If there is one developer whose games haven’t gotten the attention that they deserve over the past decade or so it’s Housemarque. For years this team has crafted finely tuned arcade hits like Super Stardust HD, Nex Machina, Dead Nation, Resogun, and more. While all of these games were critical darlings they never sold as well as they should’ve which led to Housemarque saying a few years back that arcade was dead and that they wouldn’t be making those kinds of games anymore. Now after several years of development Housemarque has returned with their first AAA game built exclusively for the PlayStation 5 called Returnal. While Returnal is certainly a much bigger game than what the team has done before it still has that arcade essence at its core that fans of the developer have come to love.
Upon jumping into Returnal one of the things that is immediately different about it compared to Housemarque’s past titles is that this one has a story to it. You play as a space scout named Selene who’s ship crash lands on the mysterious planet of Atropos. It doesn’t take long from there to find that something isn’t quite right as Selene finds that she appears to be stuck in a repeating cycle. Whenever she dies, she finds herself back at her ship crash site and the planet around her changes. Over the course of the game you’ll gradually piece together the story through audio logs that you find and ancient glyphs that you discover. There are also moments during the game where you’ll stumble upon a creepy house and when exploring inside your perspective is shifted from third-person to first-person. These sequences are important to the overall story and doing them in first-person was a really good idea. Upon finishing the game, I still have some questions but overall, it’s a great mysterious sci-fi tale. Considering it was Housemarque’s first attempt at doing a story in their games they did a great job crafting one that kept me wanting to know what would happen next.
While the story of Returnal got its hooks in me it’s really the gameplay that had me enjoying it the most. Housemarque’s titles have always keep me playing due to just how good they feel to play and Returnal is no exception. At its core the game is a fast-paced, third-person, rogue-like, bullet hell shooter. Every biome you explore in the game is full of alien entities who want to end your life and send you back to the start of your cycle again. Each one has their own attack patterns and movements that you’ll have to learn on the fly in order to prevent the cycle from repeating. If you’re not a fan of punishing games Returnal might not be for you as it is hard and there aren’t any difficulty settings present to make it easier. Some of these enemies fill your screen with lasers and other attacks that will constantly require you to use all of Selene’s movement abilities like her dash and grapple hook to avoid them.
Returnal gives you plenty of weaponry to take the fight back to these aliens on Atropos. You start off the game with just a pistol but as you get further in your run, you’ll get far better guns. The Termogenic Launcher gives you a clip of three homing rockets that are great for taking down crowds of enemies but the long reload time could hurt you. The Rotgland Lobber fires a projectile that when it explodes deals damage to enemies over time. The Hollowseeker is best used at close range as it fires a barrage of smaller projectiles that will home in on their target. These are just a few of the unique weapons found in the game but there are many more and they are a ton of fun to fire.
When you die in the game you lost pretty much everything but there are some permanent upgrades that you can unlock that carry over. Different gear like a melee blade carries over and this will make it so you can access new areas on your next run. Weapons get better in the game as your profiency increases while currency gathered can be spent at Fabricators to create helpful artefacts that can provide buffs during your current run. Parasites are another thing that you can find and equip but while they give you a bonus in one way, they also come with a negative trait that could doom your current run if you aren’t careful.
Something I have to point out about Returnal that could be a deal breaker for some is that there is no save system in place. That means if you quit the game after getting to some of the further biomes you will have to start over when you start back up. A complete run in this game can take several hours and some people may not be able to sit down for that entire time. It didn’t bother me personally as I was fine just leaving my game running if I wanted to take a break or something but for others it could be a problem. The developer has said they are aware of the community’s request for a save system but as of now there has been no further word if one will be added.
The visuals in Returnal show off the power of the PlayStation 5 really well as it’s one of the prettiest games on the platform currently. Each of the biomes in the game looks good whether it be the creepy forest biome you start in, the icy caverns, or the reddish desert area. Each area just oozes atmosphere and is full of things to see. Oh, and as I said earlier when the screen lights up with all kinds of particle effects and enemy attack patterns it looks fantastic. It also runs at a smooth 60FPS throughout no matter how much was going on on-screen. The 3D audio is excellent as well and that is evident from the opening cut-scene in the game. You can easily tell where enemy fire is coming from too because it’s so good. Load times between deaths is nearly instant thanks to the PS5’s SSD and the DualSense controller integration is some of the best I’ve felt whether it be the haptic feedback or the adaptive trigger support for all the weapons. Those who want to Platinum this game though will be in for quite the challenge but I’m still working towards earning it myself.
Returnal was Housemarque’s first crack at a AAA game and they’ve pretty much nailed the execution on all fronts. The game looks and runs like a dream on the PlayStation 5 and is one of the best reasons to own one yet. The game is tough and because of that it won’t be for everyone but for those who do enjoy these kinds of games you’ll quickly get addicted to the fast-paced and super smooth gameplay. The story isn’t the main focus of the game but it did just enough to keep me interested and wanting to see where it was going to end up. A lot has been made as to whether Returnal is deserving of its $70 price tag and after spending over two dozen hours with it already and planning to spend many more, my answer is a resounding yes.
*Returnal is available now on PlayStation 5. Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Review copy provided by PlayStation for this review.