Platforms: PS5

A crashed spaceship. A lone survivor. A desperate trek through an ever-shifting wilderness, stalked by lethal monsters. Inevitably, death. Dreams. Awakening. A crashed spaceship. A lone survivor…

_Returnal_is, at its core, a “roguelike” – that sometimes frustrating genre of game where struggle and the repetition is the point, challenging players to edge slightly further through a largely randomised world on each “run”, with failure causing everything to reset. Here though, developers Housemarque have incorporated the reboot mechanic into its narrative, crafting an ambitious sci-fi tale involving time loops, reincarnation, and – for protagonist Selene – buried memories.

Returnal

It’s also one of the PS5’s most technologically impressive titles to date. Beyond the sheer graphical prowess of the game, it makes full use of the DualSense controller’s varied functions and the console’s 3D audio capabilities. Adaptive triggers make each weapon’s varying aiming and alt-fire modes truly feel intuitive, while the built-in speaker alerts you to recharged special shots. The vibration functions are so fine tuned that a gentle rumble can warn you of nearby danger, or pulse fiercely in combat. Pop on some 3D headphones and you practically step onto the unforgiving surface of the planet Atropos, with some of the best directionality in gaming audio we’ve encountered.

Visually, the game owes a debt to Alien and Prometheus – filled with cavernous ruins showing the remnants of strange, fallen civilisations, every crumbling statue or worn monument hinting at a bygone greatness lost to time. The enemies owe less of a debt to Giger’s creatures, but are still frightful amalgamations of flesh – or, sometimes more disturbingly, fungi – that stalk you through the darkness.

This is one of the PS5’s most technologically impressive titles to date.

Away from its polish and prowess though, Returnal is a little undone by its unforgiving nature. The problem isn’t with the difficulty, per se – the game gives fair warning of its toughness when you boot it up, and while grunt enemies may shock at first, once you learn their attack patterns they aren’t too tough to dispatch – but in how little persistence there is between runs. Compare to, for instance, fan-favourite roguelike Hades, where permanently unlocked weapons and abilities arrive at a satisfying pace, and Returnal feels miserly. Typically, only one rare resource, ether, is retained upon Selene dying, with permanent upgrades to abilities being either vanishingly rare, or gated behind monstrously tough bosses, making any sense of progress in the game hard to come by.

The other problem is its unpredictability. The biomes of Atropos are randomly generated upon Selene’s revival, as are the items and weapon drops you’ll encounter along the way. Chambers remain the same, though, with just the way they connect and branch out changing. On one hand, this gives Returnal a touch of Metroid, with the layout of each ‘room’ memorable, even if the wider map changes. On the other, it makes each run wildly variable. Entering the first area to find a horde of monsters is an unpleasant surprise, or finding a chamber enter lockdown – where all exits are closed and enemies swarm at elevated levels – seemingly at random, when it didn’t on previous runs, edges the game out of “challenging but rewarding” territory and firmly into the realms of “throw the pad through the TV in frustration”.

The difficulty is made still more acute by an inability to save mid-run. Returnal auto-saves when Selene’s time loop reboots, but nowhere else. If you’re having a particularly good run and need to step away from the game, your only option is to leave the PS5 is rest mode and hope nothing updates in the background – if it does, all your progress that run is lost. At time of writing, Housemarque is aware of this problem, but no fix has yet been offered.

Despite these frustrations, the mysteries of Atropos stake easy claim to players’ imaginations, beckoning you back in for one more run, even after countless failures. Its world-building is second to none, but its tight-fisted approach to allowing any sense of progress and wild, random difficulty spikes mean Returnal, while an undeniably impressive title, is going to alienate as many people as it delights.

Buy Returnal from Amazon.

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