Retur­nal has become one of those games that sticks out in mind. Not for the rea­sons you would expect, as this game takes many ele­ments from oth­er games, includ­ing rogue­likes, Souls, action-plat­form­ers, thriller/horror, and bul­let hell shoot­ers. Although it takes pieces of these gen­res, it has a pure unique­ness once you see it in its full form. The con­sis­tent creepy under­tone, fast-paced com­bat, and bizarre (but prodi­gious) way of telling the sto­ry, tru­ly puts Retur­nal above most of the titles that share the same category.

Selene Vas­sos is a deep space explor­er for ASTRA Cor­po­ra­tion, and our pro­tag­o­nist through­out Retur­nal. At the start we she her approach­ing an atmos­phere heavy plan­et, with her ship–the Helios– flash­ing a red FORBIDDEN APPROACH warn­ing sign, with the name “White Shad­ow.” As Selene makes her entry, Helios suf­fers cat­a­stroph­ic dam­age, caus­ing one of its engines to be torn off. She crash lands on the plan­et know as Atro­pos and it’s obvi­ous Selene’s ship is in no shape to trav­el. With no way to leave and no way to con­tact ASTRA, she pro­ceeds to seek out the White Shad­ow signal–alone.

Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Helios after the crash

This is where the sto­ry becomes frac­tured into two parts: Selene’s per­son­al sto­ry and what hap­pened to sen­tient beings that lived on Atro­pos before she arrived. 

You also don’t get to see any of this in a coher­ent flow–it’s all bro­ken up. The sto­ry of Atro­pos is told through a series of mono­lith and holo­gram-like struc­tures, with Selene giv­ing her own insight about what hap­pened to the inhab­i­tants of the plan­et as she explores. Selene’s sto­ry is heard through numer­ous Scout Logs or her own nar­ra­tive after com­ing across cer­tain areas. 

Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Alien mono­lith

The most inter­est­ing aspect of the Scout Logs is that they are strict­ly attached to an already deceased ver­sion of Selene. As it is painful­ly obvi­ous the first time you per­ish, you will keep com­ing back to this plan­et, so trip­ping over these Selenes’ becomes a fre­quent occur­rence. Some of them con­tain spec­u­la­tions about her entrap­ment on Atro­pos. Oth­ers hint at a much dark­er side, with one even sug­gest­ing she’s lost por­tions of her­self. These logs left me with so many ques­tions. The biggest one being: How long has she actu­al­ly been return­ing to this planet?

Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat

The first death expe­ri­enced is entire­ly immi­nent, since it appears the devel­op­ers want­ed it known that Selene will be return­ing after a fatal­i­ty. Even so, it is extreme­ly easy to die. It’s not so much that com­bat is dif­fi­cult. Selene effort­less­ly jumps, dodges and sprints away from ene­my attacks. The pool of adver­saries is quite lim­it­ed to each sec­tion of the game, so their attacks are pre­dictable. Most major new ene­mies you come across have a learn­ing curve and if you’re not care­ful, it could be your death. Even when know­ing the habits of a spe­cif­ic foe, there are some areas that are swarmed with tough com­bat­ants and dam­age will like­ly be tak­en. How­ev­er there is an RNG aspect which can make or break a “cycle.”

Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat

My RNG is noto­ri­ous­ly hor­ri­ble in every game I have played. Death means the path ahead will nev­er be the same twice. The map moves areas around and, for the most part, changes what’s inside them. So after real­iz­ing that each cycle shift­ed impor­tant aspects that deal with com­bat, I always attempt­ed to make the best of poten­tial­ly bad cycle. Pick­ing up cer­tain items, fab­ri­cat­ing items, and obtain­ing upgrades are key to Selene’s survival. 

It tru­ly is the ran­dom­ness that could be your down­fall. How­ev­er, when a decent run does crop up, advance­ment is rather swift. All of this com­bined does make for a great com­bat expe­ri­ence though, since it presents a chal­lenge that isn’t so straight for­ward as “super strong ene­my that requires many bullets.”

Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat

Now the ene­my mod­els are orig­i­nal and I was fas­ci­nat­ed with the wrig­gling ten­ta­cles and dark­ened bod­ies, which pair well with the game’s theme. How­ev­er, their cores are high­light­ed with bright hues of reds, blues, greens, and some­times orange, mak­ing for an amaz­ing con­trast to the bleak sur­round­ings. The ini­tial area entered, known as Over­grown Ruins, is one of the more mut­ed sec­tions. It con­sists of noth­ing but swaths of grays, blacks, and deep greens. Trees with no leaves and creep­ing vines can be seen through­out this place, with short, patchy, dark grass which looks as if it is dying. There are strange wig­gling blades of foliage, almost black in col­or, burst­ing out of the walls, with thick fog that reminds me of hor­ror films. Scat­tered through every room are spooky “stat­ues” which can only be described as cocooned beings in pos­es of fear and dis­tress. It is also raining–the entire time.

Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat
Returnal Review - The Cycle Of Living And Dying On Repeat

This is a con­sis­tent reoc­cur­ring theme. Dark, eerie, unset­tling. Although I was per­son­al­ly hop­ing for a more spec­tac­u­lar dis­play of an alien plan­et, I was not dis­ap­point­ed. House­mar­que took advan­tage of the pow­er of the PlaySta­tion 5. There is a tele­por­ta­tion device which allows trav­el between two points in one sec­tion. Doing this breaks Selene up into tiny spheres, which are then syn­the­sized back into a whole Selene when arrive at the des­ti­na­tion. There is no way this could have been accom­plished on a PS4. There are also oth­er trav­el­ing sequences, just gen­er­al com­bat and load­ing of areas that would real­ly bog down the per­for­mance on last-gen. 

Anoth­er real­ly big part of Retur­nal is the use of the con­troller. The hap­tic feed­back and adap­tive trig­gers put this game over the top. Feel­ing the slight vibra­tion with the rain drops and a hard­er impact when land­ing from a mas­sive fall. There is a par­tic­u­lar feed­back fea­ture that I felt was the best of them all. When shoot­ing a weapon a full ammo, the vibra­tion is stronger, but when the clip starts to emp­ty, it gets weak­er and weak­er until out of ammu­ni­tion. Felling all of these fluc­tu­a­tions boost­ed the over­all expe­ri­ence and impact­ed the qual­i­ty of game­play I had. 

Now as a men­tion, on sev­er­al runs I got stuck behind doors, with no way to escape. This is essen­tial­ly a scrapped run and on numer­ous occa­sions I had decent equip­ment, but was trapped because of some unknown bug. This is my BIGGEST issue with Retur­nal at this point. 

Bot­tom Line

If you are one of the lucky few who have been able to snag a PlaySta­tion 5, do not hes­i­tate to grab Retur­nal. Although there is an issue with this annoy­ing bug, House­mar­que will like­ly fix it short­ly. If rogue­likes are a genre you’re into, this is 100% for you. Even so, it does­n’t make you want to tear hair out and stop play­ing, it makes you want to try hard­er. With the sub­dued hor­ror envi­ron­ment, tech­ni­cal com­bat sys­tem with intel­li­gent ene­mies, and DualSense mag­ic, Retur­nal is a PS5 adven­ture that should be had.