Live, Die, Repeat in the Brutal World of Returnal

Housemarque’s reputation for delivering high-quality shoot-em-up titles is sterling. From Super Stadust HD to Matterfall, the studio has managed to produce one great shooter after the other, with the studio’s PS4 launch title, Resogun, ending up as that console’s star title. Now, Housemarque is tackling their most ambitious project yet, Returnal. Developed as a showcase title for the PS5, Returnal has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Can it live up to Housemarque’s legacy? We got a chance to play through Returnal’s first two biomes to see what horrors Housemarque has in store.

Returnal follows Selene, an Astra scout who crash-lands on Atropos, a shape-shifting planet with dark secrets. Stuck in a time loop that resets progress upon each death, Selene must battle the planet, uncover its history and even face her past to get out of this nightmare. To face those horrors, Selene comes armed with alien weaponry and technology. At first glance, Returnal doesn’t look like anything Housemarque has ever done before. When initially booting up the game, players are thrown into the Overgrown Ruins. Your ship, Helios, has been destroyed, your sidearm missing, and there’s only one path forward. It isn’t till your first inevitable hostile encounter and subsequent death that Returnal reveals what kind of game it is and how it incorporates many of Housemarque’s signature mechanics.

Returnal may look like a third-person shooter on the surface, but underneath, it also heavily incorporates mechanics found in Housemarque’s previous shoot-em-up titles. Enemies fire spherical bullets in specific patterns as if they were in a shoot-em-up title. Returnal balances elements of third-person shooters and shoot-em-ups to create a layered and frenetic gameplay experience. Mixed into the action are roguelike elements. Selene is stuck in a time loop and Atropos doesn’t want to make life easy for her. Every death starts her back at Helios with nothing but her pistol and previously-unlocked permanent upgrades, like a sword for melee. From there, similar to other roguelike titles, the world of Atropos changes itself with different arenas and layouts. You will encounter familiar arena layouts, including several set-in stone for story purposes, but the alterations have kept the game feeling fresh so far throughout the two biomes.

Dying can be punishing and deflating. As is the nature of the genre, having to start from Helios upon each death can be crushing if you’ve gotten far, but it also leads to self-gratification after learning the best ways to dispatch enemies and travel further. The game also made getting back to the second biome, Crimson Wastes, easy should you die after defeating the Ruins’ boss. On the other hand, it would have been nice to have an option to suspend a run in a safe room. As of now, the only way to do that is to put the PS5 in Rest Mode. If you want to switch to another game for a break, however, you’d have to forfeit all the progress of your current run.

Speaking of the Organized Ruins and the Crimson Wastes, both biomes offer different experiences. While the Ruins are dark, foggy and filled with rain, the Crimson Wastes is a sun-bleached wasteland full of red sand and a towering mountain. The Ruins focus more on verticality with enemies and fauna capable of getting to Selene’s level. Meanwhile, the Crimson Wastes are flat but filled with enemies that can fly, bury under the sand or teleport. It’s a fun change of pace from both a visual and gameplay perspective. Both biomes end in epic boss fights that’ll test your strategies garnered through your many playthroughs across the biomes.

As a showcase for the PS5 hardware, Returnal looks good with lots of effects going off, but its most impressive PS5 features lie with its implementation of the DualSense controller and 3D audio. The DualSense is put to particularly good use within the two biomes working with different gameplay mechanics and the environment. While playing, you’ll feel every step, the pull of the trigger and the impact of an enemy’s attack. Environmentally, you’ll feel things like the raindrops as they hit Selene’s suit.

Equally remarkable is the use of the PS5’s Tempest Engine for 3D audio. The world of Atropos comes alive, allowing players to absorb the different sounds of the biomes, whether it be the downpour in the Ruins or wind in the Wastes. It can even save your life by helping you detect the direction enemies are coming from. You’ll want a 3D audio-compatible headset for Returnal.

Housemarque’s reputation for delivering stellar PlayStation titles means there’s a lot of pressure on Returnal. Though we’ve only gotten to experience two of the game’s biomes, both the Overgrown Ruins and the Crimson Wastes provide a good first impression. The gameplay is layered and thoughtful, requiring an understanding of the environment and the enemy’s attack patterns. The death loop is both brutal but still fair so far, though options to suspend the game mid-cycle would be nice. DualSense and 3D audio, two key selling points of the PS5, are masterfully used within the biomes to create a unique, immersive experience. It’s a strong start for Returnal, and hopefully, the rest of the game can keep up the momentum.

Returnal launches April 30 on PS5.