Returnal: hands-on preview

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Returnal: hands-on preview

Explorative platformer, action thriller, psychological horror: everything you need to know about the PS5 exclusive

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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65 Comments

  • Really looking forward to Returnal, Housemarque is an amazing studio and happy to support this on Day 1.

    • I had almost no interest in this game when I first saw it.. but each new trailer and peek makes me more and more a fan. What really impresses me is how they kept that Housemarque feel to this game.

    • I saw the new trailer on PS5 and I was disappointed because it gave virtually no new information, but this deep dive on Playstation blog gives us a wealth of new info and it sounds spectacular.

      Fabricators – if you’ve played Risk of Rain 2, 3D printers..

      Reconstruction points – every level has one checkpoint, essentially a bonfire.

      Parasites – not new information, but essentially Lunar items in Risk of Rain 2.

      3D audio – again, not new, but the depth of the 3D audio is impressive.

      DualSense – new information about the depth of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. We knew about alt fire, but feeling the recharge in the triggers, rain haptics, it’s beautiful.

      SSD – 2 second respawns and instant world loading as if stepping through a door.

      Exploration – it’s wonderful to hear that this isn’t just arena to arena roguelike gameplay and that the environments are huge and exploration is real. This is an evolution of the roguelike genre and a scale we haven’t seen.

      Returnal sounds incredible.

  • To all the people on other forums complaining about the game being $69.99, please just knock it off. Games are much more expensive to make than they were a decade ago and prices have not been adjusted to account for that. Yes, some games rip us off on MTX like EA Sports, 2k Sports games, and COD, but for the most part single player games like this are not making much more on their investment other than the original game release and some occasional DLC.

    If that $10 extra for this generation of gaming is such a burden to your budget then you shouldn’t be gaming.

    • Facts 10000%

    • Facts 100000%

    • How about those of us complaining because £70 is not $70?

      You guys get a reasonable $10 increase, ours when totalled up come out at closer to $30

      It isn’t fair so they’ll have to wait for a purchase from this side of the pond until it hits the £50 mark

    • i_i__batman__i_l

      They increased it from €60 to €80 in the EU. How is that fair?

    • LOL, with the amount of PS5 consoles out there, they have to raise the price severely to earn at least a little bit.

    • Genre dictates the price tag. This is a $30 game with insanely high production values.

      And those insanely high production values have never been easier to achieve than it is today with so many platforms offering so many high quality assets to save time.

      For me at least, the bread and butter of “this game needs to cost more” equals to the fact that they’ve made some revolutionary progress on the side of AI. Something new and innovative has been achieved. Either that or every aspect of the game has been painstakingly hand picked. You only get that with big ambitious open world games, though. RDR2 would be a game worth apying $70 for, not an arcade SHMUP that has as unique selling point the fact it looks gorgeous. Don’t charge me full AAA price and then some more just for that.

    • I’m guessing Sabaki there is a developer and also got a early review copy of the game. I mean, he seem confident enough to speak of the game as a “matter of facts” statement.

    • Devil’s advocate much?

    • The fact that you clearly have no idea what kind of game this actually is makes it pretty clear that you never had even the slightest intention of buying it anyway so just go cry in the corner while everyone else is having fun playing this, cuz no one cares, bud.

    • Also, games get discounted fairly quickly after a little while so if someone does not want to pay full price they just have to wait for the game to go down in price.

    • @PhantomOfOpera Of course, it’s not like I don’t have anything else to play. Is the discourse of trying to justify the price increase. It’s just $10 more, but they we’re being lied to our face.

      Games don’t cost more to make, marketing it does.

    • Yeah unfortunately we have so many that think every game should be free and online gaming free. A studio with a 100+ people working on sound, music, lighting, motion capture, editing, voice actors, story writers, graphics all at a faster level with 0 bugs should still make same amount of money they did 20 years ago.
      Then when a studio shuts down they are the first ones complaining why and they make awesome games.

    • I don’t mind the $10 hike in games, but I also admit that seeing a Housemarque game as a $70 title, when I am so use to them being “those great indie devs”, does bring some sticker shock.

    • @Sabaki08 What was Nier: Automata’s price at launch? I believe it was full AAA price. You can’t tell me this is an less of a game than that. Might be better, might be worse, but still a highly polished SHMUP/Adventure.

      Why do games not cost more to make? With better equipment and more developers on teams, I don’t understand this.

    • @sabaki08

      I know the price is a huge issue, but to play Devil’s advocate, Risk of Rain 2 was $40 when it first launched on PS4. I love the game but let’s be real, it has ZERO story, bad graphics, no gameplay variation or special features, it had no actual ending, and it was made by THREE ppl.

      Returnal absolutely clobbers this in every way. We haven’t seen a full roguelike with the scale or production value that we have here. It changes it from a $30 game to a full price offering. That production value as u mention, alters the product and it becomes something new. Housemarque is about 90 ppl and they all worked on this for three years, including help from Sony. It’s not a rinky dink production, a dlc add on to a AAA, or a game made by three ppl. It’s a full, AAA, next gen game with impressive tech. Show some respect.

