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PS5 exclusive Returnal is weird and brilliant – and Sony needs more like it

Returnal
(Image credit: Sony)

Returnal is weird. Brilliant, but undoubtedly bizarre. While the PS5 exclusive is a masterclass in blending the ever-changing levels and permadeath of roguelikes into a game that otherwise looks like a blockbuster third-person shooter, it’s not the kind of game you typically expect on this scale from Sony.

Returnal features a lot of the things we expect from modern first-party PlayStation games: stunning visuals, a strong narrative element and a focus on single-player. But there’s no getting around the idea that it’s very different from the PS4 exclusive action-adventures we saw explode in popularity last generation. It's slightly surprising that Sony is putting something this unashamedly hardcore at the center of its early PS5 exclusive releases. 

But, given this week's news that Sony has signed an exclusive partnership with a studio composed of former Destiny developers to make a new multiplayer game for PS5 - a genre the publisher tends to avoid - it sounds like this is part of a bigger strategy for PS5. It feels like Sony is branching out with the types of games it's making - and it’s about time.

A breath of fresh air

Returnal

(Image credit: Sony)

To say Sony hasn’t dipped its toes in the waters of the weird before would be a disservice. After all, Kojima Productions' atmospheric delivery-based adventure Death Stranding landed on PS4 less than two years ago. But that was something of an outlier among Sony’s big hitters on the console, and, to all intents and purposes, it was still a narrative-driven action game. 

"I was taken aback by how difficult and dynamic Returnal actually is, and I'm somewhat pleasantly surprised that Sony took the risk of publishing it. The game feels like a breath of fresh air."

The PS4 era saw Sony having success with a host of fairly safe, but critically acclaimed, exclusives such as God of War, The Last of Us 2, Uncharted 4 and Marvel’s Spider-Man. While each game definitely has its own personality, there is arguably a format at work here: narrative-driven, single-player, action-adventure. 

It’s a formula that works, and Microsoft no doubt wishes it had a comparable high-quality set of exclusives. But Sony hasn't done loads to deviate from this format, other than with games like Bloodborne and the Demon’s Souls remake.

So when I jumped into Returnal for the first time, I expected a similar offering once again – an action-adventure, with a heap of story alongside, even if developer Housemarque's past work prepared me for more of a focus on shooting things. Instead, I was taken aback by how difficult and dynamic Returnal actually is, and I'm somewhat pleasantly surprised that Sony took the risk of publishing it. The game feels like a breath of fresh air.

Returnal lets players step into the boots of space pilot Selene, who crashes her ship, Helios, on an alien planet called Atropos. But Atropos is stuck in a time loop, meaning that each time Selene dies – and she will die frequently – she begins a new life cycle starting at the crash site. Equipped with a high-tech suit, Selene sets out to battle her way across Atropos and break the loop, which will allow her to escape.

But this isn’t a simple case of Selene having to work her way through the same map again and again; instead, with each reset cycle, the world changes. Each biome (of which there are six) is made up of ‘rooms,’ much like dungeons, but when the cycle resets the order of these rooms - and the enemies lurking within - changes. 

It’s the first time we’ve seen Sony give its blockbuster limelight to a game such as this, and - from what we’ve played so far - it pays off massively. Returnal benefits from its immersive storytelling and captivating environments filled with bizarre creatures, while its ever-changing world keeps gameplay fresh from cycle to cycle. It’s a concept that should be infuriating - and at times it is - but mostly, it keeps you motivated to keep coming back for more.

But it’s the PS5 that truly makes Returnal shine. The futuristic shooter makes excellent use of the PS5’s super-fast SSD to make your inevitable death as painless as possible, while the implementation of the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback and adaptive trigger features, particularly when paired with headphones allowing for PS5 3D spatial audio to kick in, makes for a staggeringly immersive experience.

Returnal proves that Sony can showcase the PS5’s capabilities and still experiment with different genres – and that maybe it's thinking about a more diverse range of exclusives for its newest hardware. And it looks like it’s only the start of things to come.

Branching out

PlayStation

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony Interactive Entertainment boss Jim Ryan, in a recent interview with Nikkei (and translated by VGC), revealed that Sony has been "quietly" investing in first-party PS5 games and that the company aims to make the PlayStation 5 the home to more exclusives than its predecessors.

"We have been quietly but steadily investing in high-quality games for PlayStation, and we will make sure that the PS5 generation will have more dedicated software than ever before,” Ryan told the publication.

This quiet investing isn’t a huge surprise. Back in March, Sony announced Haven Entertainment Studios, a new studio, founded by industry veteran Jade Raymond, which is working on a brand new PlayStation game series. Given the studios Raymond has worked at in the past – Motive, which worked on Star Wars: Battlefront 2, and Ubisoft Toronto – that announcement made a lot of sense. A more recent partnership that Sony has announced is a bit more leftfield, however.

