PlayStation 5's first true console exclusive has arrived in the form of Returnal, a roguelite third-person bullet-hell shooter that perfectly balances rage-inducing challenge with addictive gameplay.
Space explorer Selene crash lands on the planet of Atropos while attempting to investigate a strangely familiar signal that her ship has picked up. Investigating the area around the crash site, Selene finds a dead body – it's her own corpse, lying next to her missing gun. Moving further away from the site, she soon discovers that not only is the planet is alive and constantly changing but it's also inhabited by seriously hostile creatures, and she's stuck in an infinite loop of death and rebirth...
Returnal pushes players through a series of objectives as they traverse half a dozen areas across the planet. Every time Selene dies, the sequence of rooms within each area changes along with the placement of enemies within it. Weapons, upgrades and consumable items also vary with every new beginning, as do the plethora of parasites and “malignant” items which give all manner of useful bonuses but also inflict some less-desirable side effects. The constant changes make any one playthrough (known here as a “cycle”) feel different to the others, which keeps you on your toes even when you find yourself repeating the same level multiple times. Whatever happens, when Selene dies, everything she's gained (apart from previously-met story objectives and a handful of permanent abilities that are unlocked throughout the game) is lost and it's back to the ship to start another cycle.
Combat is fast and furious, with nimble foes darting around the room throwing all manner of laser blasts and projectiles in your general direction. Selene's dash is able to outmanoeuvre many of these, and a variety of weapons are available to take the aliens down with. You're only able to carry one gun at a time, but there are plenty to be found throughout the game and all come equipped with a couple of alternate fire options as well as a handful of randomly-generated stats and abilities. As Selene's weapon proficiency increases and her adrenaline builds (by killing three enemies in a row without taking damage), her firepower gets stronger and other bonuses can be awarded that make the alien hordes slightly easier to deal with.
The randomly-generated nature of roguelites means that some cycles will be more successful (and enjoyable) than others, and a good run can last much longer than you might have anticipated. Returnal's only real issue is its lack of a save feature to allow players to turn the game off and return to their current position at a later date – here, your progress is lost if you close the game mid-cycle, and you'll be back at the ship next time you boot the game up. It isn't a calamitous decision, but certainly an odd and inconvenient one that could be remedied by the inclusion of some sort of restore point.
Returnal takes the best bits of the roguelite genre, polishes everything up with a beautiful coat of shiny new-gen paint and wraps it all up in a weird but thrilling sci-fi / horror narrative. The mechanics might be a bit confusing at first for those who are less familiar with roguelites, but once you've figured out how everything works it quickly becomes one of those games that always manages to pull you back in for one more try. Those looking for a new roguelite to get stuck into won't go far wrong with Returnal.
Release date: out now