I’m sure you’ve felt it too. For the past year and some change, life has fallen into a rut more than usual. Life is always cyclical to some degree—humans are, after all, creatures of habit—but the stresses that go hand-in-hand with a certain mismanaged pandemic have made the day-to-day feel more dreary and cyclical than ever. Returnal, an action game out tomorrow for PlayStation 5, captures that sensation in a bottle.
To play Returnal is to subject yourself to repeated lessons in failure. Every time you play, you’ll do the same thing, except slightly different, except the same, really. You might, at the end of a session, walk away with the inexorable, all-consuming notion that everything is futile, that nothing will ultimately change, and that it’s just not worth it, man.
Good thing the game is such a blast.
Let’s start with the basics: Returnal is a sci-fi action game with a heavy focus on shooting and laser-precise traversal. Developed by Housemarque—a Finnish studio best known for slick bullet-hell shooters of the side-scrolling (Resogun) or top-down (Nex Machina) variety—Returnal notably features a third-person perspective viewed over the shoulder. At any given moment, enemies swarm your position, filling the screen with a barrage of iridescent orbs. You can only survive a handful of hits, so you have to dodge this sea of neon by jumping or dashing. (Later on, you can use a grappling hook to zip across levels and out of danger.) You fight back with an arsenal of standard-issue video game weapons: pistols, shotguns, rifles, launchers, and one seriously kickass alien sword.
You play Selene Vassos, an interstellar scout working for a space agency called Astra. Returnal opens with Selene approaching Atropos, an uncharted planet. Atropos looms large and ominous, its pearl-white weather systems swirling over a planet too massive to fit entirely in view. In short order, a storm disables her spaceship, the Helios, sending it careening through the cloud cover, where it crash-lands in a damp Atropian forest.
Selene finds her sidearm on a deceased Astra scout and quickly notices that the corpse shares her callsign and spacesuit. Huh. Moving on. Astra protocol dictates that Selene can only be rescued if she reaches a far-off radio signal, so her one and only priority is figuring out how to get there.
On your journey you’ll jump and dash and shoot your way through various biomes—including that waterlogged forest, an arid desert, and a decrepit, long-abandoned metropolis set amid an orange-hued wasteland that looks like something out of Blade Runner 2049—littered with the shattered remnants of an apparently dead civilization referred to only as “the sentients.” The placement and order of these biomes remains the same each game, but each one’s layout, loot, and enemy contingents are procedurally generated. As in other live-die-repeat games, no two runs will be quite the same.
Whenever you die—and don’t for a second assume that you won’t die a whole, whole lot—you’re zipped back to the beginning. Death is always a bit disorienting. In rare instances, you’ll wake up in the cockpit of the Helios, one of the few moments when the game switches to a first-person perspective. More often, you wake up in the dirt. Returnal doesn’t have a start screen or menu. Whether you’re booting up the game or respawning from your latest death, a smash-cut version of the opening cinematic plays out.
Yes, Returnal is yet another time-loop game. The past few years of fiction have featured so many recursively structured stories that I sometimes feel like I’m in a time loop of time loops, but Returnal tees up a novel approach. Often, the time-loop story kicks off at the start of the cycle, but Returnal throws you into the thick of it. I, as Selene, may have died nearly 70 times so far. It’s impossible to calculate how many times she died before I entered the picture and became singularly responsible for her life and wellbeing.
So that’s the thought exercise at the core of Returnal: What do you do when you realize you’re not just stuck in a time loop but have possibly been stuck in it for an indeterminable length of time? And, in the face of that realization, how do you motivate yourself to keep going?
“I’ll make it this time,” Selene says after standing up for what feels like the millionth time. I don’t believe her at all, mostly because I don’t believe in myself.
Returnal is, without question, the most challenging game I’ve played in a long time. The enemies are relentless, and you’re quite fragile.
Enemies in Returnal don’t retreat or cower behind cover. They’re constantly pushing your position, raining—torrentially downpouring, more like—projectiles your way. Some foes create laser-beam rings that ripple outward. Others can summon tendrils to snag your feet, slowing your movement. There are also turrets everywhere, many of which have shields you can only break with a melee attack. Trying to keep track of this all while also shooting enemies is a lot to juggle. Returnal forces you to learn how its patterns work, to respawn and try again, armed with knowledge gained through the fire of trial and error.
But also, absolutely fuck some of these fucking enemies into the fucking sun. I’d like to call out the bats specifically. (They’re technically called Lamiadons, but, look, “bats” rolls off the tongue better.) Returnal never feels cheap, mostly because Selene’s movement is more finely tuned than a baby grand under the purview of the New York Philharmonic. But the bats have really tested my patience. Survival in Returnal is largely contingent on dodging projectiles. Bats, instead, full-body barrel into you, seemingly without warning, completely flipping the script you’re handed at the start. As I eloquently put it in a Kotaku Slack channel, “THE BATS ARE THE WORST.”
