Returnal (PS5) Preview – Space Ace or Returnal to Sender?

Putting a true PS5 exclusive through its paces

There were runs in Returnal where I’d be unrecognisable to the “previous run” version of myself. Technically I was always Selene, a marooned space explorer, tiptoeing through yet another episode of Groundhog Day meets H.R. Giger. However, I’d sometimes get rapidly powered-up to become death (re)incarnate – an alien killer on par with Ellen Ripley. (And I’m talking last 20 mins of Aliens, “I’ve just used duct tape to make a conjoined twin out of my pulse rifle and a flamethrower” Ripley.)

Conversely, there just as many attempts where I felt about as empowered as Newt. Yes, I was still exiting the same crashed spaceship when time rewound, but for whatever reason RNGesus wasn’t blessing me now. I’d fumble about like a wide-eyed, untrained child, armed with a piddly sidearm that may as well have been a severed dolls head. I was mostly useless.


And you know what? Whether I died in an epic blaze of glory after finishing 2/6ths of the entire game in one run or four “rooms” in due to no luck and crap hand-eye coordination, the end result was the same. I wanted another go.

Returnal Preview

You see, Returnal is a third-person shooter roguelike. It’s like every bad relationship you’ve ever been in and couldn’t get out of (possibly because the sex was phenomenal or the other party had a really sweet Voltron collection). You will crash land on the dark planet of Atropos, blast for your life across 6 biomes and you will die.

Upon instantaneously resetting back to your ship (thanks the power of SSD load times,) 90% of all the crap you collected – guns, materials, loose change, your house keys (no seriously) – shall be stripped from you.

Worse – or “better” if you dig masochism and fresh playing fields – the labyrinthine rooms you just fought through will become procedurally reconfigured. Chests are hidden behind new mechanisms, guns are re-rolled, enemy types and spawns will jack-in-the-box differently too.

Maybe in a good way. Maybe in a bad way. Oh, won’t it be fun to find out which? Come roll the dice, friend…

That’s one half of Returnal’s addiction. The other is that it looks, moves and feels like an absolute treat. Graphics-wise, it’s an eyeball-searing, “true PS5 exclusive” whose moody landscapes bloom into bullet-hells and kaleidoscopic E.T. entrails explosions. It even gear shifts every once in a while to (very briefly) moonlight as P.T., Kojima’s ill-fated first-person Silent Hill reboot. Those spooky halls of Selene’s memory – manifested as her homestead back on Earth — are intricately detailed.


Slow-paced furniture prying is a rarity, however. Returnal is all about the quick and the dead. With the right hands on the DualSense, Selene pinballs about like somebody has given Natasha Romanoff too much red cordial and asked her to cosplay Buzz Lightyear. Furthermore, Housemarque has spent decades honing its arcade shooter chops via a stream of 2D and top-down blasters. All of that “philosophy of frenetic” has been successfully translated into this new perspective.

Once more, you’re shimmying through the minute negative space of an incoming wall of bullets. You’ll also have to consider verticality, something that may sometimes demand you to either leap over or backwards dash off a platform to limbo around death. Also, cover will crumble and betray you to your next death – assuming homing bullets haven’t already snaked around to end you that way.

Throw in non-regenerative health and a host of enemies that look like they’ve been heavily inspired by the “mimics” of Edge of Tomorrow, and every encounter is close in Returnal. White knuckle.

Just on the topic of your hand digits, it’s worth noting that restraint is required. If your instincts are to yank at L2 (aim) and R2 (pew pew) in the thick of battle, you’re gonna die. Firstly, Returnal uses a unique system where the adaptive trigger of L2 is effectively divided into two levels of sensitivity. A slight squeeze initiates an aim zoom that allows you to better engage mid to far enemies with precision. A full squeeze readies the devastating, randomised alt-fire mode that comes with every weapon.

…10 times more addictive than marijuana

If you can’t keep a cool head and a steady hand in combat, you’ll pinch too hard on L2 and be greeted with the angry “alt-fire depleted” warning instead of the aim function you actually wanted. You’ll fire nothing, and then you’ll take a laser to the face. It takes a few runs to get used to. After 45 minutes I was loving the discipline it demands.

Likewise, Returnal punishes people who don’t know when to stop. Shootin’ that is, Tex. When you click empty, an “active reload” mechanic kicks in (i.e. press a button to satisfy a little timed mechanism to earn stronger bullets upon success or a slower reload if you fail). Problem: Returnal has no dedicated reload button per se. You’ll need to tap R2 on the timed mechanism – you know, that trigger you’ll be absolutely slapping to fire out bullets. Once again, it’s a weird twist on things that takes a little time before you appreciate it.

I’m not going to talk about – nor am I authorised to mention – the story in Returnal. I have three or so hours and two biomes under my belt so far. The game is still drip-feeding me microbursts of story as told mainly through flashback…well, flashes.

I still have no idea why Selene has landed here in search of the mysterious White Shadow broadcast. I don’t know why a mute, Apollo era astronaut is dogging her steps (sometimes in a version of Selene’s former homestead as 3D printed by god knows who for who knows why). What I can tell you is that I’m absolutely hanging off the past/future/parallel dimension (???) recordings of the “other” Selenes. Some of them have been at this House of Horrors for ages and are a few dilithium crystals short of a warp drive.

What I can say is what’s probably more important about an action romp such as this – Housemarque is at the peak of its (video) game here.

Some questions still remain, however. How long does this go for? Is this standard edition game worth 125 bucks? Is the narrative juice worth the sadistic squeeze?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Don’t know. But I absolutely cannot wait to leave this laptop and “returnal” to my PS5 for another marathon session to find out.

Returnal launches exclusively for PS5 on April 30, 2021.

Returnal was previewed on PS5 using a digital copy provided by PlayStation Australia.

Adam Mathew
Adam Mathew
I grew up knowing and loving a ludicrous amount of games, from dedicated Pong console onwards. Nowadays you'll find me covering and playing the next big things. Often on Stupid-Hard difficulty. Because I'm an idiot.

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