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Returnal

Returnal

Written by Eric Hauter on 4/29/2021 for PS5  
More On: Returnal

Hello. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a mediocre gamer. I’m not saying that to be self-deprecating, I’m saying it because it is true. My twitch skills are not great. I’m pushing 50, and I would like to blame my slow hands on my age, but in truth, I’ve always been somewhat fumbly. Its fine with me—my ego isn’t tied up in my ability to play difficult games—and there are plenty of titles with more deliberate pacing that I can enjoy.

That’s not to say that I don’t like a challenge. I beat my head against the more difficult battles in Control until I had rolled credits on the game and all of the DLC. I enjoy Monster Hunter and Dauntless, neither of which are the most difficult games on the market, but they aren’t easy either. These are games that require the player to build up a skill set if they want to survive, which is something that I have a good time doing. It just takes me a little longer than more talented folks. I don’t write about video games because I am a savant gamer that thought I would take a swing at criticism; I write about games because I am a writer that really enjoys gaming.

That’s a lot of background to give, but it's important context to have for the rest of this review. Because I want to say right out front that I haven’t beaten Returnal. I haven’t even come close. And in all likelihood, I will never see the credits. Returnal is a game that is beyond my skill set. It’s fine; I’m not going to hold that against the game. I simply cannot make progress very quickly—not for lack of trying—and the little progress that I have made took me far, far longer than it likely should have.

In Returnal, players take on the role of a wayward space explorer, who has had possibly the worst luck in space exploration history. She has crashed onto a mysterious planet, strange and terrifying. There are signs all around of an ancient, vanished civilization, and things clearly came to a bad end a long time ago. Venturing out from her destroyed craft, our pilot, Selene, sets forth to find a way off the planet, and is promptly killed. But unfortunately for Selene, she cannot die, instead being caught in one of those Live-Die-Repeat-style loops that seem so prevalent in our entertainment right now.

Upon dying, Selene promptly awakens on her careening ship, experiencing the whole fiery crash over again—with a few slight changes occasionally tucked in to move the story forward. To the player, this means that any forward progress they earned in their previous run is erased, and they must start from scratch. The only things that carry over are a few scant abilities: things that feel like they should be present from the beginning of the game, like a melee attack, or the ability to use the game’s fast travel system. Any weapons and equipment are gone, and the world has been reshuffled into a new configuration. Nothing is in the same place as it was before, and although the player will eventually start to recognize certain “rooms” and learn to navigate them, Returnal still pulls dark surprises out of its hat often enough that it would be wise to never let your guard down.

I cannot overstate how devastating it is to die when you are in the midst of a good run. Occasionally you will find yourself on that rare run, when you have just the right randomized loot that you hoped for, and you have somehow miraculously pieced together a viable build, and it is all gone in the blink of an eye. You are right back on that crashing ship again for the umpteenth time, once again weak as a kitten. I won't say that I snapped a DualSense in half, but my controllers are a bit more wobbly than they used to be.

My personal experiences with Returnal have oscillated between amazing, addictive fun, and dark, dark despair. A few days into playing Returnal, I sent a message to the Gaming Nexus Slack channel. It read, “I’ve played 11 and ½ hours. I’ve made 28 runs. I’ve defeated close to 1,000 enemies. I can survive quite comfortably in the first biome of Returnal, no matter what the game choses to throw at me. But I cannot beat the first boss, no matter how many times I try.”

Returnal asks players to go on run after run after run, learning its mechanics as they go. Instead of building up a character with equipment or experience points, it’s the player that has to level up. Over time, coming to grips with the mechanics in Returnal can be very satisfying. And indeed, I did see my own abilities grow over time, but I had to stick with the game for far longer than expected to reach my current (rather low) plateau. The contingent of internet trolls that insist that other players git gud rather than complain about difficulty should start sharpening their knives—they are going to have a field day with Returnal.

In the ensuing week since I sent that desperate Slack message, I have beaten that first boss (finally), and progressed further into the game, enjoying myself quite a bit. Playing Returnal just feels good. This game is tuned like B.B. King’s Lucille. But I want prospective players to understand exactly what they are getting into with Returnal. This is a game that is absolutely without pity, without remorse, without an ounce of interest in the player’s ability to succeed. Returnal will not stoop to pick you up after you fall again and again. No quarter will be given. Returnal demands that you stand up on your own and meet it on its level. As a result, a lot of people are going to bounce off this game. But for a certain subset of gamers that appreciate uber-hardcore experiences, Returnal will be an all-time favorite.

