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Returnal: hands-on preview

Returnal launches on April 30. This PS5 exclusive is the result of four years of meticulous crafting by Housemarque, the Finnish studio known for the twitch-based thrills of the likes of Super Stardust, Nex Machina, and acclaimed PS4 launch title Resogun. Returnal takes the DNA of that illustrious arcade heritage – tight controls, compact gameplay loops – and splices it with compelling character drama and a cosmic mystery in the dark, uncharted heart of deep space. The result is a third-person sci-fi action thriller and the team’s biggest, most ambitious project to date. 

Ever since last year’s first reveal, you know some of what to expect. Housemarque has touched upon Returnal’s combat; teased its story. (If you haven’t kept up to date, don’t worry: we recap below). Now, after spending several hours with a near-complete version of the game, we have a better sense of how these and more come together. And, in addition, how Housemarque is leveraging the PlayStation 5’s features for an impressive next-gen debut.

A broadcast signal of unknown origins draws Selene, a Greek-American ASTRA deep space scout to an unmapped world. Her arrival onto Atropos is a violent one: an explosive accident mid-orbit sends her ship Helios spiralling into a crash landing. This sequence is an excellent early showcase for what the studio’s got in store for us with the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback: every metal-crunching impact is mimicked on the controller. When a flaming Helios roars across the width of your TV screen, you feel that fatal flyby through your hands.   

With her ship downed but her suit’s systems still active and tracking the broadcast, Selene sets off, armed with only a sidearm and a scientist’s tenaciousness. Between the signal’s origin and her are multiple biomes, each a labyrinth of interconnected areas. In each location remnants of an ancient civilisation and highly aggressive creatures await. Selene must adapt artifacts from the former to survive the latter. And when she fails to do so, two inevitabilities: you resurrect at the site of the crash, and this weaponised world has reshaped itself around you.  

A great example of DualSense controller’s adaptive triggers at work: L2 will lock halfway when pulled for a zoomed in Focus Aim (this also highlights enemy weak spots in red). Pull fully down to activate your weapon’s alt-fire mode. You can monitor alt-fire cooldown with your HUD and keep an ear out for a specific audio ping that plays when recharge is complete. But there’s a cool detail that’s DualSense controller specific: If you keep the trigger pulled after discharge, you’ll feel a low-level vibration that’ll steadily increase in intensity, matching the weapon’s alt-fire recharge cycle. 

The procedural generation and roguelike nature of Returnal are both gameplay and story hook. Each cycle will reorder every biome’s areas and their contents. Variations that paired with the game’s brooding, bristling score make exploration ever-dangerous, even as you grow proficient in navigating through this world as Selene. 

Let’s talk about her. 

The ASTRA scout isn’t a trigger-happy supersoldier. Thoughtful rather than cavalier, she has a scientist’s mind and an explorer’s tenacity. She’s also human. That steadfast persona slow unravels, sold convincingly by Jane Perry’s grounded vocal performance. Uncertainty slowly creeps into the edges of her analytical monologues, while recovered audio logs – voice recordings of another self (is it future, or is it past?) that tease upcoming encounters – unsettle with their increasing erraticness. 

In the field, Selene’s nimble. Dash-dodges to leap across chasms, avoid – even pass through – enemy projectiles. A coloured HUD radial around the character marks direction and proximity of attacks. She can mantle. Early unlocks of a blade and hookshot open up melee and faster traversal options. The hookshot’s generous reach on marked grapple points zip you across wide areas. 

Within any cycle, dealing damage but avoiding it yourself builds Adrenaline, a mechanic that stacks up to five levels, each tier unlocking an enhancement: increases to weapon damage, vision (enemies marked by a red circle), strengthening your melee attack and more. Get hit once and everything resets. It’s a great incentive to stay sharp and promotes high-level play. 

Weapons recharge rather than reload; during that time a trigger tap right to instantly recharge and earn a damage bonus (Overload). Mess up and your weapon jams. Every weapon has an alt-fire mode and an additional unlockable ability once you’ve downed enough enemies. Both are pulled from a large pool of possible attacks, leading to an extensive range of potential weapon builds. 

At the bottom left corner of your on-screen HUD are suit integrity (health) and weapon proficiency bars. Integrity can be replenished or extended with collectables. Your weapon proficiency bar dictates the power level of the next found weapon, be it an enemy drop or unlocked chest. That too can be increased through items collected. Weapons range from familiar analogues (pistol, rifle) to otherworldly types (the Spitmaw Blaster fires a corrosive fluid that eats away at enemy health over time). The audio on these things packs a punch: blasts echo across valley floors and reverberate in tight quarters. Fun fact: Those reverberations are in real time, using a mix of 3D audio and ray casting, dynamically changing based on your position. 