Returnal gives you a snappy toolkit to take on enemies. When you dash, you’re fully invulnerable, so instead of moving as far and as fast as possible away from projectiles, it’s often more beneficial to dodge toward—and even through—them. You’re invincible (momentarily)! You can take it, so long as your timing is sound.
The game also features a unique approach to alternate-fire modes. Every weapon features a secondary fire, a cooldown-tied ability that can vary from a proximity mine to a single-use grenade to a Palpatine-esque stream of lightning. In the default control scheme you don’t activate this with a button. Instead, while aiming down the sights, you’ll feel the left trigger tense up, a haptic innovation you’d only find in the PS5’s controller. Pushing past that tension activates the secondary fire, at which point you’d then need to pull the right trigger to fire. (You can switch this to a more traditional scheme in the game’s settings.)
Less of a trip, at least for those who’ve played Gears of War, is the reloading mechanic. You don’t have any ammo reserves. Weapon clips on Atropos automatically recharge, but if you empty a clip, you need to time a reloading mini-game. Your clip—which is displayed directly under your reticule, so you can’t miss it—will turn into a rightward-moving slider; stop it at the right spot, and you’ll instantly reload. (The target stopping point varies in width at an apparently random basis.) Time it wrong, and your gun will jam for a second. It’s yet one more element to keep track of amid the onslaught, constantly keeping you on your toes.
Upon death, yes, Returnal always sends you back to the beginning of the loop. As with all roguelikes and roguelike-likes, dying is so, so frustrating. I mean, you found so many health upgrades! And, man, you had the best gun! Really, how could you possibly lose when you lucked into that rare revival item? Uggghhh.
Not all is lost. Returnal features a handful of permanent upgrades that carry between runs. Whenever you unlock a new weapon—typically at or near the start of each unlocked biome—that weapon stands a chance of spawning in your next run. Same rules apply to consumable items and artifacts (accessories that grant you a bonus for the duration of that life). Still, you start every run fresh, with nothing more than a pistol and your reserves of a single type of currency that, in the game’s mythos, transcends timelines.
Returnal features classic roguelike elements like “How’s this for a twist on Groundhog Day?” and “Nice loadout you’ve got there, it’d be a shame if something…happened to it.” But it also makes some more unusual choices.
For one thing, you only have to defeat each boss once. So, for instance, after your first kill of Phrike (the first biome’s boss), on every future run you can skip that fight and head directly to the Crimson Wastes, provided you survive the first biome’s arboreal trek. But boss fights tend to give you some sweet upgrades. So do you take on the boss—who’s more likely to kill you compared to the cannon fodder—for the chance of nabbing some powerful gear? Or do you play things safe and skip the fight?
You also don’t have to trek through every biome each run. Once you defeat Ixion, the boss of the Crimson Wastes, you’ll earn a permanent upgrade that allows you to directly access the third biome, the Derelict Citadel. This poses a similar quandary. You could take the time to fight through both the first and second biomes, picking up silphium resin (health upgrades) and parasites (double-edged equippable bonuses) along the way, all in the effort to prepare yourself as best as possible for the punishing third biome. Or you could skip the Crimson Wastes altogether and beeline to the Derelict Citadel.
A brief detour into some mid-game story spoilers:
Spoilers follow for the doozy of a mid-game twist in Returnal.
Then there’s the big twist. Partway through the game, you “win.” You find the radio signal. You defeat an enormous Atropian sentient named Nemesis, which is just such a final boss name. Astra pinpoints your location and not only mounts a rescue mission but, against all odds (see: massive scary hostile planet), pulls it off. You accomplish your stated goal. Everything wraps up so neatly that you can’t help but feel you’ve finished the game, or, at the very least, have hit the endgame.
Ha, ha. Good one!
Selene does indeed escape Atropos, and does indeed live out the rest of her days on Earth, in apparent bliss and relative quiet. Then she dies. You even witness her burial in an eerie, first-person cutscene…
...and then, seconds later, Selene wakes up the way she always does: on the damp forest floor of Atropos. The planet itself seems altered—some time has passed, and that waterlogged forest has since become an overgrown swamp—but it’s crystal clear: She’s back in the same loop, which means you are too. Dammit.
There are six biomes in Returnal. As far as I’ve seen, once you broach this halfway point, every death returns you to the start of the fourth biome, which bears a stark resemblance to the first but is still very much its own deal. In other words, in any given run, you only have to make your way through three biomes (or two, if you, like me, are equal parts impatient and cautious). As far as twists go, it blew my mind—in terms of both narrative and structure. It’s also the one thing I would’ve loved a heads up about before diving into the game. Were I not playing this for review, I can’t say for sure I would’ve powered through; the sheer thought of making it through six lengthy biomes in one run sounded impossible. Three? Well, that’s easier to swallow.
