‘Returnal’ review: A real test of bullet hell gaming

Sony’s latest first-party game is a bullet hell Roguelike that is equal parts satisfying, frustrating, addictive and a dream to control on the DualShock 5’s adaptive triggers

With Hades sweeping up best games awards this year, it is clear that Roguelikes and Rogue-lites are here to stay. For those not familiar with the Roguelike genre, these games involve blazing through levels while gaining powers at a fast pace. The catch is, if you die, you lose everything and have to restart at the beginning of the level.

Rogue-lites take that concept and apply it to different other sub-genres to make it more interesting. Returnal takes Rogue-lite elements and blends it with another sub-genre called ‘bullet hell’, something which Finnish game studio Housemarque is very good at.

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  • Developer: Housemarque
  • Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Price: ₹4,999 on PlayStation 5

The setup for Returnal plays out like Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow, and if you watched Love Death + Robots’ episode ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’, it will strike a chord here. You play an astronaut named Selene who is stuck on the planet Atropos. You relive the moment her spaceship crashed on a loop. There are two characters in the game — Selene and the ever changing Atropos.

If you have ever seen the first Alien movie or Prometheus by Ridley Scott, Atropos looks like it has jumped right out of the planet where they discovered the Derelict. Replacing H.R Gieger’s organic art with fairly generic architecture, the mood is still there, as every area is shrouded in a thick mist, with all sorts of creatures. This game is a study in great environmental storytelling.

Screenshot from ‘Returnal’ video game

Screenshot from ‘Returnal’ video game
| Photo Credit:

Fight the fight

Gameplay-wise, Returnal is a cross between Control, Contra and Hades. Being a bullet hell game, you dodge various patterns of glowing orbs and fireballs shot by various aliens while you pick up various bullet trajectories to kill enemies in fun ways. It is the same here, except the game throws a lot of customisation options to help keep things fresh.

On every run you get to equip parasites (creatures that serve up both functions and malfunctions) so it is up to you to gauge the risks. The goal is to blaze through the levels, which are familiar areas arranged differently every time, with certain goals in mind.

Screenshot from ‘Returnal’ video game

Screenshot from ‘Returnal’ video game
| Photo Credit:

If you die, you repeat the level from the starting point at your ship with nothing. You can retain some permanent abilities, half the fun is finding that perfect build for each session. Returnal, in this sense, has you literally playing safe even in bullet hell.

A dream for the PS5

It may sound frustrating and it sometimes is, especially when you think you are in a good spot and the boss just obliterates you. However, what will keep you returning is the fast and responsive shooting and dodge mechanics. The DualShock 5’s adaptive triggers seal the deal here, and after this I cannot go back to a normal controller.

Each gun is tactile, and the left trigger has a dual aim-and-fire mode; holding down gives you a tactile click and it switches to a powerful Alt-Fire. A feather touch will go into aim mode, which takes getting used to but always has me coming back.

Read More | PlayStation 5 review: Let the next gen gaming begin

Being a next-gen PlayStation 5 exclusive, Returnal looks gorgeous, playing at an even 60 frames per secondat 4K. The dark levels and bio-luminscent creatures look great, but it is hard to make out fatal falls, leading to some embarrassing deaths.

Returnal, making you want a PS5 even more, is a clever mix of genres that blend well. While at times it could be a frustrating endeavour, the rinse-repeat structure does not go stale.

The writer is a tech and gaming enthusiast who hopes to one day finish his sci-fi novel

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