Earlier this week, Sony revealed it's working with Firewalk Studios (founded by former Destiny devs) on a new AAA multiplayer project, which will be a PS5 console exclusive. The partnership was announced on the PlayStation Blog, revealing that Firewalk is working on an "original multiplayer game" for PS5. 

It’s an odd move, given that the online multiplayer sphere is one that Sony largely keeps out of with its first-party titles. Its most recent attempt was with Destruction Allstars, which felt like it quickly fell off our radar after it was removed as a free PS Plus title. 

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, Head of PlayStation Studios Herman Hulst addressed the fact that Sony's support for a multiplayer game, given its focus last generation on single-player titles, could seem like a departure for the company.

"I think that the games that we make are as distinct and diverse as they can be," Hulst told the publication. "From Sackboy to Astro Bot to Dreams to these kinds of games that you're referring to, like The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima. And you can bet that we will carry on making these games, because they are the heart and soul of what we do here at PlayStation studios. But at the same time, we are just as committed to making these quality experiences as we are to experimentation and to coming up with fresh ideas."

Sony’s approach, according to Hurst, is not simply to hoover up games from different genres, but is seemingly to create a collection of diverse and distinctive PS5 games. It's a fair point that Sackboy and Dreams showed Sony isn't just about character-driven action games.

"I am very interested in creating a diverse slate of titles," Hurst continued. “Actually, the shape or form that they come in are less interesting to me than the fact that they are differentiated, diverse and distinctive.”

A different approach

The Last of Us 2

(Image credit: Sony/Naughty Dog)

It looks like Sony is in the market for fresh blood, a sure-fire way to diversify its PS5 exclusive offering and to - as Hurst said - experiment with the types of games Sony has previously shied away from or simply not had success with. 

"If Returnal teaches us anything it’s that these smaller studios are worth being nurtured as much as their larger, arguably more revered counterparts. These studios bring the weird, they go against the status quo and are more inclined to experiment."

Returnal is the perfect example of how this fresh blood can elevate Sony’s PS5 offering. When the publisher announced that Housemarque was working on Returnal, nobody really knew what to expect. Housemarque historically has developed primarily arcade shooters, so Sony taking a punt on the studio to develop a mainstream title seemed somewhat farfetched.

But it’s that unpredictability that added an extra string to Sony’s bow. With Returnal, Housemarque has been able to stay true to its love of futuristic shooters and experimentation while utilizing the resources at Sony’s disposal. What results is a challenging futuristic third-person shooter, with an ever-changing bizarre world, elevated by the latest technology. It’s a world that sees risky parasites offering both buffs and debuffs in equal measure, that sees other fallen scouts (AKA other players) potentially turning into tentacle monsters that try to murder you and where there’s a 20th-century house sitting perfectly preserved against a backdrop of ancient statues and teleporters. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen from Sony before.

But with new blood, comes collateral damage. Recent reports suggest that some of PlayStation’s veteran internal studios are suffering as a result of this change-up and push for new blockbuster exclusives. Japan Studio is one of those affected, with Sony recently reshuffling its Tokyo-based first-party development studio. In a statement to IGN, Sony claimed that Japan Studio is to be re-centered around Team ASOBI, who you might know as the developer behind PlayStation 5 launch title Astro’s Playroom.

Sony’s Visual Arts studio has also reportedly been affected by what Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier called “Sony’s obsession with blockbusters”. The Bloomberg report, published earlier this month, claimed that Visual Arts was initially working on a remake of The Last of Us, before Naughty Dog took over the project.

If Returnal teaches us anything it’s that these smaller studios are worth being nurtured as much as their larger, arguably more revered counterparts. These studios bring the weird, they go against the status quo and are more inclined to experiment. Japan Studio, for example, developed classics like Shadow of the Colossus, Ape Escape, Gravity Rush, PaRappa the Rapper and Everybody’s Golf. They’re not necessarily games that will take center stage at a Sony showcase, but they bring some much-needed diversity to the PlayStation lineup - and, quite frankly, Sony should put more money behind these riskier endeavors. Variety is the spice of life after all.  

More diversity is no bad thing

Returnal

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony’s apparent plans to expand its first-party offering is welcome news. Between its “quiet” investments in new studios and comments from execs on diversifying the types of games, hopefully we'll see Sony embracing more games with a weird and wonderful vibe – the types of projects we saw lighting up the PSone, like PaRappa the Rapper. 

Moves like the reshuffling of Japan Studio mean I’m cautiously optimistic about how committed Sony truly is to diversifying its first-party PS5 offering and experimenting with more off-the-wall titles. However, Returnal seems to be evidence that the wheels are somewhat in motion for this slow-burning change. Returnal is a risk and it’s one that looks like it’s going to pay off - I just hope Sony pays attention.

Vic Hood

Vic is an award-winning games journalist, bringing experience from IGN, Eurogamer and more to the TechRadar table.