There was a ‘just like buses’ joke to be made here about next-gen shooters featuring time loops. This year sees the release of both Returnal and Deathloop, whose structures revolve around a Groundhog Day-style reset upon the player kicking the bucket. Arkane Studios’ Deathloop, a timed PS5 exclusive, was originally set to launch next month but is now slated to hit shelves in September.
As a result, Returnal (itself a PS5 exclusive) gets some breathing room, which certainly works in its favour as it undeniably a must-play title for Sony’s latest console.
The latest release from developer Housemarque is a blend of third-person bullet hell action and roguelike progression. Set in the future, you play as Selene, the pilot of a spacecraft that crash lands on the planet Atropos. After regaining consciousness, she leaves the wreckage to locate the source of a mysterious signal, and must contend with the planet’s hostile fauna along the way.
Dying causes you to jump back to the crash, waking up with just your starter weapon and the iron will to have another go. Each reset will also cause the layout of the levels to shift randomly, meaning you’ll never know what’s through the next door.
To make things slightly less tough, you’ll find various ways to increase your survivability in the form of Resins. Some of them will only last for that specific run, such as increases to max health, different weapons and improved damage. You’ll also find parasites to willingly bond with, each offering unique perks but often with a significant compromise, like increased resource drops from slain enemies but at the cost of increased fall damage.
Some Resins and chests are afflicted with a status called Malignancy, which will apply a debuff should you choose to collect or open them. These debuffs vary in severity, and can be removed by fulfilling a specific requirement like opening a certain number of chests or collecting enough of the game’s currency. You can also collect a substance called Ether, which can be used to cleanse Malignancy from the item before you use it. Ether is a tad rare, but carries over between runs so you’re able to hoard it if you fancy.
This adds to the constant sense of risk – reward. Exploration of side paths and hidden areas may yield desperately crucial upgrades, a swarm 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’ll have to grit your teeth and be brave if you’re going to be prepped enough for a big fight.
There are permanent upgrades as well, like increased storage space for consumables and unlockable buffs for specific weapons. Some even open up more exploration opportunities a la Metroidvania. For instance, early on, you’ll get a blade weapon that, as well as allowing melee attacks, lets you cut away certain vine walls guarding hidden items.
In a Souls-like touch, enabling the game’s online features will populate the world with corpses of other fallen players, narratively framed as Selene’s remains from previous loops. If you’re feeling brave, you can choose to ‘avenge’ their deaths through a tough combat encounter for a reward.
Returnal’s various enemies come in all shapes and sizes, from gross giant batlike monsters and tentacled beasts to armoured tortoise-esque abominations and towering humanoid tree things, all of whom fire projectiles of energy which demand contact evasive manoeuvres to avoid.
Thankfully, the controls are impressively tight and responsive, letting you dash, jump and fire on a dime. Having been behind titles like Resogun and Nex Machina, Housemarque’s pedigree in bullet hell shines through here and translates amazingly well to a third person adventure.
In fact, Returnal absolutely makes the most of the PlayStation 5’s revolutionary DualSense controller in every way. Each weapon has a normal and alternate firing mode, the latter operating on a cooldown. As well as an on-screen indicator and an audio cue, there’s also a subtle vibration on the controller to let you know it is recharged.
Choosing between the two modes is also determined by the haptic triggers. Squeezing the aim button down all the way selects alt-fire, while normal ammo is used by a half-squeeze, comfortably achieved thanks to the perfect resistance from the trigger.
The impressive feedback tech in the controller is employed to brilliant effect. During the opening cutscene of the crash, the pad will tremble and judder in a way that genuinely makes you feel like you’re clutching the controls of Selene’s damaged ship as it careens towards the surface of Astropos. Emerging from the wreckage into a rain-soaked alien forest, the pitter patter of each drop of precipitation on her environmental suit is conveyed in pin-point accuracy to your hands.
Powerful immersion is one of Returnal’s biggest strengths. Beyond the dashing and shooting, the game is utterly successful in feeling like you are truly in a desperate fight to survive in an alien world.
During my first few minutes, it in part reminded me of the Alien franchise, especially Prometheus. Astropos’ flora moves in an entirely unsettling manner – at some points clearly sentient – and not knowing if it will harm you or not adds a sense of sheer terror as you familiarise yourself with the game. There are ruins of an ancient advanced civilization who appear to have suffered some sort of horrific cataclysm, and the planet’s native wildlife is freakish and unpredictable. Everything here looks beautiful, but it undoubtedly wants to kill you, and fast.
It’s not without flaws though. At times the game comes across as being noticeably stingier with power-ups that usual, meaning some runs feel unfairly harder than others. It could also do a better job of signposting the damage differences between weapon types, as well as making it clearer which upgrades are permanent and which are not. The 3D map is brilliant, but the legend key doesn’t always feel like it’s keeping up with all the various symbols, making it easy to forget exactly what kind of door you’re about to step through.
While the PS5 has hinted at its power with the odd excellent remake and some impressive cross-gen titles, Returnal genuinely feels like the first truly fresh title designed for a new generation of hardware. Gorgeous graphics, intelligent controls and an astounding level of immersion combine to create an atmospheric thriller that wouldn’t have been possible on older hardware. The game is tough, but every failed loop is a lesson learned, a push to do better and a pull to uncover more of the game’s plot.
Returnal is out on PS5 on April 30