Returnal (PS5) Review: Is It Overrated?
Before we get into the review, I just want to say that I played the heck out of this game this past 3 week and I really enjoyed it. The point of this video is to review the game from a completionist perspective, from someone who has spent more than 40 hours with the game, because many of the reviews I’ve watched from some larger channels sound like they haven’t beaten the game, similar to the general audience who pick up the game. So if this review resonates with you, leave a like, comment, or consider subscribing.
I’ve only gotten a few platinum trophies for games, or 100% the achievements, but this is one of the few instances I have. After spending the past few days mulling over in my head if I really love the game or think its an overrated, I’m still on the fence, and don’t think I’ll be able to decide anytime soon. In this review and discussion I’ll tell you why. I feel a lot of the initial reviews for the game have only played through the first few hours of the game, as seen by their videos only showcasing the first 2 (of 6 biomes). And not only for the reason to prevent spoilers, but because they actually didn’t finish the game themselves.
Its understandable because people are most interested in reviews right when the game releases, so most major channels with publish a review even if they haven’t completed it yet for those precious, precious views and ad monies. Even with review copies (which regardless of what reviewers say will inevitable lead to biased viewpoints), there's no guarantee the person beat the game or spent more time after the initial credits roll to see how the game fares for those unlocking more of the game’s collectables and secrets. While its more honest to post a first impressions or in-progess review, it doesn’t have the same weight for those people looking for a score or wanting to know if its good or not, as if reviews aren’t subjective anyway. I know I also have this mindset and miss out on a lot of great games because of minor, or overblown flaws, while buying games that get universal acclaim but I never finish because its just not my style of game.
If you want me to get to the point with Returnal, TLDR, then yes I think everyone should buy and play this game. I think its important to support developers that try new things and not just blindly throw money at big developers that overpromise and underdeliver. I’m glad to hear that the developers of Returnal, Housemarque, a lesser known development team based out of Finland, recently got bought out or acquired by Sony, after a successful launch. It was put front and center as one of PS5’s exclusives that Sony desperately needs during this first year of the PS5’s launch.
While definitely a GOY contender so far and I see it winning many awards for different categories by the end of the year, I’ll start with what Returnal does well and some of my criticisms that has me so divided on this game. First and foremost the combat is fun, fast paced, and responsive. The thing that sets this game apart from other roguelike games, which while does include many of the traditional features that define its genre, are its stellar graphics and 3rd person perspective. I’ve grown tried of playing 2d roguelikes, both from indie and larger studios, and it isn’t a genre that I love due to its repetition. Not considering souls-like games in this category, I would without a doubt say Returnal is my favorite Roque-like game so far, but also consider I haven’t played games like Hades and Dead Cells which are also in this genre.
I major plus for me, but also a negative in many players mind is the difficulty. There is no changing the difficulty and you are going to die a lot. I would not recommend this to the casual gamer that has a short attention span or gets frustrated easily, as once you set the game down for too long you’ll lose the progress you made getting better at the game and less likely to see it through to the end. While I think this is a good entry point for those that have never played a roguelike, its probably not going to win you over if you don’t like roguelike mechanics. A lot of repetition, areas that are obviously inaccessible without specific items, randomness, and some luck. It basically has all the same elements of Enter the Gungeon, but with a few improvement I’ll mention later.
The part of the game is essential to its success is the combat, since that’ll be what you spend your most time doing, and if that wasn’t solid everything else would fall apart. You find a large variety of interesting weapons, which all feel distinct that fit with the alien world esthetic. This includes the shotgun like Spitmaw Blaster that is good at close quarters, the Tachyomatic Carbine that is an accurate semiautomatic rifle for longer distances, or more unique weapons like the Electropylon Driver that shoots out electrified tethers that connect to points you fire, which can be attached to the ground, between walls, or directly to enemies that can quickly tick away enemy health while you position yourself away from enemies.