Built on top of all that are multiple, interconnecting game systems that spice up every cycle. Artifacts give you buffs for the duration of your current run (deal 10% more damage to a low health target, or use slo-mo when in alt-fire mode, for example). Consumables are one-off activations (healing shot, shields). Parasites, living, scuttling entities that’ll latch onto your suit if picked up, best example the gamble of Returnal’s modifiers, always pairing reward with risk. One may increase the stats of the weapons you find next, but your melee damage is reduced by half. A specific alien device can remove all parasites but costs Oblities, the planet’s version of currency dropped by enemies on death and unearthed from rocks that glow a tell-tale yellow. 

You’re forever outnumbered, but quick reactions and core feedback loops make for satisfying combat encounters. 

There’s a vibrant diversity to the alien species intent on killing you as soon as you enter an area. Multi-tentacled quadrupeds, leaping biped juggernauts, squid-like flyers, armoured lurkers… their ferocity and attack patterns are scaled such that with quick wits and reactions they’re survivalable, regardless of which combination or number you face. Many fire projectile cascades. There’s an echo here of bullet hells, but brightly coloured as they are, you’re never caught unawares. I have to speak to the game’s 3D audio design, which, if you’re wearing a compatible headset, lets you better pinpoint enemy placement around you. While wearing the Pulse 3D Wireless headset for PS5 on one cycle, I registered the sound of an enemy approaching from the rear. I whirled round, freezing my aim exactly where it was spawning, taking it out before it could pounce.

All that is arcade pedigree shining through. Controls are tight. You’ll never question your combat options or traversal abilities, be it repositioning in arenas packed with enemies or exploring.

Returnal offers daily challenges for which there are online leaderboards. Selectable from the Helios wreck, these will give you a set of conditions to meet and a specific weapon. You have one life to make your mark on the global ranking. (You don’t need PlayStation Plus to take part in these.) 

While you’re never far from a firefight, Returnal is as much an explorative platformer as it is a shooter. You’re not ploughing through a set number of small arena-style kill boxes in quick succession. Level design is hugely varied and you have breathing room to explore. For the majority of your playtime, a good two-thirds of the screen real estate is dedicated to the world around you. Yes, that’s also to best assess threat placement during combat, but it also captures the colossal scale of the alien civilisation. Smaller touches outside combat sell the atmosphere. The indistinct call of wildlife in the far distance; writhing grass that’s one of the planet’s non-aggressive lifeforms; the dirt smears that gradually accumulate on Selene’s suit; the steady patter of rainfall felt through the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback. 

Doorways open to claustrophobic alleys, multi-floor structures, tiny caves, partially-destroyed bridges. Hidden catacombs and side rooms are rife. Traps, interactive alien devices – and the items needed to access them – are nestled here and there (such as Fabricators, which generate items, or the Reconstructor, a one-time resurrection machine you’ll return to on death, keeping you in the current cycle with loadout intact). Unreachable spots will taunt you until you’ve found and incorporated the right alien tech to access in future cycles. You’re given a general compass direction to your central goal, but you’re otherwise free to explore as much or as little as you like. Further exploration and backtracking will help you upgrade equipment, unlock sealed sections and delve into the lore of the long-dead civilisation. Alternatively, focus on combat and stack the odds increasingly against you. It’s your choice. 

Your mini-map (which, like most of the HUD, can be hidden if you customise it so) marks different doorways: golden path, side rooms, mini-boss challenges. Icons also denote collectables. Retrieving those can be a puzzle. Note: HUD customisation includes colour-blind options, letting you switch the colouring of loot drops. 

Every biome is visually distinct, with its own challenges and creatures (though once encountered, ultra-tough ‘Elite’ versions of enemies will start to bleed into other locales). Progression is non-linear. Each biome has a main ‘boss’, but once overcome, you’re not locked to facing it down on subsequent cycles. Stumble into the right area, and you can travel straight to another biome. Here’s your PS5 console’s SSD at work: passing through a portal into another part of Atropos seems as fast as walking through a door. Resurrections are also quick: a few seconds of flashback and you reawaken at the crash site.    

Explorative platformer, action shooter, roguelike, psychological horror. Returnal splices these disparate strands together with elegance. And there’s so much more to talk about. But like most things, they’re best experienced first hand. And you’ve not long to wait: 29 more days until you crash land on Atropos and attempt to break the cycle yourself. 

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