If you want fancy dying over and over but always getting the chance to respawn, this game’s for you, writes PAT PILCHER.
Returnal, the latest sprawling PS5 third-person shooter, is one of the most addictive, challenging and frustrating titles I’ve played in some time. It might be a challenging game, but it is utterly compelling and will put even the most seasoned gamer through their paces.
Perhaps the most prominent feature (and annoyance) is that you die – a lot. Each time you die, you must effectively start from scratch. Thankfully dying is not a pointless waste. Each time you respawn, you learn more of the game’s story and sometimes get access to intel to help you level up.
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It might be exasperatingly challenging, but it is also incredibly addictive. This is thanks to gorgeous PS5 eye candy, the clever use of the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback/adaptive triggers and Sony’s 3D audio. All told, Returnal offers up some engaging and immersive gameplay.
Returnal’s plot centres around Selene. She’s crashed her spaceship on the planet Atropos. It soon becomes apparent (like when you die) that Atropos is caught in a time loop. Each time Selene dies (and she does this a lot), she starts afresh at her ship’s crash site.
The twist, however, is quite neat. Atropos is divided into a selection of biomes, and these randomly change up whenever Selene respawns. New layouts, new baddies and yup, more dying. It doesn’t get boring but having to go through the first biome to where Selene bought the farm can be really time-consuming if she croaked in the 6th biome. Thankfully, there’s plenty of eye candy to wonder at, and everything is fresh each of the many, many times you die.
Players do get an assist that comes in the handy form of a map that helps you work out where you’ve been. Game objectives are also highlighted, which adds some much-needed direction to gameplay.
In-game combat is intuitive and, dare I say it, fun. Selene begins with a single wussy pistol. Throughout the game, she uncovers increasingly useful weapons. There are 10 weapons, each with an alt-fire mode. These range from the pistol to a shotgun, assault rifle, sword, and others. Each weapon has different traits, and each is suited to specific enemies. Because of this, there’s a tonne of trial, error (and yep, death) involved.
As well as weapons, there are also in-game powerups, otherwise known as artefacts. These can upgrade Selene’s ability in combat or enhance her protection from what baddies inflict on her.
Another powerup takes the form of an alien device at the crash site. Put in a certain amount of a material called Ether into the machine and you get artefact goodies in return. If you are playing online mode, you can even get artefacts generated from the bodies of other players. Then there are Parasites. These can give your weapons a powerup. Parasites or malignant items can also cause Selene’s spacesuit to crap out, requiring her to complete some pointless tasks to fix her suit. Speaking of weapons and powerups, here’s the clincher. When you die, you lose these. It can make the game feel like a bit of a slog sometimes.
Given that the game involves a lot of death and respawning, it thankfully also takes full advantage of the PS5’s next-gen goodies. First and foremost is the SSD. Thanks to this super speedy piece of tech, wait times for respawning often feel seamless. The other area that makes Returnal a distinctly next-gen title is the haptic feedback. It isn’t in your face but adds to gameplay without being a distraction. Then there’s the audio. Using a good pair of gaming headphones, I was able to hear Atropa’s many creatures in the background, and even the subtle yet immersive sound of raindrops falling on Selene’s space helmet. Visually, Returnal uses dynamic lighting effects, textures, and a host of GPU tricks to craft a richly detailed world that never seems to get dull.
All told, Returnal offers a solid balance between being challenging and being addictive. It’s hard to get bored, given the constantly changing state of gameplay. Because it takes full advantage of the good stuff the PS5 can offer, it’s a visual, sonic and tactile feast for the senses too.