Not only will you find different weapons but each weapon has one of about half a dozen alt-firing modes, which is activated if you pull the left trigger used for aiming all the way down instead of half way used for looking down the sights for regular bullets. These alt-fire options do a massive amount of damage and take a while to recharge. And then on top of the type of weapon, the type of alt-fire option, you also can get random affixes on your weapon, upto 4 on a single gun by the time you reach the final biome. You unlock these affixes by using the gun to kill enemies, and once they are unlocked they are saved for subsequent runs. These affixes can give you more rounds, burst fire, armor piercing, increase stagger damage, and vary for each weapon. Even after my 40hrs with the game, I still haven’t unlocked all the affixes giving me a constant feeling that there will always be some benefit from each run even for those completionist players. Killing more difficult enemies reminded me of lot of RPGs or looter shooters where you look forward to killing that mob of enemies for that next weapon upgrade, looking for specific affixes to drop, such as leech damage and can be a game changer as it heals you for a portion of damage done.
Together with the haptic feedback and sound of the weapons, not only when they fire but when they hit an enemy all add to the combat feeling fluid and precise, something that is crucial with the difficulty of the game. I also have to spend more time gushing about the music, voice overs, and overall sound of the game. Everything from the sound effects of the enemies, audio feedback of bullets hitting your targets, to the rustling of the environments as you move from one place to another is amazing and adds to the immersiveness of the game.
Technically the game is considered more roque-lite since there are ways to advance and carry over progress after each run, making you feel that each run is worthwhile even if you don’t get too far. Some items are permanent and kept after you start a new run. Other than unlocked weapon affixes, another thing that is saved between runs is a resource called ether, that can be used to make your runs easier if you save them up. They allow you to bypass the negative effect of items infected with malignancy that would cause a suit malfunction. These malfunctions can range from something as insignificant to taking fall damage from long falls or something as really detrimental as taking damage each time you pick up an item. You also can’t just stack a bunch of malfunctions because when you get a 3rd one, you automatically suffer a critical malfunction that destroys a randomly carried item, such as beneficial artifact that increase your stats or end up reducing your overall health (called integrity) if don’t have any items. Some items and chests have a higher chance of inflicting malfunctions that others, again adding another element of chance/luck. But you can remove malfunctions by meeting specific conditions, that also range in difficulty such as collecting obilites (which you get from enemies and scattered around each level), using consumables, or performing melee kills. So the balance between risking picking up a malignant item, suffering through the negative effects of its malfunctions, and seeing conditions to get rid of them is a fun mechanic. There are also parasites (which you can carry up to 5) that give you a benefit, but also a downside. These are also random so you’ll be going around seeing if the benefit is worth the risk.
That’s where one of my complaints with the nature of roguelikes come in, and how much randomness and luck is involved. Sometimes you might get on a lucky streak, or unlucky streak, that can make your run easier or really difficult. You might get a mystery room can lead to extra 100 oblites for more making purchasing that artifact you want easier, or take you to a room where you have to fight a difficult monster that you are not prepared for. You might find a weapon, key, item, collectable, or new room on your 2nd run or have to replay the level dozens of times to get it. You can see this as fun and increasing replayability or more tedious after playing the same biome what feels like your 50th time, and not getting what you need. When I was younger I loved long games and getting value out of them, but know that I have a backlog of a dozen games I want to play, replayability is not high on my priority list for game features.
Another thing I loved about the game is that it has an interesting story, which usually takes a back seat in other roguelike games. It combines sci-fi, Lovecraftian monsters, and Greek mythology into a universe you piece together little by little as you go through your journey. The trailers show the main character Selene crashing loading on a mysterious planet after receiving a strange signal from the surface, but after crash landing needs to find her way to the signal and somehow make it off the planet as well. But after dying finds herself in some timeloop where she continues to start over from the point of the crash.
