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REVIEW: Returnal — Lovecraftian Bullet-hell Goodness



Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developed by: Housemarque
Platform(s): PlayStation 5
Genre(s): Third-person shooter, roguelike
Mode(s): Single-player
Game Type: ,
90/ 100

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Addictive Rogue-like formula. Fun Bullet-hell mechanics. Easy-to-learn-hard-to-master. Great particle effects. Compelling Lovecraftian Plot.


Disrupting Bugs. Demands Long Play Sessions.

Posted May 11, 2021 by


Housemarque’s been known for frantic, skill-based sleeper hits like Dead Nation, Outland, and Resogun. Returnal is no departure from that trademark but it’s undoubtedly their biggest release yet. It’s a uniquely fun experience that, frankly, won’t respect your time.



The Story follows the journey of Selene, an Astronaut scout who crashlands on the planet Atropos while investigating a mysterious signal. Soon she finds herself trapped in a loop, eternally returning at the point of the crash. It’s fairly established that the game is Lovecraft-esque. Such stories thrive in mystery and intrigue so no spoilers here.

The farther you get, the more you uncover the truth behind the events surrounding Selene. And just when you think you’ve figured it out, you’ll find yourself searching for more truth. But the most genius thing about this mystery build-up is when considering its rogue-like mechanic. Each death returns you at the start of your run. Which means progression is hard-earned. This makes all the discoveries that much more satisfying. The game tells two stories simultaneously; the story of Selene and her internal struggles, as well as the history of the planet Atropos, told through the sights you’ll gradually explore while trying to escape. There’s just a lot to digest, in a good way. I found myself constantly trying to piece together the correlation between the two stories, which I think is an intended way to experience the story.



Gameplay simple to learn but difficult to master. It’s pretty standard controls if you’ve played third-person shooters before. You can aim, shoot, melee, dodge, and jump. It does introduce something new, however, taking advantage of the Dualsense’s adaptive triggers. Tapping on the right trigger fires your weapon, but about 2/3rds in, you’ll feel resistance from the trigger, clicking through that resistance triggers(lol) your weapon’s alternative firing mode. This was weird at first, I must admit, but I think mostly because we’ve never really worried about trigger pressure before. Not long after, the mechanic felt natural, perfectly demonstrating that the Dualsense triggers are positively changing the way we play games.


So the basic flow of gameplay is: you make your way through the rooms, build up your arsenal, survive, die, repeat. Loot, activities, and rooms are all somewhat randomized. You can find resin to increase your health, artifacts that grant passive bonuses, and weapons of various types with randomized perks and alt-fire. Some of these artifacts and resins are infected with malignant properties. What this means is, there’s a chance you’ll suffer a negative passive effect, some are minor, while others can be quite severe (increase cooldown of dodge for instance). Aside from artifacts, you can also find parasites that grand both positive and negative passive effects. The trick is to find one with a minor neg and major pos effect. Most of this stuff, including your health upgrades, you lose when you die and start over. The only things you keep are Ether, a kind of rare currency you can use to cleanse malignant effects, and some progression-based equipment.


As brutal as going back all the way from the start sounds, it’s not actually that bad. You just need to get far enough to earn a shortcut, somewhat. For instance, beating your first boss activates the previously dormant portal to the next area. Meaning, if you had died after reaching that point, you won’t have to fight the first boss again. Think of these as checkpoints, only they’re far apart and are usually locked behind a boss or after reaching a certain area.

There are no difficulty modes, but the game isn’t too difficult for the first couple of areas. I did eventually hit a sort of wall after 4-5 boss encounters. That’s when the difficulty really kicked in. The challenge is that you can’t really save halfway through a run. You’ll have to see it through the end or put your PS5 on rest mode until the next time you can free up your schedule. Worse yet, you’d need to make sure you turn off auto-update in rest mode. The game will close to apply the updates, ending your run prematurely.


Returnal looks gorgeous for an early PS5 title, let alone the first of this caliber from Housemarque. Textures are crisp and the ray-traced environment sets the mood excellently. The game also runs on a smooth 60fps, which is a must-have for a bullet-hell shooter. There’s virtually no loading, either. Sound-wise, the score is perfect in that it subtly complements the gameplay and scenery so well that the soundtrack is completely immersed in the whole experience. I took special notice of the soundtrack after a song integral to the story gets woven into the scene. Yet further evidence that marrying all other aspects of the game into the arcade-style gameplay is deliberate and crafted excellently.

Returnal, visually, runs like a dream, but I wish I could say the same for its polish. I usually play clean so I hardly encounter any bugs on my playthroughs with any game, but for Returnal, I encountered quite a bunch of bugs, some of which actually ruined a run, which you could imagine, is a big deal for a game that doesn’t let you save during a run. I had an issue occur for me three times in a row, where the daily challenges couldn’t be completed because the initial doorway won’t even open.



It’s not often you get to play a game with great narrative but plays like an arcade title. Even rarer is one where the gameplay relates to the plot directly. Returnal is a few bug fixes and tweaks away from being a true masterpiece. It offers an addictive rogue-like bullet-hell experience that’s woven right into the story and its excellent Lovecraftian theme. Runs can be short and sweet, but to beat the game demands a longer commitment given its rogue-like elements in relation to the large level design. Nevertheless, Returnal is a must-have experience for PlayStation 5 owners right now. It nails both story and gameplay, just be prepared to set aside some long play sessions to get the most out of it.

Dian Raval

Dian is a writer for Flipgeeks who, in his spare time, stares at a wall in his basement. If you'd like to discuss music, video games, or the infinite wisdom of concrete, follow him on twitter @iburnandfume or subscribe to his YouTube channel @iburnandfume. He's pretty much iburnandfume in everything. Apparently he... burns and fumes.