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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.