This point I’ll go into the few negatives I had with the game. The first and foremost is that when I was playing the game there was a good portion of the game where I couldn’t finish it because the game would keep crashing, and I wasted a good 6-8 hours of my time. It involved both my game closing automatically or my PS5 hard crashing and turning off, needing to hold down the power button on the console to bring it back on. This is also considering I was playing this game about 2 months after release and probably more prevalent right after release, but I haven’t heard many any reviews mention this serious issue because it made the game unplayable, especially for this type of game that doesn’t save. Actually, it did save and simply treated all these crashed games as deaths, since the ether I used during that run was gone. It could be a rare issue that only affects a small minority of PS5, or this is more prevalent and reviews didn’t mention it because they actually didn’t play as much of the game as they claimed to. It mostly affected me during the final 6th and final biome. After I tried uninstalling and reinstalling the game did it allow me to get past the final biome without crashing. But I have experienced about a total of 6-8 crashes so far during my playtime, which is some of the worst I’ve experienced in any game ever. Including many notoriously buggy games. By the time of this video’s release, there could have been a patch to fix the crashing I am referring to, but like Cyberpunk 2077 there should be no excuse for games with critical bugs that cause crashing like this, especially on consoles. While casual runs can be 30mins to an hour, some of my runs where upto 4 hours so crashing at the end of one of these long runs building up your character slowly and having your game crash is devastating. While you can put your console on sleep mode and resume whenever you want, its hard to guarantee that the PS5 won’t update closing all apps, or simply crash during that time.
Another gripe I have is that while I mentioned that there are 6 biomes in the game, its essentially 3 main ones, with some tweaks added to the existing ones for the next 3. The game is broken up into two main chapters, each with 3 biomes, and you can’t carry your progress from one chapter to the next. But you can carry over your progress with a chapter, so if your struggling on biome 3 you can spend more time on the previous 2 biomes to collect items that make your character stronger before heading to the that 3rd biome. While not going into spoilers, it definitely isn’t 6 drastically different biomes that I thought they were going to be. A shame since I loved the level design and levels that they did have.
A quality of life improvement that this game does implement for the genre of roguelikes, compared to a game such as Enter the Gungeon, is that after you beat a boss, you can don’t have to beat them again and can take a shortcut to that new biome you unlocked with a permanent item. And at the beginning of that new biome there is always an item that increases your proficiently level of items to the level of the enemies so that the guns you find will not be underpowered and take forever to kill the enemies that now have more life. I enjoyed the freedom to skip or reply bosses at the end of each biome, and glad I wasn’t forced to repeat bosses like other roguelike games, even If I considered them on the easier side.
Speaking of the bosses, while they initially look daunting and have different mechanics as you get them lower in health, they aren’t actually has hard as some of the areas leading upto them. They key to most boss encounters is just to keep moving and you will most likely dodge most their attacks, while occasionally jumping or dashing based on their telegraphed movement. I found that some of the larger non-boss enemies and the challenge rooms you will encounter in the stages where definitely harder, as instead of just one boss you would have many monsters of different types spawning coming at you from different angles, and in multiple waves that where much more difficult to manage. Not to mention enemies that have shields that require you to get close and perform a melee attack to break.
The last thing I want to mention is the game’s conclusion. While I said I liked the story, the ending and even the secret ending you unlock after putting in more time into the game left me with more questions then answers. If you like stories that are confusing and left to interpretation, you would probably enjoy it, but with no official ending perspective from the devs I haven’t been able to find a conclusive explanation, even after reading as much fan theories as I could find. And after getting the platinum trophy and re-reading all the collectables, documents, and watching the cutscenes with a new perspective, I’ve settled on one that makes sense but if true would mean that most people are misinterpreting the ending. Unless Housemarque does a direct squeal which is unlikely, I doubt we will ever get concrete answers.
And that’s it for my thoughts on Returnal. I was thinking of doing a ending theory video for the explanation of the story I think is correct. Let me know what you all thought of the game if you beat it, and keep it spoiler free for this video. I’m excited to see more games from this studio in the future, weather that’s DLC, a sequel, or new IP.
I appreciate everyone who listened to my thoughts about the game and checking out this video or reading the blog post. I don’t have any sponsors or have enough subs for monetization, so any feedback in the form or a like, comment, or checking out my other videos helps. So until next time, have a great day!