomers to the genre should take note of.
So, what is it Returnal though? Part third-person shooter, part bullet-hell, Returnal is a sci-fi adventure that stars Selene, a space pilot, equipped with a suit and armed with high-tech weapons and who is stranded on the alien planet Atropos — in a time loop. After every death, Selene is resurrected, following a pattern of traversing across foreign environments and combating extraterrestrial entities with growing visions in an ever-changing world.
Proceed with caution
And herein lies Returnal‘s biggest strength and weakness. While the game’s time-loop premise is fascinating and keeps you hooked to the mystery of why this live-die-repeat scenario is happening, it’s also kind of frustrating. Other games have dabbled in this mechanic, but Returnal really drives it home by removing any sort of save system (for a large part of the game, at least), which essentially forces you to play on an involuntary hardcore mode (if you die, you restart), and there are no two ways about it: you’re going to die.
The point of developers Housemarque doing this is evident, as it’s clear they wanted the player to feel the strain of having to relive the same thing again and again (just as the character of Selene is), and evolve their tactics and fighting ability in order to overcome what last killed them. It’s a great bit of gameplay-based storytelling, which is rare to find these days; but as impressive as it is, it is good to note that the game isn’t as immediately accessible as it appears.
The game also ‘resets’ each time you quit the game, and the surrounding environment is also transformed, enemies appear in different locations and configurations, which further complicates the gameplay, but allows you to find completely different items than during previous cycles. What Returnal is trying to is somewhat genius in a way, but there’s no denying that the game does give you a sense of teeth-grinding déjà vu. We’d love to fully invest in the mechanic and recommend diving in, but for people with limited time to play video games, it’s worth keeping this in mind. If you’re not extremely proficient, have hours to get through a large portion of these cycles (which can take quite some time), then it may be worth putting Returnal on hold until you get to that stage of your schedule.
Out of this world
While Returnal has its flaws in terms of its design, it’s just so much fun, and it should be experienced at some point. The shooting mechanics are sublime — you’re given a ton of really interesting and unique weapons, which all have eye-candy-delivering alternate fires; and the implementation of DualSense functionality, especially with the more subtle rumble and adaptive triggers, is the best we’ve seen on the PS5 to date.
It’s also a visual spectacle. While it may not have the scale and shiniest of polishes on all of its assets, Returnal is a very good looking game, and the particle effects from weapons and the slimy, octopus-like alien enemies can look breathtaking in action.
While we’d love to tell everyone to go buy Returnal immediately as it’s one of the best games on the PS5 currently (it really is), it’s also only fair to say that it’s not exactly what it appears to be. This isn’t just a run-‘n-gun sci-fi shooter, but rather a procedurally-generated metagame to test your skills, patience, and resolve. Like more tricky games out there like Dark Souls and Sekiro, if you stick with it, there’s a lot to love, but casual gamers should proceed with caution.
Where can you buy Returnal from?
- Playstation Store (digital) – R1,369
- Koodoo – R1,199
- Game4U – R1,249
- Takealot – R1,289
- Pwned Games – R1,330
- BT Games – R1,199
- ZAPA Gaming – R1,299
- Nexus Hub – R1,255
- Raru – R1,299
*Prices right at the time of publication.