There has been a “just like a bus” joke being brought up here about next-gen shooting games that feature time-loops. This year sees the release of Returnal and Deathloop, whose structures revolve around resetting the Groundhog Day mode for the player kicking the bucket. Arkane Studios’ Deathloop, exclusively on PS5, was originally launched next month, but is now set to hit shelves in September.
As a result, Returnal (itself a PS5 exclusive) gets room to breathe, which definitely works in its favor as it is without a doubt a must-have title for Sony’s latest console.
Housemarque’s latest release is a mix of Hell’s third-person action and roguelike twist. Set in the future, you play Selene, the pilot of a spacecraft that has crashed on the planet Atropos. After regaining consciousness, she leaves the debris to locate the source of a mysterious signal, and she has to deal with animals hostile to the planet along the way.
Death makes you jump back to the place of collapse, wake up with only your initial weapon, and the iron will do another experiment. Each reset will also randomly change the levels layout, which means you’ll never know what’s going on next door.
To make things less difficult, you’ll find various ways to increase your resins longevity. Some will only last for that specified period, such as increases in Max Health, various weapons, and damage improvements. You’ll also find parasites to communicate with willingly, each offering unique perks but often with a great compromise, such as further decreasing resources from slain enemies but at the cost of increasing fall damage.
Some resins and boxes develop a condition called Malignancy, which will apply a stain remover if you choose to collect or open them. These bumps vary in severity and can be removed by fulfilling specific requirements such as opening a certain number of chests or collecting enough game currency. You can also collect a substance called ether, which can be used to cleanse malignancies from the ingredient before using it. Ether is rare, but it jumps between runs so you can store it if you like.
This adds to the ongoing feeling of risk-reward. Exploring side lanes and hidden areas could lead to critical upgrades, hordes of enemies, or both. The game’s six biomes feature a boss at the end (you’ll only need to defeat them once), so you have to keep your teeth and be brave if you are prepared enough for a big fight.
There are also permanent upgrades, such as more storage space for consumables and unlockable hobbyists for certain weapons. Some even open up more exploration opportunities in La Metroidvania. For example, early on, you’ll get a blade weapon that, in addition to letting in melee attacks, lets you cut through some chrome walls that protect hidden items.
In a Souls-like twist, enabling online game features will fill the world with the corpses of other fallen players, framing the narrative as a Selene relic from previous episodes. If you feel brave, you can choose to “take revenge” for their deaths with a tough combat showdown for a reward.
Returnal’s enemies come in all shapes and sizes, from giant bat-like and tentacled monsters to armored turtle horrors and tall tree objects, which all fire projectiles of energy that require evasive contact maneuvers to avoid them.
Thankfully, the controls are extremely narrow and responsive, allowing you to dash, jump, and shoot a dime a dozen. Having been behind titles like Resogun and Nex Machina, Housemarque’s lineage in Lead Hell shines here and translates astoundingly into a third-person adventure.
In fact, Returnal makes the most of the PlayStation 5’s revolutionary DualSense controller in every way. Each weapon has a normal and alternate firing mode, and the latter operates in a cooldown period. In addition to an on-screen indicator and beep, there’s also a slight vibration on the controller to notify you to recharge it.
The choice between the two modes is also determined by the tactile triggers. Pressing the aiming button down all the way selects alternate fire, while regular ammunition is used at half-press, and is comfortably achieved thanks to the perfect resistance from the trigger.
Wonderful feedback technology is used in the console to create an amazing effect. During the opening scene of the collision, the pad will quiver and swing in such a way that it really feels like you’re holding onto the controls of a damaged Selene ship as it heads toward the surface of Astropos. As you step out of the wreckage into a strange rain-covered forest, the click of every drop of rain on its eco suit is transferred with extreme precision to your hands.
Powerful indulgence is one of Returnal’s biggest strengths. Besides smashing and shooting, the game totally succeeds in feeling like you are really in a desperate battle for survival in an alien world.
During my first few minutes, it reminded me in part of the Alien privilege, especially Prometheus. Astropos plants move in a totally disturbing way – at some points clearly – and not knowing whether or not they will harm you adds a sense of sheer awe as you get to know the game. There are ruins of an advanced ancient civilization that appears to have suffered from some kind of horrific disaster, and the planet’s native wildlife is strange and unpredictable. Everything here looks beautiful, but he undoubtedly wants to kill you fast.
Not without flaws though. Sometimes the game appears to be noticeably stingy with normal strength increasing, which means some sprinting feels more unfairly difficult than others. It can also do a better job of identifying differences in damage between weapon types, as well as explaining which upgrades are permanent and which aren’t. The 3D map is cool, but the key to the legend doesn’t always seem to go along with all the different icons, which makes it easy to forget what kind of door you’re about to enter.
While the PS5 has hinted at its power with a weird premium remake and some impressive crossover titles, Returnal really feels like it’s the first truly new title designed for a new generation of hardware. Gorgeous graphics, smart controls and an amazing level of immersion combine to create an atmospheric action thriller that wasn’t possible on older devices. The game is difficult, but each failed episode is a lesson learned, a drive for better performance, and an attraction to reveal more of the game’s plot.
The PS5 returns will be released on April 30th