Games: Sony's Returnal a rip-roaring sci-fi with smarts – and a hefty price tag

Returnal looks and feels most like stone-cold Nintendo classic Metroid Prime – and there's no higher praise
Neil McGreevy

Returnal (PS5)

By: Sony

WHEN Sony recently announced it was focusing on big-budget blockbusters, gamers feared for the future of small independent gems. Which makes Returnal – a rare full-fat PS5 exclusive – all the more surprising.

For a company that's been playing it safe with their coffers of late – Spider-Man, Last of Us, Uncharted and God of War were all as brilliant as they were dependable – this space oddity is delightfully off-kilter. In fact, the last time Sony bet the farm on something so peculiar was 2019's Death Stranding.

Finnish developer Housemarque is best known for trigger-happy shooters like Super Stardust and Resogun which, while technically brilliant, were simple affairs. Returnal is their first AAA project – a lavish sci-fi horror with top-drawer production values to push Sony's new hardware.

It's also the first mega-budgeted roguelike, which, despite being one of the oldest game genres, has only recently been taken to the mainstream's bosom with hits like Spelunky and Hades.

With their ever-shifting levels and permadeath, roguelikes tend to be indie affairs, often opting for a retro pixel-art style to disguise their meagre budgets. Not so with Returnal.

Stepping into the boots of crash-landed space pilot Selene, players must negotiate Atropos, an alien planet stuck in a time loop that triggers with each death. Groundhog Day meets Aliens in a rip-roaring sci-fi with smarts that wrings plenty of mileage from its live-die-repeat conceit.

Without the comfort blanket of checkpoints or save rooms, death boots Selene back to the very start of the game, with only your hard-won experience to lean on for the next trek, which will feature a reformed world with shifting maps.

But what maps! All foggy caverns and gloomy ruins, Returnal's production design would do Ridley Scott proud – yet scratch beneath the swanky veneer and its developer's arcade pedigree shines through.

Housemarque has spent the last quarter century crafting the best blasters in the business, and Returnal asks the same split-second, bullet-dodging questions of your lizard brain. Chaining hits against its freaky-deaky menagerie of bioluminescent beasties, each with their own attack pattern, stacks power-ups, while even reloading your weapon involves a merry dance to maximise speed.

Still in nappies, the PS5 hasn't hosted many exclusive marquee titles yet, and Returnal's crackerjack tech runs riot. Its lightning-fast hard drive loads each fresh world in seconds, and by pumping screeching audio and juddering feedback through the controller, Returnal peddles the kind of gimmicky shock tactics William Castle would have stuffed under the backsides of horror cinemagoers in the 50s.

With its desolate, rain-splashed ruins, unreachable doors and 3D map, Returnal looks and feels most like stone-cold Nintendo classic Metroid Prime – and there's no higher praise. Whether or not you're prepared to blow £70 on it – Sony's eye-watering premium price tag – is another matter.

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