She was a proud Astro Scout. Her record of service and strict adherence to the rules made her one of the best, but this time was different. She wasn’t supposed to go to Atropos. She wasn’t given permission to leave the ship. Selene jumped into her shuttle with a complete disregard for the rules and pursued the White Shadow signal, despite desperate calls from her crew to turn back. It was too late.
Developed by Housemarque, Returnal is a beautifully crafted third person bullet-hell rogue-like experience with a seriously compelling narrative. Selene is an Astro Scout in pursuit of the White Shadow signal emanating from the plant Atropos. It’s a forbidden world, but her determination is unshakable as she enters the atmosphere, only to crash land her Helios shuttle on the surface. Upon exploring the strange, alien world, Selene encounters the body of a fellow scout… who turns out to be her! She is soon dispatched by a monstrous horror, only to awaken once more in the midst of her crash. Thus begins the cycle of the game.
Hauntingly Beautiful, Deathly Addictive
Let’s get this out of the way: Returnal is gorgeous. It makes full use of everything the PlayStation 5 has to offer, and it feels like the first boots on the ground for what we can expect in the future of gaming. Every single detail in the environment is immaculately rendered. Dust, mud, and debris cling to Selene’s suit. Every blade of grass sways just right. The tentacles and tendrils of each nefarious monster ebbs and flows just right. Environments feel lush and ominous in the best possible way, and half of why I don’t mind the cycle of dying and starting over is the chance to experience each biome again and again. While I don’t have the official PS5 3D Audio headset to take advantage of, the haptics are absolutely incredible. It may wear down the charge on your controller a little faster, but the results are astounding. You can feel the droplets of rain hitting Selene’s helmet, the impact of jumping off of a ledge, and the burst of energy as your weapon is fully charged. Returnal is not only a fantastic experience, it’s setting the groundwork for what gaming should be: fully immersive, breathtaking, and incredibly engaging on multiple levels.
Selene is determined to find White Shadow. Along the way she will encounter more strange beasts, alien technology, ancient ruins, – and yes – even more of her own corpses. It seems Selene has been at this mission far longer than she remembers, with some recordings claiming she has repeated the cycle over 100 times, yet she doesn’t remember ever leaving these messages. It is a haunting experience to hear Selene at various states of her mental decay after so many cycles, but it only serves to add to the complex horror and nuanced narrative of the story. Some entries are more analytical about her situation while others pose philosophical and morbid ideas like wondering what she would find if she were to peel back her skin.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the phenomenal character of Selene and her depiction by voice actor Jane Perry. Selene is not the typical video game hero; she is a scientist and an explorer. An inquisitive intellectual fascinated by Greek mythology. She isn’t trigger happy, she isn’t terrified or a bumbling damsel. Selene is a real, flushed out character in an extraordinary situation. Jane Perry’s depiction of Selene, her analytical mind, her personal life at home, and the haunting situation she finds herself in is subtle and powerful. There is a nuance as Perry’s work takes center stage, and the delivery of each line says even more about who the character is in how she says each word. Returnal isn’t a game about being scared, it’s about being unsettled, and Selene is the perfect companion to have on this journey.
Typical bullet-hell gameplay mechanics abound: you run fast with unlimited stamina, you can jump to avoid damage, and your dodge will grant you temporary invincibility when passing through the barrage of energy flying towards you. There are a limited variety of weapons, but the key is their firing methods. Returnal is generous with your weapon; each shot has a minor homing function so you don’t need to be pinpoint accurate while dodging for your life. It also has unlimited ammo and active reloading to keep you in the fight. Whether you prefer a pistol, a rifle, or a rocket launcher, there are plenty of ways to defend yourself, and you will be constantly discovering new weapons to try. Weapon proficiency is one of the factors that reset upon death, but is upgraded through successful kills and items found throughout the world. The higher your proficiency, the stronger the weapons you will find. It’s also worth noting that taking the hidden shortcuts to biomes you have previously visited will offer you a substantial boost in weapon proficiency so you aren’t left under-powered.
Live. Die. Repeat. Live. Die… Are You Truly Alive Anymore?
There are plenty of interesting and effective items in each cycle, including a variety of consumable items for health and buffs, artifacts which offer passive skills and enhancements, and the creepy yet effective parasites. These are optional little creatures that offer a buff and debuff when latching onto you. Selene can allow multiple parasites to latch on and combine their abilities, creating an unsettling appearance as their tiny tentacles flick and flail around you. These parasites can offer a whole host of combinations with some detaching after completing a specific function. There are also two key factors to watch for in almost everything you might be tempted to interact with: Malignancy and Malfunction.
Malignancy is a sort of status condition on certain items or interactive objects. Using it will grant its benefit – be it resources or a random artifact – but it also carries a chance of Malfunction. The item will clearly state what level of risk the item has, and if you have a means of clearing the malignancy. You can expend some resources to purify it, but should you choose to take the risk you’ll roll the dice in getting a malfunction. Selene’s suit is not unlike Samus’ Varia suit in that it is a technological marvel, able to interact with all manner of alien tech and integrate its functions, but that doesn’t mean it’s infallible. Malfunctions are often severely detrimental effects that display in the corner of the screen and require an objective to fix it – often to simply collect a random artifact. Due to the nature of procedurally generated worlds, however, you may not encounter an artifact for quite some time, and your very serious and determined run to push the mission forward could turn into a scouting mission in the hopes of finding a fix. There are other means to fixing a malfunction such as consumables, but it’s an interesting and oddly realistic approach to the game nonetheless.
Returnal is a game that is tough but fair. It wants you to progress, it wants you to learn the story, but it also wants you to take your time and explore the horrifying beauty of Atropos. Each biome may be procedurally generated, but there are loads of collectibles and secrets to discover. It strikes an impressive balance between encouraging you to progress while also taking your time. One of the most appreciated features in the game is the use of different-shaped doors on your highly useful min-map. If you want to push on and progress the story, follow the square doors. If you want to speed along a shortcut to the furthest biome you have reached, follow the square doors with a circle above it, and if you want to keep exploring deeper into your current biome, aim for the triangle-shaped doors. It’s such a simple but incredibly effective tool to play each run how you want to play it.
As mentioned, the levels are procedurally generated but at no point did it feel haphazardly stitched together. While you may recognize the layout of certain areas, it leans heavily into the narrative that Atropos is constantly evolving and mutating with each cycle. It is truly beautiful and with a few dozen hours under my belt, it still doesn’t feel repetitive. I still wander around that first biome and discover new rooms, new areas, and new items. It’s a game that can be a relaxing exploration through an alien world or an intense and visceral journey with an epic tale; how you play is up to you.
Returnal is so much more than a rogue-like bullet-hell game. It tells a captivating, mysterious, and oftentimes haunting narrative with gorgeous, unsettling visuals and compelling voice acting. It offers a wide variety of collectibles, health upgrades, and unique features to give you a fresh and varied experience with each cycle, and gives players shortcuts so they can continue to press on with the story rather than have to complete every single biome time and time again. It’s tough but fair, with RNG playing a minor role in how difficult the next room will be. You’re going to die. A lot. That is the nature of this genre and this game, but it blends that concept so beautifully into the narrative design that you’ll only feel a momentary twinge of frustration before you set out again to help Selene reach the signal.
**PS5 code provided by the publishers**
- Drop-Dead Gorgeous Graphics
- Engaging Narrative
- Frantic Combat
- Tough But Fair
- Amazing Haptics
- More Permanent Weapon Upgrades