I am writing this having just beaten Returnal on my first run. It was an absolute cinch — and when I got to the last boss I thought, “That’s it? Do the developers of this game wear diapers? If I wanted something this easy I would have played New Pokémon Snap.” I removed the disc, and Returnal’d it from whence it came. Finito.
I’m fucking with you. I just barely escaped from the game’s first boss when I started writing this. Returnal is an absolute meat grinder of a game. It adds the appeal of becoming a player’s forever game to a stew of inspirational titles like Metroid, Nier: Automata, and Halo. For better or worse, Returnal is meant to be played for the long haul. One to be mastered after it grinds the player’s mind and reflexes down to a fine paste, only to rebuild them again stronger and better.
Returnal follows a formula familiar in the roguelike genre: you must pew-pew your way through a third-person action-adventure sci-fi horror, combatting furious be-tentacled monsters that want nothing more to trap you between the business ends of fifty different laser orbs. As it’s a roguelike, you have to start your run from the very start in the game when you die, losing all your progress save for a few permanent items and upgrades. Each level — I’m still at the point in the game where I’m seeing the first overgrown, rainy one a lot — consists of a revolving array of procedurally generated rooms and arenas for you to fight and dash around in. To progress, you must find the boss key that unlocks each level’s final room.
Returnal is difficult, yes, but its most oppressive demand of the player is one of time. Before the game even begins, it advises the player to use their PS5’s standby feature if they want to pause a run, as there is no save function otherwise. Runs of the game’s first level have lasted me 30-40 minutes apiece, and of course, that will only keep stretching out as I keep venturing further into the different zones of the planet.
For reference, 30-40 minutes would have you beating the entirety of Hades. That is to say, it’s a slow-going affair, and the game floods you with lore, consumable items, permanent items, “malignant” items (that bestow a negative effect to the player along with positive ones), different types of weapon upgrades and chests, and so on and so forth. Though, in one of Returnal’s more forgiving overtures to the player, bosses can be skipped after they’ve been beaten the first time.
The pace accelerates exponentially from the plodding, merciless introductional hours, as Returnal gifts the player with Metroidvania-esque abilities like a sword that can unlock vine-covered rooms and absolutely gank enemies up close, and additional abilities which will essentially make it easier to access more item rooms in the game that were once blocked off, or laser- or water-riddled puzzle areas which cannot be accessed without said special abilities.
When you add a figurine that revives the player on death to the level game’s structure, you know shit’s about to get real. The game drizzles integral abilities and items into the mix. Beating Returnal’s daily challenges also helps to familiarize the player with items and weapons they may not have access to in their single-player-universe, while rewarding them with the game’s most valuable permanent resource if conquered. If you want to get a bit of a head start, they’re a must.
While these are certainly elements of the genre, I found Returnal particularly opaque and jargon-heavy. I think part of my issue with the overwhelming amount of content is that its items all look so similar to one another. Everything is a facehugger, a pod, an orb, or some sort of hookshot-looking thing. If you’re going to properly dive into this one, prepare for it to basically take over your entire gaming life. Even playing just one day apart from my last session, I found myself forgetting crucial information and game rhythms. For example, I’m still not quite sure I know what an “Overload” is. I think it’s the game’s word for reloading, but I’m not sure.
Everything is a facehugger, a pod, an orb, or some sort of hookshot-looking thing.
The game is also slow to dole out new permanent items and story beats, requiring a bit of patience from the player. Aesthetically, Returnal borrows its first stage almost entirely from the Alien franchise, with the extinct (or perhaps infected) alien race whose environment you’re perusing even dubbed "Xenos." There are holograms with recordings of ancient history and titanic statues of exotic creatures or gods.
Mixed in this are hints as to the true mission of the protagonist and memories of her past — which are folding in with the world around her a la Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. The second stage opens up a bit, but then it’s just cribbed from the desert-and-tech world of Dune. While the game is a love letter to classic science fiction, and there are meta winks and nods to the protagonist’s own love of fantastical stories throughout, I wish it had more — as of seven hours in — of its own identity to stand on.
Thus far, I’m more compelled by spite and wanting to improve and see more of the game than I am by its narrative. In Returnal, you’re immediately propelled into sci-fi action upon crash landing on a mysterious alien planet, in a ship that looks almost identical to the one flown by The Mandalorian. I find the protagonist leaden and mercurial to a fault. I’m not sure why every aspect of the story has to be mysterious. We should have something to identify with and ground us.
