From the very first moment I got my hands on Returnal on PS5, I knew I was in for something special. Even before I fired a single shot, the game spoke to me through its retro 80s sci-fi aesthetics, its gloomy, nebulous world, and a mystery that hooked me from the off.
Returnal ended up being the first (and really, only) game that justified my purchase of Sony’s unusually large, expensive and hard-to-find console.
The first time my run ended because I couldn’t whip my aim around fast enough, I knew I was going to struggle with the rest of the game. I wanted nothing more than to be playing with a mouse at framerates in the 90s to 100s. This week, I finally got my wish.
To say that playing Returnal with a mouse is transformative would be an understatement. Anyone who prefers mouse aim in shooters will immediately know how much more precise it can be.
That’s not a revelation; it obviously goes for most games – even those designed primarily for controllers. While Returnal does offer aim assist and other options to make things manageable, its encounters demand so much more than what controller-led games typically ask of their players.
Someone more adept at playing shooters on a pad will be fine, but I was struggling, and it made an already difficult game much more punishing. It’s only really when I played the PC version at upwards of 90fps and using my preferred control method that it really illustrated just how much better Returnal plays with a mouse.
To the point that it almost feels like a transplanted PC game on a console.
The key to staying on top of Returnal’s tough encounters relies on quickly parsing the layout of the arena, and making effective use of it for cover, repositioning and taking the odd two-second break. Analogue controls are perfect for that, and more cluttered areas worked well on a DualSense.
An equally important part of your task is to consistently land your shots when you do get to fight back. The problem was it took me much longer to line up my shots on a controller that it narrowed down that window of opportunity considerably. I was effectively playing more defensively than I wanted, and more than I felt the game was asking of me with its enemy design.
That is, ultimately, the crux of why I struggled to do well at many of Returnal’s encounters. Of course, being a rogue-lite, sometimes the odds were in my favour and I got by. But I never got over the fact that there’s a gap between what I know I can do, and what my input method is allowing me to do.
The game’s latter stages in particular start introducing enemies that rush you down or fire tracking projectiles that make the stop-and-pop strategy less and less useful as you get deeper, requiring faster target acquisition during even tighter windows.
Now that I can actually aim to save my life, I was curious how I’m going to feel about a couple of enemies that I remember giving me such a hard time on PS5. The third biome, in particular, is heavy on long-range combat, and it’s the part of the game that almost made me quit on PS5.
Being able to effectively prevent enemies from getting closer and overwhelming me felt empowering, which I couldn't do on PS5. Quickly flipping from aimed long range to close-range targeting is another thing that’s hard for me to do with a controller; It’s one or the other.
But does the DualSense offer any real advantage? The answer is, quite clearly, yes! Returnal uses the DualSense in two main ways that both trump any other PS5 exclusive – but there's one I didn’t think I would miss that much.
By default, a short pull of the right trigger will fire standard projectiles, but a full pull will fire the weapon’s special move. Seeing as I was already struggling to manage standard moving and shooting, I turned off that feature almost immediately.
Weapons in Returnal often come with special traits that dictate their alternate fire, but I simply moved that to a different button. But how do you know when your alt fire is ready? Well, you’d have to pay attention to a recharge meter on your reticle.
It’s not hard to keep track of it normally, but I suspect most players simply forgot it’s even there because of how chaotic and hectic things get. Housemarque’s ingenius solution is to use the DualSense’s haptics to send a very specific pulse, accompanied by an unmistakeable sound queue, which alerts you that your ultra-cool move is ready to be unleashed.
I got so attuned to that rhythm that I could feel the haptics ramping up without once glancing at my HUD, and immediately fire off the special once I felt that pulse.
I wish my mouse could do that; it would put me in a trance. I’m still playing with a mouse, but damn if I don’t miss that distinct rumble. I’m going to finish the game once before I go back and plug in a DualSense, even if only to feel that sensation again.
Impressions based on PC code provided by Sony.