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Is Returnal the start of the PS5 Era?

Image Credit - Housemarque

It’s been 7 months since the PlayStation 5 released, and it’s safe to say that there’s not been an avalanche of exclusives just yet. But that’s nothing to worry about – the PS4 only launched with a few big titles, though it’s understandable fans will have been getting a bit impatient waiting for some games that really push the boundaries of the system. We’ve had the Demon’s Souls remake and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, but it’s looking like the first, real big hitter is arriving in the shape of Returnal.

Returnal could be called the first original triple-A PS5 exclusive, besides the demo-like Astro’s Playroom (and Destruction AllStars, but if you don’t count it we won’t either). It was responsible for setting a standard, representing not just developers Housemarque and their abilities, but also the power of the console. Housemarque aren’t the most well known team and lack an extensive portfolio of titles compared to trusted Sony first party studios like Naughty Dog and Insomniac, so the task of carrying the torch before massive games like the new God of War or Horizon: Forbidden West arrive is an even greater one. That said, they couldn’t have done a better job.

To call Returnal a gamble in all aspects is an understatement. It’s Housemarque’s first triple-A title, the first non-arcade game they’ve made, and the project they focused all of their efforts on. If this failed, it would probably have been lights out for them. The game itself is a real mishmash of different elements – roguelike, metroidvania, and bullet hell are all there, with the shooting certainly a nod to Housemarque’s arcade origins. The story and setting is also something special. On first glance it appears to be some sort of Edge of Tomorrow time loop, Prometheus alien planet, and H.P. Lovecraft horrific monster combo. This isn’t a review, though, so to keep it short let’s call Returnal a bit of a ‘Dark Souls meets Metroid meets Groundhog Day’ game, with a crazy storyline you need to play to understand.

The DualSense guarantees you feel extra immersed while frantically avoiding alien death orbs. Image Credit: Housemarque

With that out of the way, we can look at why the reviews for Returnal are so interesting. Possibly the best bit of praise it could receive was from Kotaku, who said ‘Returnal feels like an actual PS5 game’. This is pretty significant, given we’ve had to wait a few months to get to the point where we’ve got an exclusive that truly feels like it can’t be played on another system. Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls have beautiful graphics and the highly respected lightning quick load times we’re all thankful for with the PS5. But the new Xbox has both of those, as does PC. Why is Returnal different, you ask? Simple, it uses something those other systems don’t have: the DualSense controller.

Returnal takes haptic feedback and adaptive triggers to the max, making simple elements like raindrops lightly pulse the controller, and tying important gameplay functions to smart use of the tension in the triggers. In cross-gen titles like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla you have the overused gimmick of the adaptive triggers, ‘tension when you pull back on a bow’, which is cool but not the most innovative use of the feature. Returnal makes the pressure you apply to the trigger change the mode of your weapon, making it far more reflexive than a button press once you get the hang of it. Combine it with smart use of the haptic feedback that, other than the rain immersion, let’s you feel vibrations in different parts of the controller to give added weight to encounters, and you have an experience you just can’t get elsewhere. Sony have the power and the speed like the other consoles do, and now Returnal’s given them the unique touch to give players something to expect from their upcoming AAA titles. A new level of immersion and gameplay capabilities that, combined with all the other great elements of the game, make it the first true entry into the ‘PS5 Exclusive’ collection.

Ratchet & Clank will be the next exclusive hoping to raise the bar for the PS5. Image Credit: Insomniac Games

So where does PS5 go from here? Hopefully this is just the start, a taster for what are surely going to be some groundbreaking titles from Sony’s most popular studios. Horizon: Forbidden West is one of the most anticipated new titles, but unlike Returnal it’ll be cross-gen, so there’s a chance the DualSense’s capabilities won’t be fully utilised since the PS4 can’t make use of them. Whether this is a missed opportunity is the question, but we’re  sure given the popularity of the title amongst PlayStation fans there’ll be enough of the new in the PS5 version to call it a true exclusive. 

The closest new exclusive is Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, a return to the classic Insomniac series – it’s only on PS5, and it’s already looking like they’re going all out to make this one memorable. Given the cartoony, slightly wacky style of R&C, you can expect some Astro’s Playroom-style features from the DualSense, and shooting gameplay always means there’s a possibility of some adaptive trigger features similar to Returnal – there’s definitely some room for it with the plethora of weaponry the series always offers. Aside from this, and possibly even bigger than Horizon, is God of War Ragnarok. There’s been suggestions it’ll only be on PS5, which would be massive for seeing how such a title can push the console to its limits and implement even more cool features. 

Despite Returnal’s incredibly morbid atmosphere, it’s really been the first shining light for the PS5. Not just exclusive to the new generation, it made full use of the DualSense to turn a game already using the console’s power into a uniquely immersive experience. It’s a promising sign of things to come from PlayStation, with huge titles from established studios preparing to bring their triple-A game to the scene. But, if this is to be the start of the PS5’s golden generation, we’re certain to remember Housemarque, the arcade studio who threw everything into making the console’s first true exclusive.