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Returnal – Review (PS5)

OUR SCORE – 9/10

Housemarque is known for making high-quality bullet hell games. They gave us impressive titles like Resogun and Nex Machina. And now, onto to the PS5 comes their entry into the roguelite genre – Returnal. It is a great roguelite in a sci-fi skin, with a flavour of survival horror as well. Sounds for a good recipe on paper, right? It absolutely is!

You play as Selene, who has crash-landed on a far off planet teeming with mysterious flora and fauna and even vibrant landscapes. The mystery builds up quite well, taking you places, until you die. That’s when things get really interesting. You’ll find yourself on the receiving end of the death screen pretty often, what with the creatures and critters about to get you. And every time you die, you’ll find yourself back on the ship, devoid of all your progress and anything you might have picked up. The world resets itself, rearranging in different ways, and it’s up to you to find your way again.

What makes it even better, is that while exploring, you’ll come across corpses from previous runs, and some that you haven’t seen before at all. This includes logs of stuff you find has never happened to you. That is until now. The more you die, the more you explore, and the nightmare ensues.

To keep things fair, you do get to keep some permanent upgrades in your arsenal, though you do lose any weapon you pick up. And along with it goes the weapon proficiency you build, which enhances your skills to take down enemies.

Through relentless roguelike gameplay, you’ll discover that just as the planet changes with every cycle, so do the items at your disposal. Every loop offers new combinations, forcing you to push your boundaries and approach combat with a different strategy each time.

Brought to life by stunning visual effects, the dark beauty of the decaying world around you is packed with explosive surprises. From high stakes, bullet hell-fueled combat, to visceral twists and turns through stark and contrasting environments. You’ll explore, discover and fight your way through an unforgiving journey, where mystery stalks your every move.

Designed for extreme replayability, the procedural world of Returnal invites you to dust yourself off in the face of defeat and take on new, evolving challenges with every rebirth.

Telling a compelling story in such a strange setting can’t be easy, but Housemarque’s writers have managed well enough. We are provided objectives each time we venture out — beating a specific boss, finding a location — and the reward for accomplishing them is typically a tantalizing bit of exposition that sheds additional light on the alien world, its long gone people, and even Seline herself. It’s just enough to feel satisfying while whetting the player’s appetite for more.

Of course, to get more story you need to be willing to go out and do some more dying. A lot more. And to make such a challenging and repetitive experience palatable, the moment-to-moment gunplay needs to be great. Returnal‘s sci-fi weapons — which grow in strength and have a variety of alternate firing modes — feel tight and powerful, and the interface team has done some neat stuff with Sony’s PlayStation DualSense controller, making good use of its two-stage triggers, haptic feedback, and built-in speaker. Plus, Selene’s jogging speed and dash moves are extremely quick, which is vital for avoiding enemy fire and reducing the time spent trudging and backtracking through familiar rooms. She’s undeniably tough, and I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent in her boots.

That said, I’m not a big fan of Returnal‘s “bullet hell” enemy attacks. In the gaming world, bullet hell refers to enemies that spam enormous waves of bullets in complex patterns. If you don’t keep moving through the maze, you’re dead. The inclusion of a bullet hell element oughtn’t be a complete surprise, given Housemarque’s history with top-down shooters like Super Stardust HD, but it is a bit of a polarizing game mechanic. And I find this three dimensional version comes with the added difficulty of accurately judging depth and distance between incoming balls. Staying alive amid a veritable shower of glowing death balls ain’t easy.

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