Preview: Returnal — Exceeding expectations

After a month and a half of extra waiting, we finally got our hands on Returnal, the much awaited first party game from Housemarque, a studio that you may not heard of but will definitely know of after next week.

It’s a breath of fresh air, finally feeling how the game plays rather than just watching wave upon wave of preview videos and trailers explaining to us how it’s played.

Based on trailers alone, the easiest way to describe Returnal is “Hades with a gun”. Whether that is the case remains to be seen, and I’m really hoping that it is because I enjoyed Hades so much and I hope this game pretty much delivers a somewhat similar experience.

Take note that this preview only covers the first 2 levels of the game, and we will be releasing a full review soon, so watch out for that!

In space nobody can hear you monologue

You play a deep-space science operative, Selene, marooned on the Planet of Atropos while investigating the enigmatic “White Shadow” signal. While the trailers really provide a lot of context, going into the game blind will leave you with some head-scratching, as you’re merely thrown into Atropos without any explanation.

Right away, you explore a forest area named Overgrown Ruins, and everything, both flora and fauna, want to kill you. You’re introduced to a fast-paced bullet hell environment and you’ll be equipped with a sidearm along with some dashing and running. It’s everything you need to survive this planet, right?

This is the way.

Afterwards, you’re faced off against a larger creature that takes very little chip damage and shoots projectiles at you at a greater deal of speed. As much as you try to hold on, two melee swings at you and you’re dead. Then you wake up at the crash site, just like how you started with all your power-ups gone. This is the loop, and it’ll be your new normal until you break the cycle. Welcome to Atropos. Welcome to Returnal.

I’m playing on a PS5!

For the last six months, my experience with the PS5 felt as if I’ve been playing a PS4 with upgraded internals and not much of anything else. Sure, the load times and visuals are significantly better and yet, why don’t I get the feel of “next generation”? Returnal is probably the first game that really highlights what the PS5 could do, and does it right.

Immediately in the first few scenes of the game, the haptic feedback puts you inside of Selene’s space ship. Every vibration from the afterburners and even the blips of her communication device, you could feel with the haptics. As you crash land on Atropos, even the pitter-patter of the rain is felt on the controller. If Astro’s Playroom was the gold standard for which haptics was to be judged on, Returnal is right up there with it, providing a real sense of place, allowing for deeper immersion and making haptic feedback more than just a marketing keyword.

When the action begins, I remember the feel of what Astro’s Playroom provided when we could feel the adaptive triggers in chorus with the haptic feedback. The fast-paced action of Returnal comes alive with just the Dualsense alone – the controls are sublime and responsive, and every action feels satisfying.

One more thing that Returnal completely excels at is its use of 3D audio, which was another marketing buzzword until now. It is one of the shining features of the game, and it is very much recommended to play this game with a good set of cans to fully realize how much work was put into just the audio design alone.

Combine that with gorgeous 4K 60fps gameplay and it really just brings the “next-gen” tag to life. It’s been a long six-month wait.

Everything great and frustrating with a rogue-lite

You’ll have to understand that Returnal is probably a game that not everyone will like due to the nature of its gameplay being a rogue-lite shooter. However, that’s the challenge and the beauty of the game, you die but you’re gifted with the knowledge and experience of your last run. You would know where to go, how to deal with enemy types and what strategy to implement. You come back a little stronger, a little wiser, and then you have to do that all over again.

Every run will be completely different altogether and paired with the procedurally generated levels, which always tempts to you explore one more room, the experience is quite refreshing. The world that Housemarque has built in Returnal is a feast for the eyes. Each biome (level) is distinct in look and feel, with its inhabitants looking like something straight from a sci-fi horror movie ala Aliens.

If anything, I feel that Returnal introduces you to a lot of information right off the bat that it would take a bit of time to fully figure out what each item and system does and how it helps you advance through the world, some of which you won’t even know until hours into the game. Even parts of the UI are quite challenging to sort out at first, making it hard to find the information you need. These are minor issues that don’t really take away from the experience as a whole because while the difficulty can be brutal at times, the game is also fair.

Hades with a gun?

From what I’m seeing so far, I’m agreeing more and more with this statement. While the isometric top-down view from Hades is so much more different than the 3rd person bullet hell shooter, they do have their parallels. Yet, I’m also seeing shades of the recently released Outriders in the game.

Roguelites could go either way, as some players could really get turned off with the prospect that you don’t get to keep everything that they’ve worked hard for. However, I feel that the great part about Returnal moving forward is learning about the mystery of Atropos and how it is connected to the backstory of Selene, which proves to be a great motivator to keep moving and it is great how Housemarque have integrated this deeply into the game.

There are areas in the map that link to Selene’s past, there are literal doors that she doesn’t want to open in that nice little house from her memory and she could retrieve artifacts that could be used as a way to help you push forward in the game.

Every run is a “new” experience, but they follow the same roundabout goal to get to the next stage of your mission. Circumstances would differ of course, and the more you learn from your mistakes, the quicker you can progress and hopefully break the cycle once and for all.

Returnal is promising, and if my first few hours of the game is any indication at all, then I look forward to a lot of “gitting gud” in my foreseeable future.

Returnal will launch on April 30, exclusive on the PS5.

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