Returnal is very, very hard. It’s a roguelite in which the world around you resets its layout every time you die, meaning you can never learn enemy positions or use your knowledge of the environment to gain an advantage. Enemies are relentless; this is a third-person shooter with bullet hell elements, so expect projectiles to be raining down on you at any given time.
Despite Returnal’s difficulty, though, it’s also a joyously rewarding and satisfying experience. Each new biome brings with it a fresh thrill of discovery as you learn what new horrors will now be taking up the task of murdering you repeatedly for the next few hours. Even though it’s hard as nails, Returnal is also one of the most savagely exciting games of the last decade.
Part of that is down to the fast-paced, fluid combat. Returnal’s controls are tight and responsive; Selene will move exactly where you want her to, which is good because you’re going to need to constantly reposition if you want to get the best of the enemies in this game. Weapons feel great, too; there’s a nice variety in what’s on offer, and although some are definitely more powerful than others, no run ever feels wasted.
Even though Returnal’s map is procedurally generated, it still feels great to explore. Room layouts recur, but enemy placements change, so no two combat situations feel exactly the same. In addition, there are plenty of lore nuggets and background storytelling details to discover across all of Returnal’s biomes, so you’ll constantly be discovering new information about the narrative as you progress.
Unfortunately, that narrative isn’t quite as compelling as it should be. After a strong start and an exciting mid-game development, Returnal settles into incomprehensible waffle. It very much wants to be spoken of in the same hushed tones in which one would discuss sci-fi movies like Moon or Arrival, but it lacks the straightforward clarity of those stories. Returnal wants to be deep, but it’s just muddled.
Thankfully, that doesn’t matter so much when the moment-to-moment gameplay experience is this addictive. Any roguelite worth its salt really needs to nail the “just one more try” phenomenon, and that’s exactly what Returnal does. We defy you to take on a run, die to some unfortunate stray bullet or overpowered ex-player corpse, and not grip your DualSense in determination for another go.
All in all, Returnal is a great triple-A PS5 game and a fascinating experiment. As a mass-market product in 2021, it dares to be difficult and selective with its audience. If you don’t like difficult games, you’re not going to get much out of Returnal, and Housemarque hasn’t compromised on its design principles in order to water the game down for a wider audience. We’d like to see Sony taking more risks on games like this, because the more Returnals and the fewer Days Gone there are in the world, the better the gaming industry will be for it.