I wrote our preview for Returnal, which meant playing only up until the second biome, rather than the full review, which as you might expect, meant playing until the end. This is pretty lucky, because I still haven’t reached the conclusion. This game is hard. Imagine Vinnie Jones biting diamonds while wearing a bulletproof vest and boxing gloves – well, Returnal is harder than that. Despite not reaching the end of Returnal yet – though in true roguelike fashion, the end is not the end – I’ve played more than enough to appreciate that it might secretly be the best advert for the PS5’s DualSense yet.
We’re still at the start of the new console generation, and most games are still cross-platform, so we aren’t seeing too many titles take full advantage of the hardware just yet. Most of the chatter has been around the graphics and load times, with the new controller functions seen as a bit of a gimmick. I’ve already written about an unseen downside of the better load times, and about how Astro’s Playroom is the only true new-gen game I’ve played so far, and I think with Returnal, people will start to come around to my way of thinking. The real future of gaming isn’t on the screen, it’s in your hands. That’s my trademarked slogan, by the way, Sony. You can’t nick it.
I love Astro, and definitely enjoyed it as a complete experience more than being pulverized by space tentacles over and over again in Returnal, so it feels harsh to call it gimmicky, but… it’s gimmicky. The primary goal of Astro’s Playroom is to showcase what the DualSense can do, from the gyro to the blow controls to the touch pad, as well as the haptic feedback coursing throughout the controller itself. It takes the brief of ‘be a DualSense’ tutorial and swings for the fences with it, producing a hugely imaginative platformer that feels so much bigger than just a fun tutorial for some fancy new tech. But it also can’t quite escape the fact that being a tutorial is exactly what it is. I love Astro’s Playroom, but I’m glad a new game has come along to take its place at the top of the DualSense tree. It was always supposed to demonstrate the basics of the controller in an engaging way, not to exist as some incomparable bastion of the DualSense. It set the table, and now Returnal is serving up the first course.
That first course is rock hard octopus tentacles, but still, the food has arrived.
You’ll find the usual haptic flourishes in Returnal, and they’re worth mentioning, but they’re not the main way in which the game excels. Having a haptic buzz around rainfall or a crackle through the speakers as the wind blows will soon become so common in PS5 gaming that by the end of the year, I’m not sure minor DualSense features like that will get a mention outside of “yeah, we have it.” A bit like photo modes, it will move to the point of being exciting, but also fairly ordinary. Instead, the real success of Returnal is in how it uses the triggers.
In Returnal, you have your regular shooting, and your more powerful shots which need to be charged up. Firing them is pretty simple – just tap R2. You can fire without really aiming, which to be honest you probably will do a little bit of because you have to move so quickly and the enemies can become overwhelming in a hurry. But when you aim, DualSense comes into play. If you hold the L2 normally, you’ll feel it lock half way, and you can then rest your finger and use this for the regular shots. Pulling it a bit harder will release the lock, letting you squeeze it all the way, and grants you access to the more powerful blast.
With everything moving so quickly, it’s a great way to add an ‘extra’ button without asking players to change their grip or actually move to push something else, and it shows how the extra functionality of the controller can be well utilised without it needing to be as gimmicky (again, sorry Astro) as ‘pick up the controller and blow into it’. The lock is surprisingly effective; it never feels as though you’ll accidentally break it, but it’s solid enough for you to rest against.
Some people will probably still turn it off, however. Deciding when to squeeze in the heat of battle – and the battles get very hot – is a slightly different thought process to choosing when to press a button, and while it’s not going to cause any pain or discomfort, it might not feel as natural to longtime shooter fans to have the aim trigger lock itself at halfway. It can be disabled with a simple click of the menu, so if players don’t want it, they don’t have to use it.
Astro’s Playroom is a very flashy example of what the DualSense can do, but despite how much fun it is, you’re always very aware that the game exists to teach you the controller. As a result, the little integrations never feel completely natural – you know somebody is a suit pointed to a diagram with the touchpad on it, and the level was built from there, instead of some creative genius suggesting “but touchpad tho?”
Returnal is far less cynical than that, and makes the DualSense a natural part of the gameplay; but not so natural that players can’t simply turn it off if they want to. It’s more understated than Astro’s Playroom, but it’s also a much better advert for how DualSense can improve gaming in the long term.
Next: Returnal Review – Please, God, Just Let Me Die
- TheGamer Originals
Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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