As one of the first PS5 titles to be revealed, Returnal had a lot to live up to. Thankfully, the third-person roguelike mostly succeeds. It’s an empowering, extraterrestrial fever dream that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. But for as much as it has going for it, Returnal’s missteps — though few in number — make it a tough game to recommend.
What Is It?
Returnal is a third-person roguelike shooter that follows Selene, an astronaut stranded on the alien world of Atropos, whose only chance at survival is to shoot her way out. Seems simple enough. However, Selene’s quest has one major obstacle: The planet she’s stuck on is ever-changing. With each death, the layout of the world resets, and so does Selene’s loadout. By the game’s logic, Selene might be effectively immortal, but the importance of each one of her lives cannot be overstated.
Why Should I Care?
The endless pursuit of power is what defines Returnal. For Selene, that means mustering enough strength to both process her personal grief, as well as busting out of this brutal cycle she’s stuck in. For you, this pursuit is about destroying everything in your path. Steadily arming yourself to the teeth with all manner of weapons, equipment, and power-ups while fighting like hell to stay alive is the name of the game in Returnal, and thankfully, it’s a sweet-sounding name that rolls right off the tongue.
When you first start the game, Selene is near-powerless. She can only run, jump, and shoot. Early on, you’re almost guaranteed to feel overwhelmed by the wide variety of enemies, projectiles, and whatnot darting your way. After barely clearing the first few rooms, you might think: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to last much longer,” and as a result, you might play things a little safer through the next few encounters. But that’s likely to change once you’re outfitted with some fresh equipment.
The first time I picked up Returnal’s assault rifle, I was excited for two reasons. One: I was happy to move on from Selene’s trusty, albeit underpowered pistol. And two: It’s a beast, much like every other weapon in the game. Returnal’s weapons each pack a unique punch, and the ease with which they cut through enemies makes using them a thrilling power trip — in part due to the knowledge that you could lose your newfound gear at any point. But in my experience loss only motivated me further; each time I started a new cycle, I was more than eager to get back into the action and re-arm myself.
It’s clear that Returnal follows the roguelike formula; the game is built around trying, dying, reviving, and trying not to die again. But it also borrows quite a bit from 3D action-adventure games like Metroid Prime, Batman: Arkham Asylum, or Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, particularly when it comes to exploration.
I distinctly remember seeing a bright glowing beacon in one of Returnal’s rooms, and after spending a few minutes toying with it, I just couldn’t figure out its function. But once I got a little further in the story and acquired the grappling gun — a permanent upgrade to Selene’s arsenal — it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. Like Samus’ Space Jump boots in Metroid Prime, each upgrade Selene acquires enhances your ability to explore, and their acquisitions are fairly spaced out as to allow you to get familiar with one before grabbing the next.
The common trait of every weapon, upgrade, or equipment item spread across Atropos is that they turn Selene into a faster, deadlier, and overall more efficient alien exterminator. Essentially, your goal in Returnal is to become a walking tank, and the journey to becoming one is a bloody good time.
What Makes It Worth My Time and Money?
Returnal runs a tad short at around 20 hours. However, those 20 hours are among the most intense ones I’ve spent playing a game this year. I won’t soon forget popping off after defeating a boss or clearing rooms with only a sliver of health left. In a word, it’s exhilarating.
That said, Returnal isn’t a title I see myself returning to anytime soon. It’s great fun, but it asked for far too much of my time. You can’t just save your progress, quit the game, and pick back up where you left off later–you have to either finish your run in one sitting or refrain from using your PS5 for anything else. The only way to pause your run is to use the PS5’s rest mode, but given the issues said feature has given PS5 owners (as well as the more prevalent matter of a game restricting your ability to play other titles on your $500 piece of hardware) it is not a good solution.
I would love to jump back into Returnal. I greatly enjoy the Doom-like combat, the Metroid-esque exploration, and the immensely satisfying power trip and sense of progression offered by the game, but the simple truth is that I don’t feel like committing to it. I’d like to play through a biome or two, quit out, move onto another game, and then be able to pick my run up a few days later — like I can in many other roguelikes — but Returnal won’t let me. I have to devote several hours of continuous gameplay to it in order to make progress, and as several working adults can attest, that’s an awfully big ask.
Returnal is a fantastic game. You’ll have plenty of fun with it, but don’t expect it to respect your time. Despite my personal enjoyment of the game, I can’t confidently recommend this time-demanding game unless you have two key things–an excess of free time and no desire to use your PS5 as anything but a Returnal machine. If you’re lacking in either of those departments, maybe hold off on this one unless a mid-run save feature is added in a future update.