The release of Returnal must have been a special moment for both the developers (Housemarque) and the publisher (Sony). On one hand the game represents Housemarque's first attempt at something bigger after a series of quality arcade games, on the other hand the genre it belongs to is far from the usual games published by Sony. However, it is very pleasing that the publisher gave the green light to create a roguelite and the developer has fully met the challenge by presenting a very high quality title.
Returnal belongs to the third-person shooter genre and follows the structure of a roguelite or, if you prefer that term, a run-based game: if in your attempt to complete the game's six levels your character dies, you have to start your attempt all over again, without the weapons and items you had collected up to that point, with the exception of some permanent upgrades that are progressively unlocked. The protagonist of our story is Selene Vassos, an Astra Corporation astronaut who crash lands on an inhospitable planet while exploring a mysterious signal. Selene will quickly discover that several eerie phenomena are unfolding on its surface, culminating in several events from her own past. Your mission then is to help Selene solve the mystery of the planet and manage to break the cycle of resurrections in order to escape.
As already mentioned, Returnal has six different levels/habitats that you have to traverse and defeat the final boss that lurks at the end of them. The structure of the levels is relatively linear as the game's map points out in a perfectly clear way the direction you need to take to get close to the boss, although along the way you have the chance to explore branching paths and secret areas in search of better loot. The maps are made up of different pieces, the order and type of which change on each run, so the levels aren't completely random but the combination of their individual pieces are. Along the way you will also discover various elements related to the plot of the game and what is really happening on this strange planet. Obviously I won't go into details but I have to say that the gradual, piecemeal reveal of the plot is done in a beautiful and organic way and is a strong incentive to continue beyond the quality gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, it clearly belongs to the third-person shooter genre. Selene starts each run with a basic pistol and can replace it with more powerful weapons she finds along the way. Other valuable resources that will greatly aid her on her journey are various kinds of helpful items that are acquired either by exploration or by spending oobelites (the game's money) in special fabrication pods. And if you're particularly adventurous, you can attach various... parasites to Selene that give powerful bonuses but also have some negative consequences! In some cases collecting new items and weapons has a risk-reward element because some items and chests may burden Selene's outfit with malfunctions that can be repaired by completing a particular objective. The third-person shooting gameplay has been implemented with a high degree of quality, the character movement and gun play is very entertaining and the combat encounters have the necessary degree of tension and satisfaction upon completion.
So the two main pillars of the gameplay are third-person shooting and the roguelite element and I'm very happy to report that the implementation of both is of a high standard. The roguelite element was my main concern before I started playing. Could the game hold the player's interest and motivate them to replay the maps over and over again? Would there be ways to avoid tedious routine and make the player feel like they are progressing even after defeats? Would there be the necessary sense of fairness to prevent the player from feeling that the developers are sadistic and want to give him a hard time? The answers are yes, yes and yes respectively. Returnal's gameplay and maps are designed in a very clever way and the result is that at no point in the game did I feel fatigue because I had to start over after a death, which is generally rare in roguelikes and roguelites. This was helped a lot by the unlocking of various shortcuts in the maps which means you don't have to explore them all every time but you can skip large chunks of them.
Basically, the only negative things I have to say about Returnal are some technical issues and maybe some of the developers' choices regarding the game's plot. On the test system (laptop with AMD's CPU 5800H, 16 GB RAM and Nvidia's mobile RTX 3060 with 6GB VRAM) performance was very good at 1080p with DLSS Quality (60 fps in 95% of the action) and High details, but with ray tracing turned off because turning it on caused extensive stuttering without any noticeable visual improvement. Also, even with the latest patch up to the time of writing this there were some instances where the game crashed on desktop (luckily there is autosave in these cases so I didn't lose progress in the run). The plot issues are more subjective and I can't go into detail without going into spoilers, I'll just say that the final resolution of some of Returnal's mysteries wasn't as interesting as I imagined along the way.
All of the above means that Returnal is a very easy and clear purchase recommendation, with the only exception being players who dislike roguelites. If you're okay with this aspect of the game, let alone if you're also a fan of the genre, I think it's imperative that you add it to your list of potential purchases. If the developers manage to fix the minor technical issues soon, the high level at which all other elements of the game have been executed at will rightfully give Returnal a prominent place among the best games of the year.
Thanks to Sony Hellas for providing the review code.