One of the reasons (yes, I know I keep going back to it) that Hades’ narrative progression works so well is that Prince Zagreus is younger than the rest of the Gods in the game, and so we’re learning a ton of the world’s history along with him. He’s open and emotive with the people around him. Returnal is a horror game, sure, but its protagonist is so closed off and inexplicably quiet about the world around her. She has flashbacks that feel more like pieces of a narrative puzzle than anything she is actually experiencing.
On the other side of the spectrum, she is all too willing — especially very early in the game — to jam alien parasites and technology into her body. She’s so blasé about it that it’s comical. The game also behaves as though being in a time loop itself is some twist it has yet to reveal to the player. By the third death, we know we’re in a time loop! Can we move past this plot point?! The Outer Wilds — another recent game where you explore mysterious alien civilizations while stuck in a time loop — has you interacting with colorful characters and learning little vignettes, even if it’s not giving you the entire picture.
By the third death, we know we’re in a time loop!
While I’m not all-in on the story, the Returnal looks and feels buttery smooth, and it’s one of those games where it’s just shocking to watch yourself play, in the sense that you think, “Is that really me?” The game is an absolute technical showstopper, with particles flying everywhere and seemingly every motion buoyed by a supporting glow or subtle sound effect or bit of lighting. The lasers just have so much warmth to them.
The game is constantly utilizing the DualSense controller, with rainy sections causing the controller to just sort of purr in your hand, and the speaker unleashing a chunky, synth-y locking sound when your alternate fire reloads. It runs beautifully, and you can transport from one end of a level to another almost instantaneously using the map’s teleportation devices (all items in rooms except for currency from defeating enemies remain there as long as you’re on the same floor, so you can warp back and forth to pick up stuff you left behind) which results in the character disassembling into molecules and reassembling when traveling. It’s a stunning, powerful effect, making clear just how out-of-place you are on this planet.
The tense music by Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic will keep your stomach in knots, too. It’s at turns moody and quiet, guiding the player through a horrible, yet sedate, environment — then furiously harsh and thumping when the player finds themselves in combat. There’s varied instrumentation that I haven’t found myself getting tired of yet. It reminded me of the industrial, rhythmic tracks found in Thumper.
One part of the haptic feedback system that I’m certain will be, or is, already polarizing is that your explosive secondary fire is loaded by pressing down on the aiming slightly, while your pitter-patter primary fire is selected by holding down the trigger entirely. There’s a distinct kind of partition between the two that the trigger creates. It’s unintuitive and you would think it would be reversed, with heavier fire requiring a bigger squeeze, and lighter fire a softer touch. Having said that, I got used to it, and at about an hour in, it became second nature.
The shooting has a beautiful flow to it, feeling completely unique.
The shooting has a beautiful flow to it, feeling completely unique. It reminded me of that tactical-but-mobile flow of playing peak Halo, where you’re constantly repositioning yourself and using the environment to group your enemies together. But it could still use some refinement. Returnal offers the player a ton of mobility with its dashing and sprinting — though isn't it a bit immersion-breaking to watch this ostensibly marooned and terrified astronaut zip around like they’re Indiana Jones? Unfortunately, I found it vexing to try to deal with any enemies who approached me from behind while I was fighting others. If I use my sword, it covers the screen and seemingly leaves me open to attack from all directions. If I turn around quickly, I might overshoot it with my reticle and just be in complete no-man’s-land.
Many of the rooms have a ton of verticality, and the mini-map doesn’t do a great job displaying this. There are trenches and plateaus you can use to route your enemies, and, conversely, they can use these to sneak up on you as well. It’s particularly frustrating to keep track of teleporting enemies. You can activate a neat real-time-mapping ability that shows you all of the ridges and pockets around you in your room, to help you find nooks and crannies with secret items. It’s mesmerizing to watch it work, and it’s far more useful than the actual mini-map.
While I’m not in love with the entire package, I'm admittedly completely enraptured by Returnal and compelled to keep fighting through it to the end. Its pulse-pounding combat is mostly smooth and addictive and, having just gotten to the first “Daily Challenge” — a plotless series of rooms with stipulations on how the player can fight enemies, I can see myself getting more strategic and competitive about it all. It’s certainly for a specific type of player, and frankly a bit off-putting for anyone short on time or wanting an immediately fulfilling story. It cribs from some of the best experiences of its forebears, and adds the lure of limitless playing time and sky-high skill progression for the player. Once you get sucked in, though, you’ll find yourself craving the loop.