When you fire up Returnal for the first time, the game gives you a warning: if you want to save your current run, put the console into Rest mode.
“When you die or close Returnal you will always be returned to the crash site, and all non-permanent progression will be lost,” Housemarque’s 3D bullet-hell-esque shooter warns. “You can suspend your cycle by using the console’s rest mode functionality.”
That’s definitely one way to welcome people into the game.
Returnal, the first major PS5 exclusive for the year, doesn’t officially launch until April 30. We’ve been given a very brief hands on with the game — I downloaded code last night and had about an hour to muck around with the game so far.
I haven’t been able to explore beyond the first biome so far, thanks to Australian internet and the amount of time available. But something I will say from the off: you absolutely want to play this game with headphones. Just look at the environment you get dropped into.
As shown off from previous gameplay trailers, you’re playing as Selene, an Astra Scout who crash lands on an alien planet after coming across a signal. The world is exceedingly dark, with only the occasional sci-fi neon blues, purples, oranges and obviously poison-green occasionally lighting the first biome you’ll encounter.
This is a 3D shooter, and a Housemarque shooter at that, however. So fans will be pleased to know the whole game runs at 60 FPS by default — there’s no choice between a performance or resolution mode here, although cut scenes do run at the bog standard 30 FPS.
When you crash land, you’ll initially be in first-person mode. As you go through cut scenes and different runs, you’ll transition back and forth from first and third-person. It adds a great Alien: Isolation vibe to it all, especially with the eerie ambient audio that’s constantly in the background.
As a straight up shooter, the controls and mechanics feel good. Movement is fast and crisp, the dash has a relatively short delay and two distances depending on how long you hold the circle button. You get a basic jump from the beginning — I imagine a double jump is absolutely available, although I haven’t seen it yet.
Initially it’s about getting your bearings. Don’t jump in the water, and don’t fall from too great a height. Avoid the Half-Life crab tentacle-esque things from above. They will obviously fuck you up, and hearing things latch onto your body is absolutely as creepy and cringeworthy as much as this sentence makes it sound.
The use of haptics is great as well. Rather than being wrist-shatteringly aggressive, walking around adds this light little vibration to every step. It’s actually one of the first games since Astro’s Playroom that seems like it’s properly thought through how the DualSense can add to gameplay. Take your base pistol, which gains an alt-fire within the first hour of gameplay. To activate, you fully press down the left trigger, with only the gentlest of touches if you want to focus fire like, y’know, every other shooter.
It takes some getting used to, if only because we’re so used to pushing the trigger all the way down. But having such a light touch makes me feel like Housemarque actually thought about what it’d be like to have to repeat an input like this thousands upon thousands of times, and they designed it accordingly. It’s smart, it’s well implemented, and it’s a window into the kinds of advancements Sony promised developers could make with the PS5.
When you’re done fighting the first initial bosses, and you’ve run around Atropos, Returnal‘s narrative becomes a bit clearer. You’ll come across other corpses of yourself, which gives way to holograms and audio recordings showing past deaths and bits and pieces of the world. Your base pistol will eventually become a xeno-powered grenade launcher which also unlocks certain doors. There’s an assault rifle. Later on, you find containers — an Alien-esque take on a shopkeeper from something like Downwell or Slay the Spire offering artifacts that can power you up in certain ways.
The RNG element can come through the form of different power-ups, which restrict your character until certain objectives are accomplished. A simple one seen above: kill 20 enemies, and Selene will be able to gain weapon proficiency again, unlocking more abilities, damage and so on with her weapons.
Getting a certain amount of kills without taking damage improves Selene’s adrenaline, which also improves visibility, damage and other attributes. Housemarque’s clearly made Returnal with a view towards speedrunners and people who like mastery of roguelikes and their action-shooters. The base speed at which you can run and the way enemies early on have wide, sweeping attacks that are designed for Selene to dodge and weave throughout, will surely make Returnal a treat to watch on Twitch and at events like Awesome Games Done Quick.
Even just the audio design has this brilliant ambience to it. You’ll be on the menu screen, looking over your inventory or data logs, and the background has this little pitter patter — with a background of eerie, ominous echoes underneath it. I’m sure the 3D audio is doing a ton of work here, but it’s almost got a Alien Isolation meets ASMR vibe to it. It all builds an atmosphere that’s spooky, but not completely scary. I love it.
Returnal isn’t out until next week, but you’ll start seeing some footage of the game over the next day or so. I haven’t gotten far enough through the game to tease out enough of the story, or to answer what the hell ends up happening with that creepy house Selene keeps seeing.
But I will say this: Returnal is absolutely my shit. Housemarque knows how to make fast, slick, crisp games that look good and handle well. Now, they’ve made basically a creepy Risk of Rain that looks gorgeous as all hell on the PS5. That’s a win in my book.
Returnal launches for the PS5 on April 30. If you’re looking to save a few dollars, here’s our guide on where to get the cheapest copies in Australia.