March 30, 2023

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Returnal: how a tech powerhouse puts PS5 through its paces

Housemarque has struck gold again with Returnal – an atmospheric, horror-infused shooter that has dominated my attention since I first loaded it. Think of it is as a ‘bullet hell’ shooter, merged with a Metroid-like design and roguelike mechanics. Combine this with a story and an aesthetic that merges HR Giger-like influences with Sci-Fi elements from Sphere, Solaris, Prometheus and many more, and you have an original, distinct and intense experience. It’s also absolute Housemarque, delivered with the studio’s signature technological excellence.

In a sense, we’re looking at an evolution of the firm’s prior works. Despite fully transitioning now to Unreal Engine 4, there’s still the same focus on a super-busy scene driven by a multitude of GPU-accelerated article – and there are so many varieties that all dazzle. Even smaller actions in the game are significant from a technological perspective, to the point where even opening a door leaves fizzling dust in its wake. I absolutely adored the matter translocation effect, where your character dissolves into constituent pieces of matter, which are then shot as energy to the next location before reforming. In fact, particles don’t need to particles – you can see fully formed 3D orbs. The game is packed with physicalised particle effects, to the point where the husk of an enemy carcass disperses to uncanny effect as you walk through it.

A brilliant artistic design is bolstered by further impressive effects work – from physicalised dust clouds to beautifully realised rain, along with lit froxel-based volumetric lighting for intense beams of light from the moon overhead. Callbacks to Sci-Fi genre classics are plenty, but I particularly enjoyed the ankle and knee-height fog effects, reminiscent of the egg hatchery in Alien.

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