This post is part of a ten day series on my top ten games of 2021. You can find previous entries here.
If you know me, you definitely know that I’ve grown a little weary towards Sony’s first party output in recent years. Not to say they are bad games; I loved God Of War and the Spider-Man games; it’s more that Playstation Studios now have an MCU-style flavor to most of their games. Compared to the PS1-PS3 generations which had wild and varied games like Vib Ribbon, Tokyo Jungle, Ape Escape and LocoRoco, to name a few.
After the critical and commercial success of Uncharted and The Last of Us, Sony seemed to pivot to focus almost entirely on story-first cinematic third person action games. The aforementioned God of War went from being a hack-n-slash in the vein of Devil May Cry to being more in line with The Last of Us (to their credit, the original format of GOW had gone pretty stagnant). Whereas franchises that weren’t so easily adaptable to this mould disappeared almost entirely as the PS4 generation went on.
There were obvious exceptions to this during the PS4 generation, occasionally you had an outlier the likes of Bloodborne, Gravity Rush 2 or Dreams. One PS4-exclusive developer that you could always count on for a unique arcade-like experience was Housemarque. Resogun was generally considered the best game on the PS4 at launch (sorry Knack) and they continued to put out games like Alienation and Nex Machina throughout the generation. Their output was generally small in scale but always extremely strong, so it’s no surprise that Sony felt it was time to give them a bigger budget to work with to create a AAA game for the PS5. This resulted in Returnal, which, to me at least, managed to knock it out of the park and create the best first-party PlayStation game since Bloodborne.
Returnal is a roguelike shooter which places you in the shoes of Selene, an astronaut who travels to the planet Atropos after receiving a mysterious signal known as the ‘white shadow’. Soon after she crash lands, she discovers her own remains, with a voice log from herself. Realising she’s in a time loop that resets whenever she dies, Selene has to figure out the secret of the white shadow and how to escape both Atropos and the time loop. It may seem like a pretty standard story for the roguelike genre; however, the direction the game takes the concept led to one of the most amazing twists in a game that I’ve seen in years – which I will neglect to spoil here.
The real meat of Returnal, however, is – of course – the gameplay. Housemarque is known for their extremely tight feeling arcade gameplay and the transition to 3D hasn’t slowed them down one bit. The bullet hell gameplay of Returnal makes every encounter feel intense in a way that is rarely felt outside of Soulslike games. The only real annoyance on the gameplay front is the sheer length of the runs can make the deaths feel frustrating. Sure, there are ways to pretty much skip previously completed areas. However, doing so leaves you feeling so underpowered for later biomes that it may as well not be a part of the game. At the same time, that length only adds to how intense the gameplay feels, which I get isn’t for everyone.
In line with other first party PlayStation games, Returnal is incredible on the presentation front. The first thing you’ll likely notice looking at the game is the fantastic use of colour, especially in its particle effects. Returnal joins Tetris Effect as one of the best uses of HDR in gaming. This is coupled with gorgeous and varied environment design for each of the biomes and the enemies that come along with them. Bobby Krlic’s score for the game fits the gameplay perfectly and only adds to the game’s tension. Not to mention perhaps the greatest use of a piece of licensed music since that Kanye scene in Saints Row The Third.
Returnal is such a breath of fresh air for PlayStation, even if they perhaps were a bit ambitious to charge £70 for it. I can’t say for sure if this is the beginning of Sony broadening their first party lineup; even if it isn’t, at least I can count on Housemarque to excite me with whatever they work on next.