In Returnal, every mistake can mean that you have to start from scratch. And that happens a lot
What do you get if you mix the movie “Groundhog Day” with “Avatar” and “Prometheus” and incorporate gameplay elements from “Dark Souls”, Metroidvania and bullethell shooters? Returnal (PS5, 80 euros).
Returnal is the first real PS5 exclusive title. It’s a bold first exclusive that Sony brought out here. Not because Returnal is a bad game, but because of the level of difficulty it is sure not to appeal to the general public. The basic principle of the game alone excludes all casual gamers: Players who want to spend the evening comfortably or can only play 30 to 60 minutes in between will have a hard time with Returnal.
And the cycle greets you every day
As a space scout Selene you crash on a strange planet. While exploring, a scout’s corpse is found: it’s Selene. Then you die violently. And then you crash as a space scout Selene on a strange planet. Welcome to cycle 2 of possibly dozen.
This “Groundhog Day” principle is both fascination and frustration at the same time. Because every time you die you lose almost everything: every health upgrade, every power upgrade, found weapons, artifacts, items and the main currency. Only very few Perma upgrades remain, if you have previously laboriously unlocked them, and another currency called ether.
Doesn’t sound too bad, reminds me of the Dark Souls games. However, with each cycle of Returnal, the map is also reset, including discovered rooms and teleport points. In addition, the world changes with each cycle. Certain elements of the world and spaces are repeated over and over again, but they are arranged differently in each cycle.
It’s like being back on the planet for the first time. In addition, contrary to the many Dark Souls-like games, you cannot recover the lost items. It’s really all gone.
There is no saving
As if that weren’t enough pressure to survive, there is also a friendly warning from the developers at the start of the game: There is no saving. As soon as the game ends, regardless of the way, a new cycle begins.
Developer recommendation: Do not switch off the PS5, just put it into sleep mode. If you switch it off or if there is a power failure, the cycle starts all over again and everything you have worked hard for is lost. But even the sleep mode is dangerous. Updates are installed and downloaded automatically when in sleep mode. If an update from Returnal appears – you can probably guess it – it means back to the beginning, because the game has updated itself in sleep mode and was restarted.
If you like to play different games, you are also unlucky here: If you start another game on the PS5 and exit Returnal, you will be at the beginning of a fresh cycle the next time you start it.
Luck and bad luck
Until you finally manage to finish the sixth area in a cycle, you have invested a total of between 12 and 25 hours of play. The big difference is not only due to one’s own ability, but also has to do with luck and bad luck.
The world is structured differently in each cycle, and the enemies and objects are also distributed differently. If you are very lucky and find the right items at the right time, which fit your own style of play and to fight the bosses of the respective areas, it will be much easier to play through Returnal. If you are unlucky, you may have already invested 2 hours in a cycle only to find that with the equipment you cannot cope with the boss of the second area and can only lose.
Every step is a risk
In addition, every step in Returnal is associated with risk. Even a single hit can cost half the energy that does not regenerate automatically. And depending on the cycle and area, energy drops can be very rare. If you are hit, the previously built up adrenaline is also reset, which adds bonuses for fighting in 5 levels. So you are punished twice, simply because you were hit once or took a wrong step and fell into an abyss.
Even collecting items is risky. There are contaminated items that can cause debilitating malfunctions. Do you still want to open the contaminated chest and risk it? Then there are parasites that have positive and negative properties and can only be removed with special objects. Here, too, one ponders whether the positive properties outweigh the others.
You never know what’s waiting in the next room. Do you have enough energy left over to take a look into a room that is off the main path? What if a strong opponent lurks behind it instead of helpful items? Sometimes you just have to take the risk. Because defeating enemies and collecting certain canisters increases the fighting power. Only when this reaches the next level can you find stronger weapons. If you are not an extremely good player, you have to go through the entire area anyway in order to be able to arm yourself with the most powerful weapon possible before the next boss fight.
The fights are a constant adrenaline rush. It’s always hectic, each opponent does not fire a projectile, but several or apparently hundreds. They don’t take cover, they always attack. Some fly, others teleport and suddenly appear behind you. Even if you learn the attack patterns of the enemies, you have to adapt your tactics in a split second if several enemies of different types are attacking at the same time.
Due to the constant evasion of enemy projectiles, Returnal is strongly reminiscent of a bullethell shooter, which in connection with the “one wrong step, dead, everything from the front” type of the game is actually absurd. This is probably why it is extremely satisfying when you can use targeted dashes, melee attacks and perfectly timed reloads to clear a room full of enemies without getting hit.
The game runs in 4K at 60fps, extremely smooth and extremely responsive. Even if you keep dying, the battles against the normal opponents are so exciting and gripping that you are ready to start all over again. Frustration only arises if, after grinding in several areas, you still die again and again at the same boss and thus have the feeling that you have wasted numerous hours of gaming time.
Pandora, only more deadly
With all the stress you sometimes overlook how beautiful Returnal actually is. The first area is reminiscent of an unfriendly version of the planet Pandora from “Avatar” due to the flora and its glow. Later areas bring back memories of the style of the film “Prometheus”.
There are also details such as the moonlight shining through the foliage, wind that stirs up sand, sparks that spray from cables, fog that lies mystically on the path and divides as soon as you walk through it: when there are no enemies, you can you take a moment to take a deep breath and inhale the atmosphere. It gets stressful anyway when entering the next room.
Returnal also makes very good use of the advanced shake features of the PS5 controller to amplify the atmosphere. The differentiated shaking in the different situations and the resistance in the trigger buttons shows how the capabilities of the PS5 controller can be used sensibly in a triple A title.
Returnal is the first Dark Souls-like roguelike game that I didn’t feel the urge to uninstall after the first few tries. Maybe it’s the scifi setting, the subtle but interesting story, the potential secrets to be discovered or just the successful combat system: Something about Returnal doesn’t let me go, no matter how many cycle it is.
The game doesn’t give you anything. It is not there to caress the ego or to sweeten the end of the day. Returnal is demanding, but fair in its own way. Except for the lack of a storage option. The complete waiver of this is understandable in terms of gameplay, but at the latest when you want to play another game in between, or why the PS5 is always switched off (thanks for turning off the power, Wiener Netze), you get extremely annoyed when a good cycle is ruined has been.