It's challenging to introduce Returnal without immediately mentioning the debate around difficulty it has sparked.
Like Sekiro: Shadow Die Twice in 2019, and many other games before it, Housemarque's roguelike third-person shooter shipped with only one difficulty level and sparked an intense debate among press and consumers alike.
Needless to say that the difficulty level in question is far from being user-friendly.
The Washington Post's reviewer, Gene Park, actually didn't score the game because he wasn't able to make it to the second area of the game in time for publication.
"I can't call this a review," he wrote. "I didn't get very far in Returnal, and it's not for lack of trying. The game is tough for me -- and I play Dark Souls to relax."
Returnal is a PS5 exclusive from the studio that previously brought Resogun and Nex Machina to players. Its Metacritic score stands at a very good 86 at the time of writing, which is on a par with previous title Nex Machina: Death Machine.
"Developer Housemarque has blended the ever-changing levels and permadeath of roguelikes into a game that is otherwise a blockbuster third-person shooter," said TechRadar's Vic Hood in her 4.5/5 review. "Returnal is centered around space pilot Selene, who crashes her ship, Helios, on an alien planet called Atropos. But Atropos is stuck in a time loop, meaning that each time Selene dies -- and she will die frequently -- she begins a new life cycle starting at the crash site. Equipped with a high-tech suit, Selene sets out to battle her way across Atropos and break the loop, which will allow her to escape."
"I didn't get very far in Returnal, and it's not for lack of trying. The game is tough for me -- and I play Dark Souls to relax."
Gene Park, The Washington Post
In his 4/5 review for GamesRadar+, Ben Tyrer labelled Returnal an "Alien-meets-Groundhog-Day nightmare." The title incorporates all the usual tropes of a roguelike, but in AAA package. Like most roguelikes, the randomised aspect of what you'll find during each run is what will make or break you. Rooms and what's in them will change every time, and you'll lose your weapon and any advantage you might have when you die.
"This is a hardcore game, and I'm not saying that just because I am, unfortunately, a game journalist," wrote TheGamer's Kirk McKeand in his 3.5/5 review. "I know that automatically makes people think I'm just crap, but Returnal is harder than a right hook from Mike Tyson in his prime. It's harder than a rocket-propelled diamond. It's harder than simply existing during pandemic times. It's hard. I also don't think it's particularly fair. The random nature of equipment drops means you're often at the mercy of RNG. I didn't beat that boss because I figured it out, I beat it because I happened to have the right equipment. The RNG can screw you just as easily."
Dying will at least give you the opportunity to learn more about the world you're in and a chance to get permanent buffs, which should ease the pain. But these are unfortunately few and far between.
"There's a serious lack of persistent upgrades in Returnal, and it sometimes makes progression feel like a thankless task," Hood said. "A bit of flexibility here could have done wonders. While beating a really tough boss feels amazing, you're brought crashing back down to earth when after your next death you realize that you lost the good loot you got from them."
Some may also find the title a bit repetitive. While you can unlock shortcuts as you progress and won't necessarily have to start from the very beginning every time, Hood indicated that runs still tend to be long. If repeating the same core loop is the essence of roguelikes, very few manage to make it feel exciting every run.
So it's fair to say at this point that Returnal is not the type of game that will click with everyone. But those who do click with this loop that's inherent to roguelikes will feel right at home.
"The main reason you'll want to come to Returnal is the game's combat, an evolution of Housemarque's signature run and gun style that introduces a significant risk/reward dynamic," Tyrer wrote. "Killing enemies will increase Selene's Adrenaline levels, which grant perks such as bigger active reload windows or enhanced melee attacks, but take one hit and you'll have to build them up again. Add on a combination of well-balanced weapons and challenging enemies, which really sings once the screen is overflowing, and it's a combat loop you'll happily trap yourself in."
The game's combat [is] an evolution of Housemarque's signature run and gun style that introduces a significant risk/reward dynamic"
Ben Tyrer, GamesRadar+
McKeand added that there's something "intoxicating" about Returnal's "high-speed, high-stakes combat."
"It's the video game equivalent of riding a unicycle over a canyon while juggling balls and balancing a pin on the end of your nose," he wrote. "I didn't feel like a master by the time the credits rolled, but I can inelegantly make it across the canyon now. Dashing towards a turret and taking advantage of generous invincibility-frames before jumping at the last moment and cutting the turret down with a laser sword never gets old. It's just a shame the constant trekking does, even with Returnal's metroidvania-esque navigational upgrades peppered along the game's progression curve."
The game's world, while unforgiving, is also visually stunning, most reviewers noted. McKeand said that the variety of the biomes you explore, and how gorgeous they are, is what takes the sting out of the repetition.
"The first biome's dark forest is filled with bioluminescent flora and long grass that blows around in the heat of battle," he wrote. "Get closer to the heart of the long-dead xeno civilization and you will see synthetic materials mixed with organic -- metal bones jutting out of mud walls because of some otherworldly construction method and the ravages of time.
"In combat, pillars and statues crumble into dust as red-hot death whizzes and crackles through the air. There are mummified monuments and spinal cord flora, flying manta rays and hungry tendrils drooping down -- so much to see from the initial forest to frozen tundras, all the way to the abyssal deep."