Beyond FromSoftware’s Souls-like games—being the best analogy for the way Returnal needs to “click” before players can progress—I cannot recall a AAA release with a higher level of difficulty. Games like this simply don’t get made that often outside of the indie arena, and certainly not with the level of polish and love that was clearly slathered on Returnal. This is a game that screams next gen, utilizing every advanced feature of the PlayStation 5 that it could wedge into the experience.

Returnal boasts some of the very best visuals I have ever seen in a game, with jaw-dropping clarity and a framerate that wouldn’t dream of slowing down, no matter how hot and heavy the action gets. I’ve had situations where I was fighting up to 15 opponents, all across the map. I’m jumping around like a lunatic, firing off my primary weapon and my special shot (which launches particles in every direction), while my enemies are surging around, stalking me and shooting energy balls at me from everywhere I look. We’re all moving, I’m screaming, there are hundreds of moving light sources on the screen, and it all just works. I’ve read that Returnal offers 4K/60FPS with Ray Tracing active. Normally I would never mention this sort of thing in a review, because I’m not a big tech guy, but in this case—damn. Returnal looks like it was beamed in from the future.

The haptic feedback on the DualSense controller is worth noting as well, just due to how cool it is to feel the rain falling on your controller. The game also has a great control mechanic where you hold down the left trigger halfway to shoot through your sights, and jam it down fully to shoot your special. A function that would never have been possible on earlier systems, and it works great. After a few moments, this completely original control scheme becomes second nature, as though every game had always been like this.

 

Speaking of shooting, every gun in Returnal feels incredible. Even the standard sidearm is ridiculously fun to shoot. As you wander you will discover better and better versions, making it possibly my favorite gun in the game. While the shooting doesn’t exactly use aim assist, the reticle for every weapon is enormous, allowing even poor shooters like me to pull off some pretty fantastic shots from across a sizable chasm. Aim any gun in an enemy’s general direction, and you will likely hit them. Returnal earns its difficulty in a lot of ways; forcing the player to be a sharpshooter is not one of them.

It is clear after just a few moments of play that sound design on Returnal was a top priority during development. I was initially playing on my standard soundbar, but the way the sound of every shot makes you feel like you are being punched in the chest had me quickly switching over to a headset to protect my house from vibrating off the foundation. I can’t recommend a headset highly enough with Returnal, as the game utilizes PS5’s 3D Audio to help the player ascertain the location of enemies, which can be a total life saver. When enemies can swoop down from the sky, knowing that they are coming can be the difference between life and death.

Enemies themselves are spectacular in design, pure Giger-inspired nightmare fuel. Most games, no matter how hard they try, end up with enemy designs that feel familiar. Returnal manages to pull off something fairly unique—enemies that are actually scary. Due to both their appearance and the intensity of their attacks, I find myself gripping my controller extra tight when certain baddies come on the screen. Many of these monster/aliens are all writhing tentacles, as one might expect, but I guarantee you’ve never seen tentacles like this before.

For all my moaning at the beginning of the review, you might now think from my praise that I actually like Returnal. And I do, I honestly enjoy Returnal even though I suck at it. Returnal is the first PS5 game that I’ve played until my controller ran out of juice. I suck at it, and I’ve complained endlessly to my GN colleagues, but I haven’t bounced.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed playing baseball even though I couldn't throw a ball to save my life. I’m not the best singer in the world, but I’ve been a vocalist in several bands over the years, making up in enthusiasm what I lacked in skill. Sometimes, if you want to do something in life, you just have to throw yourself at it, skill and ability be damned. That’s how Returnal is for me. I’m still playing Returnal, and I’m still going to be playing Returnal for quite a while to come.

After all, no matter how many times I die, I can’t die.

Returnal is a shining technical achievement, possibly the best looking game on PlayStation 5. With addictive gunplay, a brutal learning curve, and a focus on exploration and temporary buffs, roguelike fans will be in heaven. Be warned though, the difficulty level is not for everyone. Though I learned to love Returnal with time, many players may walk away frustrated.

Rating: 8.5 Very Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Stadia, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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