A busted spaceship. An uncharted exoplanet teeming with hostile life. An emphasis on scanning objects, upgrading equipment, and retracing your footsteps. Those might sound like core components of a new Metroid Prime, but they’re not, at least not in this case. They’re the ingredients of a riveting — if somewhat punishing — action game called Returnal, out next week exclusively for the PlayStation 5.
Returnal is the latest endeavour out of Housemarque, the Helsinki-based studio behind Resogun and Matterfall. Like those games, Returnal features a whole lot of shooting, but from a three-dimensional perspective rather than a two-dimensional one and with some seriously leveled up visuals to boot. There are roguelike elements at play. You’ll die — a lot — because it is unrelenting and unforgiving. It is, as suggested by a set of concept art and promotional screenshots released last week, bone-chillingly terrifying.
The horror stuff, in particular, is typically enough of a factor to make me put down a game and walk away forever. But the bones of Returnal are so solid and compelling that I cannot put it down.
Returnal throws you right into the shit — specifically, in the cockpit of a malfunctioning spaceship called the Helios. You, as the pilot, an astronaut named Selene, crash land on a planet called Atropos. (All of these references to the Greek mytheme are “intentional,” according to narrative director Gregory Louden, and apparently tie into the fact that Selene is Greek-American.) You quickly venture off and recover a sidearm that looks suspiciously like yours off of a corpse that looks suspiciously like you. You’ll eventually die, come back to life, and fully grapple with the realisation that, yeah, that corpse was yours after all. Oh, hey, look at that: another time-loop game.
The time-loop of Returnal serves as a bedrock for a familiar roguelike structure. Atropos, it turns out, is a shape-shifting planet. Three-and-a-half hours in, I haven’t learned why, so from where I’m sitting, it seems to be just a narrative justification for procedurally generated environments and combat situations. But the combat — a mix of jumping, dashing, shooting, and dodging — is tight as (bullet) hell, so that’s fine by me. Like the best action games, Returnal gives you laser-precise control over Selene. For better or worse (better, in my mind), death is always your fault.
As with many roguelike games, there’s a layer of permanent progress. You’ll lose most pickups upon every death, but other upgrades are permanent. I get the sense that I’m getting measurably more powerful on a macro level with every failed run.
There’s also a lot of scanning — scanning items, scanning weapons, scanning extraterrestrial glyphs left behind by an apparently extinct sentient species, scanning the desiccated corpses of Selene’s prior fatal escapades through the planet — which slowly shed light on gaps in the plot. Mechanically, it’s an extremely Metroid touch, which reinforces the vibes I get from this game, specifically how the environment conveys that I need certain upgrades to progress past certain obstacles and should come back later. Even the map smacks of Metroid:
Since Returnal is among the first PS5-exclusive games, I’d be remiss not to address its next-gen bona fides. Yes, Returnal is gorgeous, certainly better looking than most PS4 games, and boasts the blistering load speeds you’d only find on a machine equipped with a solid-state drive. (Returnal cold boots — the time it takes to go from the game’s dashboard icon to actually playing — in under 20 seconds. In game, even fast-travelling doesn’t trigger a loading screen, at least within the first biome.) It’s all very impressive in terms of internal hardware, but the real draw here is how the game feels — literally.
Prior to last fall’s launch of the PS5, Sony touted the advanced haptics of the DualSense controller. When the console launched, it turned out Sony’s marketing apparatus was not exaggerating. Of all the upgrades — the heightened framerates, the sharper resolutions, the faster load speeds — few things truly felt as “ next-gen” as playing a game with the DualSense controller.
The catch (there’s always a catch) is that few PS5 games have made use of the feature thus far. Astro’s Playroom, the free platformer pre-installed on every PS5, brilliantly and creatively showcased the depths of what the DualSense could do. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales captured the thrilling sensation — or what one presumes the sensation is — of zipping down Fifth Avenue with superpowered webs. Demon’s Souls expertly varied DualSense feedback to convey the scale of certain battles. But by and large, that’s the extent of truly impressive haptic integration on PS5. Even PS5-exclusives like Destruction AllStars neglected to make the most of these new features.
Not so with Returnal. As you stroll through Atropos, the rain picks up, and your controller vibrates less like a motorcycle and more like a Brookstone massage chair. It’s like a full-body massage for your palms. It’s subtle enough that you might not consciously register it’s even happening, but it feels amazing.
There are practical gameplay applications, too. Early on, you’ll unlock the ability to use a secondary fire mode for any guns you find. With Returnal’s default control scheme, you don’t hit a button to activate the alternate mode. Instead, you adjust how far you push the left trigger down. At the halfway point, you’ll feel L2 tense up. Keep the trigger there and you’re aiming down the sights, firing your weapon’s base fire mode. Push past the tension, and you’ll activate the secondary fire, which is tied to a cooldown and far more powerful than standard bullets. If that sounds weird, yeah, it is. But it’s also the type of novel design choice you couldn’t imagine on PlayStation 4 and greatly contributes to Returnal feeling firmly like a next-gen game.
And that’s the rub: For the first time this year, I felt like I was playing a next-gen game rather than one that straddles that transitory period between console generations. I’m looking forward to seeing more of what it has to offer.
Returnal comes out on April 30 for PS5. We’ll have deeper thoughts and feelings closer to release.