"It's the video game equivalent of riding a unicycle over a canyon while juggling balls and balancing a pin on the end of your nose"
Kirk McKeand, The Gamer
Returnal also makes the most of the PlayStation 5's power and features, from the DualSense's haptic feedback to 3D audio, making it feel like next-gen has finally started.
"While Returnal is not a blockbuster at heart, it's also Sony's biggest PS5 exclusive since launch, and the game should satisfy anyone looking for an experience that gives their DualSense and headphones a workout," Tyrer wrote. "Rain feels like it's coming through your controller with the pitter-patter effect of the DualSense, while a clever use of the triggers lets you aim by pulling the LT a little, and using a weapon's alt-fire by bringing it in fully. Letting a volley of projectiles fly while your controller buzzes away is an endless simple pleasure."
Hood added that Returnal's "downright mesmerizing environment makes for one of the most immersive gaming experiences we've enjoyed to date, outside of VR."
"If you're playing with headphones, which allow for PS5 3D spatial audio, Returnal's environment truly comes to life," she continued. "You can hear the slithering of the world's creatures in the background, the rumble of a storm in the distance, and the raindrops falling on Selene's helmet."
The comparisons with roguelike hit Hades are inevitable and Supergiant's title was mentioned left, right and center in most reviews. But where Hades' core loop supports a compelling narrative, Returnal's story is where things start becoming divisive among critics, as some reviewers highlighted that death doesn't actually further the game's narrative in a very meaningful way.
"As committed as it is to having a narrative, it's not committed to that narrative actually being modified by the countless deaths you rack up," wrote Dia Lacina in her 6/10 review for Paste Magazine. "Runs and their eventual deaths in Hades change and deepen character relationships. Death in Pathologic 2 sets the player on a completely different narrative trajectory that fractures and fragments the gameworld, poking holes at its realities in cheeky and dramatic ways.
"As committed as it is to having a narrative, it's not committed to that narrative actually being modified by the countless deaths you rack up
Dia Lacina, Paste Magazine
"Here, death is just a new start, with less of your cool shit, and a reconfiguration of rooms. And it doesn't even have the decency to be quick about starting you back up. But it tries to be cinematic by replaying a frantic prestige television montage of the moments before you awaken again having crashed on the mysterious alien world of Atropos."
Returnal has an exploration aspect that Lacina compared to Tomb Raider, as you collect lore items to understand more of the world you're in and slowly uncover more aspects of the story. But unfortunately, it didn't seem to be enough.
"As I sped through the game, I started to care less and less," Lacina continued. "I didn't want to spend time in the world, I wanted to master it. Atropos was boring; progressing through biomes became a blur of asset changes and memorizations, and I stopped to collect audio logs from other runs. And slowly (excruciatingly slowly) the narrative revealed itself, but by the time I set the controller down and started writing this review, I didn't care. Selene isn't interesting, and if I don't care about this generic white space lady, I'm sure not going to care about White Shadow, which you're tasked with pursuing relentlessly for hours with no explanation of what it even is or why."
One key part of the story revolves around a house you can encounter during your runs and explore in segments that many compared to Hidea Kojima's PT.
"While trips into the house are very much Horror 101, a few misdirects followed by the occasional jump scare, they help create a sense of mystery that you want to unravel as you embark on each new cycle," Tyrer said.
It's hard to deny that Housemarque has done something different with Returnal, blending a roguelike with a blockbuster third-person shooter
Vic Hood, TechRadar
One common sentiment was that the enjoyment people get from the title will very much depend on their ability to persevere.
In his unscored review, The Washington Post's Park noted that he loves challenging games, but not just for the sake of challenge. "Returnal offers more, but at least for me, it wasn't enough," he said.
However, Hood argued that it's the perfect game for those who love a challenge "with a big extra behind it."
"It's a game of risk, with its unpredictability defining the degree of challenge more than the enemies themselves," she said. "When Returnal is challenging, it's punishingly so, and we often found ourselves stuck for hours on end at certain points -- with the unpredictability meaning strategy could only get us so far, we had to just hope that our next run of loot was luckier than the last. But it's hard to deny that Housemarque has done something different with Returnal, blending a roguelike with a blockbuster third-person shooter -- and creating an arcade bullet hell that's different to anything we've seen from Sony before."
McKeand said Returnal is one of the most satisfying third-person shooter he's ever played.
"It's Hades via Vanquish," he wrote. "It forces you to meet it at its tempo and doesn't relent. It makes Doom Eternal seem like Baby's First Shooter. It's gorgeous, frenetic, and endlessly replayable. I just wish success wasn't so tied to luck, which only exacerbates any frustrations you have when repeatedly trekking through areas you've already beaten. Even after the credits rolled, I felt satisfied, but that satisfaction was also mixed with relief -- the ordeal was finally over and the chiropractor's elbow has been removed from the small of my back."
Finally, Lacina noted that Returnal could have been a fantastic "flashy arcade shooter" but Housemarque missed the mark.
"They could have shown From Software everything that went wrong with Chalice Dungeons while putting Bungie to shame with their space shooting and breakneck platforming," she wrote. "But in the end, Housemarque decided to choose a path that split their focus, and delivered us an expensive looking game that plays well enough at times, but never gels together with the story that's undeserving of the attention it's being given despite never being given enough attention to make it interesting."