First impressions of PS5-exclusive Returnal

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The number of genuine exclusives for the PlayStation 5 have been few and far between ever since the next-gen console launched late last year. That changes at the end of the month when Returnal arrives on the PS5 on 30th April.

We’ve been intrigued by this title for a number of reasons, with the premise of a gaming environment that changes every time a player dies piquing our interest in particular. Thankfully we’ve been seeded a review code ahead of the game’s release and have shared some of our first impressions before our fully fledged review is published at the end of the month.

For this preview, we’ve stuck exclusively to the first two biomes in the game and will be keeping spoilers to a minimum, touching only on elements that have been seen in videos shared by developer Housemarque.

Explore, die, repeat

So firstly for a bit of background, players take on the role of Selene, who crash lands on the shape-shifting world of Atropos. When Selene comes to after the crash, the world she is greeted by feels hostile and intrusive being equals parts foreign and familiar as she tries to piece together what has happened.

The very first sign that something is amiss is when Selene comes across a deceased space explorer wearing her own weathered suit baring her name. Added to this are recordings scattered across the environment, each detailing her experience of the world but strangely talking about events that have already happened.

It is only when you encounter the first formidable enemy after an initial amount of exploring, dying in the encounter, does the title sequence for Returnal show up on screen and players end up once again at their crashed ship. They are still on Atropos, but the environment’s layout has been altered.

Seamless action

We aren’t going to talk about the storyline any further, if only to say that the main objective in the opening chapters is trying to locate the mysterious signal that drew you to the planet in the first place. That and of course, trying not to die.

The next element we want to talk about is the movement and fighting mechanics. Selene is truly at home on this foreign planet – running, jumping and dashing with ease. As such, she feels truly capable. Our initial impressions is that she plays a lot like the divisive Abby from The Last of Us Part II, with alien enemies not proving too daunting at first.

The actual gunplay is equally slick and fluid.

The controls are easy to pick up and targeting enemies is seamless. When engaging with enemies, avoidance is key, especially when taking on multiple ones at a time. Each type you encounter on Atropos has a specific attack pattern, which could prove a little stale at first, but once you enter an area of the map littered with enemies, things ramp up significantly.

The fact that dying will mean a reset (which the game calls cycles) also ups the ante, with each new reset not only changing the layout of the environment, but also the position and type of enemy that you encounter.

First impression

There are a lot of interesting elements at play in Returnal. It seems to draw from multiple games and pop culture, with dying in game feeling a bit like Death Stranding and Edge of Tomorrow. The world of Atropos also looks a lot like the Xenomorph planet in Prometheus, along with bits of Mass Effect: Andromeda thrown in there.

This mix, added with a main character that you’re not entirely sure you can trust, much like Ishmael in Moby Dick or Senua in Hellblade. Whether we’ll see psychosis explored as much here as in the latter, remains to be seen.

Either way, Returnal has its hooks in us and we’re invested in competing it to discover what connection Selene has to Atropos.

Our only problem is cost right now, with the pre-order price of the Standard Edition of listed at R1 369 at the time of writing. While it is pleasing to see this is where future PS5 games will jump off from, it will cost you quite a bit in the process.

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Editor of Hypertext. Covers smartphones, IoT, 5G, cloud computing and a few things in between. Also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games when not taking the hatchet to stories.