Right from the word go the announcement trailer for Returnal sunk its hooks into me and never took them out, in fact, they were plunged deeper with every subsequent video, blog post and sneak preview. The promise that developer Housemarque was making of a big-budget third-person roguelike wasn’t just interesting, it had my full attention, so much so that I wasn’t sure it could possibly live up to the lofty expectations that I had set for it. Well, having spent a few hours playing the early portions of the game, it looks as though those expectations could be met or possibly even exceeded. At this stage, I’m only able to talk about the first two biomes within the game, but that still leaves quite a bit to cover
Everything begins with the crash. Selene, Returnal’s protagonist, is an Astra scout who has unfortunately found herself on the alien planet of Atropos after crashing her ship while tracking a mysterious signal. With no way of contacting support, Selene is left with few options other than to leave the safety of her ship and explore this ominous world.
Unfortunate for Selene, but an absolute pleasure for myself. Atropos is thick with tension and uncertainty from the outset. Initially covered in perpetual darkness, every inch of what you can see feels alien in every sense of the word. Precursor technology is scattered throughout the landscape that’s being devoured by natural growth as streams of moonlight illuminate your way. Returnal is stunningly gorgeous right from the get-go and its eerie tone can be felt in every facet, not just in its visuals.
You never feel at ease on Atropos and its easy enough to see why
The haptic feedback in the DualSense controller is put to good use here. I felt every raindrop hitting Selene’s helmet as she stepped out from her ship, I could feel the hologram being created from the bottom up as I scanned unknown artefacts, and I knew which direction I was being attacked from purely thanks to the vibration from the controller. That, together with the spooky and impressive 3D audio, heightens the immersion to a level that I hadn’t previously experienced on the PS5.
Once I had been stepped through how to run, jump and quick dash, I came across my sidearm, clutched in the dead hand of my own corpse. Before I had a moment to wonder how that was possible I was set upon by creatures with long, mesmerising tentacles that let me know they weren’t stopping by to welcome me to their homeworld. The local wildlife isn’t friendly, firing waves of horizontal-patterned projectiles my way and even physically lunging at me when I got too close. Pulling the right trigger, I was quickly firing back at these tendrilled terrors while gracefully running and dodging their attacks, and I quickly found my rhythm. Pulling the left trigger down halfway aims down sights as you would expect, but it reaches a resistance point, where if you push past it activates your weapon’s secondary fire. I’ve enjoyed the adaptive trigger support in other games, but this feels like the first true practical use for them and it’s worked seamlessly so far, blending into the flow of combat very well.
Combat is a true bullet hell affair that has the movement and weapon options to pull of such a design in the third-person. Weapons don’t auto-target, but they do have a generous reticule that will make hitting your mark a touch easier while you’re darting around, which you’ll be doing a lot. There’s no reloading in Returnal, instead, there’s a short cooldown once your clip is emptied, but you can trigger an instant reload if you fire at a precise time during that time. Each of the weapons that I’ve encountered, both sidearm and rifle, have some devastating secondary fire modes, including tracking blasts and wide-spread lightning bolts, but their cooldowns are a bit lengthier, so they should be used wisely. Upgrades, ever-changing weapons and a super satisfying alien blade have been keeping things fresh and the roguelike nature of the game further adds to the variation, making each run feel unique.
The lightning alt-fire is so satisfying to whip out if you’re backed against the wall
Making my way through the unnerving landscape I came across as a new foe, a bigger and meaner one that I hadn’t seen until this point. Leaping forward, using its huge bladed arm it cut me down and everything went black. Then, without more than a few second’s reprieve, I was with Selene again, crash-landing back on Atropos just as I had moments before. I had collected resources and a number of upgrades before my demise but they didn’t make it with me through death, so what else was I do to other than to set off again into the dense forests of Atropos. Only this time the world had changed, that door didn’t lead to this area the first time around. Where am I? Atropos is a constantly changing behemoth that doesn’t let up and will throw new challenges at you when you least expect it. Luckily, the combat and traversal so far have been stellar and the mystery of Selene’s undying condition is pushing me to continue playing.
So far I’ve encountered one first-person section that takes place within a farmhouse that’s dreadfully out of place on Atropos and my time in said house was dripping with teases of psychological horror to come. I haven’t even touched on the multiple kinds of weapons that I’ve found or the other terrifying enemies that I’ve encountered, but that will come soon. For now, know that Returnal has impressed me beyond belief during its opening few hours and I thoroughly look forward to spending more time uncovering its secrets.