Returnal Review: Brutally Difficult, Incredibly Rewarding
June 4, 2021 Andrew Cheng

Returnal is a difficult game. I’ve spent countless hours trying to complete this roguelite title, but I simply cannot do it. Deaths are very punishing, getting the right setup is a chore, and it’s even worse when a good run gets ruined by the randomness of the procedurally generated world.

But when I do manage to defeat a boss, it feels extremely satisfying. This cycle of frustration and moments of triumph is really my experience with Returnal. Despite its unforgiving nature, it’s also a very rewarding game with a solid gameplay and smart use of the new PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller.

While Returnal is not for everyone, it’s certainly a PS5 exclusive worth checking out – if it’s right up your alley, that is.

What It Is

Developed by Housemarque, which is known for bullet-hell shooters like Resogun, Returnal is a roguelite game in the sense that some of your equipment are permanent, which will be available on your future runs. This is in contrast to a strictly roguelike game where nothing is carried over.

Much like Housemarque’s previous games, Returnal plays like a bullet-hell shooter, but in third-person perspective with a rougelite mechanic. This being the case, the world is procedurally generated, so the areas that you go through and the order in which enemies appear are different in every run.

As for the Returnal’s story, it follows Selene, who crash-landed on a mysterious planet called Atropos. As you play through the game, you slowly unravel Selene’s past through her memories. Without getting into spoiler territory, suffice to say this game has a…thought-provoking narrative.

The Good Stuff

One of the best qualities of Returnal has to be its gameplay. It’s no exaggeration to say that the combat system is exhilarating. Not only can Selene move in a very quick manner, dodging can also be done swiftly with a short cooldown. It’s very satisfying to dodge a melee attack from enemies too.

More often than not, combat in Returnal can feel too overwhelming and chaotic, but once I’ve familiarised myself with the enemies and the plethora of weapons available in the game, I can start blazing through previous areas that felt much tougher in the beginning.

Once I got into the rhythm and start stacking on kill-streak bonuses, I thoroughly enjoy the game’s combat system.

Speaking of weapons, I absolutely love how Housemarque implemented the DualSense’s adaptive triggers in Returnal. Like most games, I can aim by holding down on the L2 button, but it has two “tensions.” Holding it down halfway aims down the sight, and completely depressing the trigger activates the secondary fire.

It’s a smart implementation, but what really caught my attention is how Returnal uses the haptic feedback of the DualSense controller. When it’s raining in the game, for example, I can “feel” the raindrops; even firing different weapons produces different levels of vibrations.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the Dualsense’s incredibly refined haptic feedback adds a level of immersion I never thought was possible in a game. This, in turn, makes Returnal that much more enjoyable.

Graphically, Returnal looks stunning with beautifully (and eerily) rendered enemy models and environment. The later bosses in the game look especially intimidating, and Housemarque’s (almost) gratuitous use of particles in this game actually look mesmerising.

This is especially the case when the screen is filled with deadly bullets. As I frantically try to avoid all of them – at a smooth 60 frames per second, if I may add – there’s also a weird sense of awe from just looking at them. While I do groan when the boss shoots out a complex wave of bullets, I can’t help but to admire the equally intricate patterns.

So Returnal looks stunning with a solid gameplay and smart use of the DualSense controller; what’s not to like? Well, let’s get to the frustrating elements of the game in the next section.

The Bad Stuff

If there’s any reason not to get Returnal, it would be the game’s sheer difficulty. Since it is a rougelite game, every death means you’ll be back at the beginning of the game. Sure, certain equipment are carried over from one run to another, but your hard-earned weapons and power-ups are all gone.

Granted, you do unlock a shortcut to the next biome once you managed to defeat the previous biome’s boss, but you still have to run around to find the portal. While Selene’s quick movement makes it easier to dash from one area to another, this repetitive cycle does feel tedious after some time.

Yes, this is the very reason why Returnal feels so very rewarding when I eventually manage to beat a boss with a sliver of health remaining, but some folks may be discouraged by this. All it takes is one mistake to end a good run, and going through the procedurally generated world again to find for the “perfect” setup feels very tiresome.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have not finished Returnal, and it’s not for the lack of trying. I would love to unravel the storyline of the game and be awed by the final boss. But in order to get there, I need to go through hours upon hours of slogging through the same biome over and over again.

Oh, you will also lose progress on your current run if you exit the game. That’s right, if you switch off your PS5 in the middle of a run, your progress will not be saved. You can put your PS5 in Rest Mode as a workaround, but this is not exactly the most practical solution.

Aside from Returnal’s punishing difficulty courtesy of its rougelite nature, I also wish Selene’s facial expressions were a little less…stiff. Granted, it’s not a huge deal, and it’s not really the main focus of the game. But for a RM299 exclusive game for the PS5 – that’s a steep price tag – I can’t help but to expect more.

Is It Worth It?

At the end of the day, I still think Returnal is worth getting; only if you’re up for a challenge, of course. Though its roguelite mechanic got the best of me, I still thoroughly enjoy the game’s dynamic combat system, fantastic DualSense implementations, and stunning graphics.

RM299 is a hefty price tag for the game, without a doubt, but this is how much you have to pay for a AAA game on the PS5 moving forward.

While I still haven’t managed to finish Returnal, I will definitely keep trying. Every death feels frustrating and discouraging, yet I keep getting drawn back to the game – I want to experience the sweet moments of triumph again, even if it means I have to repeat the cycle over and over again.