    • I like how when people say “games are much more expensive to make” they ignore basic facts.

      Firstly, are they? PS1 titles didn’t have premade engines, or even the tools to do most things. Modern era has tools for everything, premade things, pretty much everything you want. You don’t have to have people coding the tools to even make the game.

      Secondly, they get around 100x the money.

      A successful PS1 title sold around 100,000 copies. At around 30. So that’s 3 million.

      A successful PS4 game sells around 5 million copies at 60/70. That’s 300-350 million.

      So basically between a PS1 and PS4/5 title you’re looking at between 100 and 116x more money.

      Do you really think they need more than 100x more money to make a game which actually takes less effort?

    • I appreciate the arguments on both sides, but I align more with @MiseryPrincess argument.

      On one hand you’ve got Epic introducing a one-click-press fully rigged photorealistic human model piece of software for developers (I’m aware this won’t account for all games out there, but it’s one of the more revolutionary products meant to ease development by A LOT like Quixel).

      On the other, you’ve got 2K asking $70 for a game because they added sweat and the lootbox algorithm for their MTX-ridden game was hard to make.

      God forbid, I’m not hating on Housemarque. I’m not bashing on them. I’m bashing on any initiative of making games cost more on false premises.

      If those extra $10 would go into developer’s pockets you’d hear about salary increases.

      It’s just a matter of time until workers from a studio that charges $70 for their games reach out to Schreier to report their wages have not increased, despite the game price hike.

    • And would be stupid to bash on the developer for the price hike, lol. It’s the publisher setting the price.

    • I would also like to add to @MiseryPrincess and @sabaki08 argument.
      1) people saying the game looks beautiful and as such costs more to make, wrong. PC games from a few years back run at higher resolution, high frame rate, high quality shadows, proper ray tracing and so on. These games did not up the price by £20 due to development. Look at cyberpunk on pc, far more work has gone into that than the ps5 is capable of using and that doesn’t cost £70!
      2) new consoles so new development costs, wrong. The PS5 is running AMD x86_64 (CPU) assembly and AMD graphics chip. The same architecture found in PS4, Xbox one’s, Xbox series’s and pc gaming platforms. Some API’s may change but this is easily fixed. So a game that was running on a PS4 and Pc from a few years back will run on PS5 with little to no work (especially if using unreal engine which does the backend api hooks for you). Also that pc version will no doubt have higher textures and shadows in the code compared to what the ps5 is capable of and yet will cost about £30 less.

      So I’m sorry, people can defend the price all they want but £70 for a game will actually mean less sales and revenue. And I can prove this by non of my friends are interested in it at that price. Normally 2-3 would have picked it up (PS4 price days). The only game I know people are buying at launch is RE8 as that is £50 and yet is using a custom engine they developed.

    • sMoKiN_dEm_TrEeS

      You say things like this but some of the biggest games are free to play including League of Legends, DOTA 2, Counter-strike, Valorant, Warframe, and Path of Exile. I could keep going with my list but you get the facts. $70 for a full price video game is a joke. It is WAYYY to expensive. The only game I bought so far at $70 was Demon Souls and even then I was grinding my teeth.

      Sony needs to lower their prices. Xbox is doing it right with gamepass, if people want to increase their prices of their video games, they need to change it up because $70 upfront for ANYTHING is a lot of money.

      Do you people even know how much it takes to make movies and how cheap those movies are sold for?

      I strongly disagree that it is fair to pay $70.

      I will not be buying Returnal on launch date and I am not posting this for someone to reply to me. I am posting it so, Sony sees and hears me.

    • Speak for yourself dude. Not everyone gets the privileged American price. Games are more expensive in other countries. Also I don’t understand why anyone would defend this when you are getting nothing out of it. Video Games make the most money in the entertainment industry, they are doing fine.

  • Really excited for this game. It looks solid as hell. Gives me trippy control vibes, which I’m ALL about. Definitely picking this up day one!

  • does this game have any raytracing like raytraced shadows or raytraced global illumination? doesn’t need it the lighting looks incredible and vibrant reminds me of the mighty infamous second son and ghost of tsushima

  • Now im sold on the game. Preorder incoming!!!!

  • Selene is Greek? Nice!!

  • Really hoping this new franchise from PlayStation WorldWide Studios succeeds! I can’t even imagine what a Returnal 2 would look like! Its fun to think about though.

  • This is gonna be amazing and im stoked for it, but lets not forget we still need Bloodborne Remastered

  • Editor: fix the fourth paragraph.

  • I wasn’t into Doom 2016, I only played it for 2 hours but it felt weirdly stale.

    I feel very different about this game I’m really into roguelites so I’m excited this game sounds a lot like Hades, and even a good bit of horror/mystery thrown into a traditional shooter.

  • Download it directly into my veins already!

  • Still concerned about the difficulty. I’ll wait until I see some reviews that talk about this. My reflexes are not what they were. :(

    • Same here, I’m waiting for the reviews and let’s plays…

    • Me too – the game looks really good though. Control with the assistance of a Walkthrough was a fine level of difficulty. Demons souls is pretty much too difficult for me to truly enjoy!

  • @Gillian McAllister
    Super stoked for this game and love seeing sony work with Housemarque. However I’d like Sony to give some attention to Futurlabs, you guys did them dirty after Velocity 2X, as a result fans of this long standing series that has seen its start on Sony Platforms has the last chapter sitting in limbo. Kai Tana deserves to see her adventure come to a close in Velocity Supernova. Please open talks to bring an evolved PS4/5 experience to PlayStation gamers. If I could go back and skip getting Velocity 2X for free from PS+ I would just to help their sales numbers. PS+ hurt them, when they supplied you with a good will effort. I now own steam and switch versions of the game. A Limited Run release for PS Vita and Switch to get my grubby hands on a physical copy. If Housemarque can get a chance at what is a wild game then surely Futurlabs can get a shot at finishing their saga.

  • Looks and sounds awesome. Especially the DualSense features and 3D audio. I wish they’d show and really explain the rogue-lite parts of the game. What do you keep, what do you lose upon death. Do you just learn where these portals are after beating a boss of a biome to get back to the biome you’re currently stuck on? etc.

  • Can’t wait to play. Looks pretty solid. Also reminds me a little of “Risk of Rain 2” but in first person.

  • Did you guys notice they are not releasing a physical copy of this and Ratchet and Clank? We are stuck in paying 80 euros until they put it on sale in their own store. This is the beginning folks. Ps5 will be the last Playstation with a disc version.

  • Day one! The audiovisuals look great and as a longtime fan I am certain you guys will nail the gameplay/game design.

  • I’m absolutely stoked for this game! Housemarque is a fantastic developer, and Returnal is looking excellent! I don’t tend to pre-order games much, to be honest, but I pre-ordered the Deluxe edition of this asap. Now the agonizing wait to release! :( :(

  • But when are we getting storage expansion?!!! how are we installing these new games and making the most of our amazing PS5 SSD?! my internal stoarge has been full for some time and i only have a few games installed.

  • Super stoked for this! First big fully fledged PS5 exclusive outside of demon souls. Preordered

  • Please implement motion/gyroscopic aiming as an option for those who like it. The Dualsense carries the best gyro sensor among controllers, but you can count in a hand the number of games that make use of it (TLoU2, Days Gone, Rogue Company… maybe one or two more I missed – and those are all PS4 games, which also had a great sensor on the DS4). At the very least the first-party games should have the option for granted, and not just as a “nice bonus”.

    • I think every game should have gyroscope aiming.
      Recently, on another platform, I used a gyroscope (I think everyone understood which platform we were talking about) it was an indescribable feeling, mouse accuracy and the convenience of a gamepad. in addition, the gyroscope gives much more immersion to the game. I really hope that this is what will become the next generation.

  • Cannot wait for this. Absolutely excited for the upcoming Ps5 exclusives since Demons Souls was a massive hit for me. April gonna be an awesome month with Republic commando and this coming out!

  • Huh? Exclusive? What does that mean?

    *googles it*

    Oh, put it on every platform. Got it. 👍

    • Jim Ryan states “A whole slate of PS games going to PC”
      Eventually, PC will be the best place to play PS games and MS games.

  • Make an official PS.Blog post announcing the closure of legacy PlayStation Store services for PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita, including PSOne Classics, PS2 Classics, and PlayStation minis content.

    Own up to this company’s direction and be upfront with your erstwhile community regarding this severely anti-consumer, anti-developer, and anti-legacy decision with no disclosed plans for decades of experiences beyond the insufficient premise of PlayStation Now rotation.

    We deserve to know beyond a one-off e-mail, and Somy deserves direct feedback from its providers.

    • They didn’t make one about the closure of Studio Japan either…

      Or the stopping the sale of the Vita in Europe (for no reason) a few years after it came out…

      They generally don’t mention doing anything bad…

    • You guys in America cant complain jack about the price of $70. Here in Sweden games wasnt even that cheap 5 years ago. Returnal costs 849:- on psn on launch wich is about $98,5. Thats a bit much.

  • Returnal doesn’t look 70 dollars worth to you??? Just wait 30 days bc this game will go on sale and then pick it up.

  • I’m a huge fan of the look and setting of this game, from the sci-fi horror to the timeloop concept, and I’m definitely picking this game up day one. I did want to ask if everything resets on death or if you carried some things over in every cycle? I’m guessing the exploration tools carry over so you can progress in the story without a total restart on any death, but will my character feel stronger, hit harder, or last longer with upgrades kept in each cycle or will it always be dependent on the gear you get? Any answers appreciated!

  • Day one purchase and looking forward to this game a lot 👍🏽

  • Please listen to your fans and start adding gyro aiming! I am willing to pay $100 for this game if this is added here.
    we live in the 21st century and I really want to believe that in a new generation of games will begin to support gyroscope control. Please make the game feel even more comfortable.

  • $100 with tax is way to expensive for a single game. Definitely ain’t buying digital to save the tax either after the terrible decisions Sony is making by closing the PS3, PSP, and Vita’s store. Not supporting the PS Store anymore.

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