Spoilers over. Carry on.
As mentioned, Returnal is one of the more challenging games I’ve played in recent times; as I write this, I’m still hacking away at the fifth biome, whose mini-boss keeps stealing my lunch money and wedgieing me to death. It’s also one of the most well-crafted. I’m still trying to unlock some obvious, Metroid-style upgrades, like the ability to swim in pools of water I’ve passed. I haven’t seen how vestigial story threads play out. And yet, I feel fully confident in saying that Returnal is well worth checking out.
Of the many things Returnal does right, few top the boss fights, each of which is both a puzzle and a challenge. Broken into three progressively intense waves, you have to dodge literally hundreds of projectiles while trying to line up shots on the boss, usually centrally located in the arena. You might master the first two waves, and still get eviscerated by the third. Back to the drawing board, and the start of the game.
Weaponry in Returnal is totally randomized. There are 10 weapons types and 10 secondary fire modes that can slot onto any weapon. Defeating a boss is partially contingent on memorizing patterns, but it’s also a matter of luck: While working through biomes, will you get one of the weapon pairings fit for that particular boss fight? Or will you be stuck with a dinky pistol?
While bashing my head against the fourth biome’s boss, I repeatedly never found anything better than a dinky pistol. I learned the patterns, but I couldn’t deal enough damage to make a difference. Every time I tried, I’d make it to the third wave and die within seconds, focusing too much on landing my weak shots rather than effectively dodging the volleyball-sized orbs of space goo. Then I got lucky and found a weapon called the hollowseeker, which doesn’t deal much damage per individual bullet but does have a blistering fire rate and a nearly bottomless clip. Equip the hollowseeker, hold down the right trigger, and you can brainlessly dish out constant damage while focusing on dodging the boss’s projectiles. “Man,” I thought, “this is gonna be a breeze!”
I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been holding my breath for the entirety of the third round.
After you defeat bosses, you’ll unlock Returnal’s weirdest segments, in which the game veers directly into psychological horror. Throughout the first biome, you’ll come across a mid-century house. Usually, you can’t interact with it at all, but after beating a boss, you’ll see the porch light flicker during the following run, at which point you can walk right in. The game pivots from third- to first-person and the pace slows to a crawl without releasing any tension. You can’t sprint or shoot. You can only pick up and put down various mundane objects—pill bottles, laptops, cereal boxes, rejection letters.
It’s not worth spoiling what happens in these sections, as they’re brief, rare, and consistently astonishing. I’ll just say this: Before the game came out, a series of screenshots and concept art pieces suggested that nothing in Returnal would be more nightmare-inducing than the local creatures. Every monster in this game is a breathing nightmare, no doubt, but I’ve found the sections in the house—the quiet moments when you’re exploring—to be far more frightful. The monsters’ hellish screeching might unsettle, but, ultimately, you know what they’ll do. When you’re in the farmhouse, and hear footsteps inauspiciously plod upstairs, you have no clue what’ll happen.
Returnal feels like a next-gen game. Take a peep:
The game is freakin’ gorgeous. You get the standard next-gen fidelity benchmarks—4K resolution and a framerate of 60 frames per second—but the beauty of Returnal is more than mere numbers. It’s how moonlight peeks through the forest canopy, or how blue-tendril fauna arcs toward Selene in moments of respite. It’s the way snow shuffles in the wind. It’s the way fog parts as you stroll through buried tombs. Returnal moves at a brisk pace, but I’ve spent long moments just standing still, drinking in the sights.
I’d further go on a limb and say that, at the moment, Returnal is debatably the fastest-loading big-budget video game out right now. You can cold boot—or go from clicking on Returnal’s dashboard tile icon to playing the game—in under 20 seconds. Fast-traveling within one biome doesn’t trigger a loading screen. Even moving between zones barely registers a load. If you look closely, you’ll see a minor blip while sprinting between two biomes. For all intents and purposes it’s a seamless transition. Seriously, get a load of this:
The haptics, too, are unlike anything I’ve felt in a PS5 game. There’s that trigger-tension alt-fire thing, which feels fantastically tactile. Even the vibrations are more subtle and varied than other games I’ve played on PS5. Somehow, developers at Housemarque were able to replicate the pitter-patter of rainfall so that, when it rains in the game, your controller mimics the rhythm and intensity, as if you were holding your hands out, palms up, in an April shower. That’s not to say other PS5 games haven’t previously made use of the DualSense’s haptics. There’s just a world of difference between using them in the most literal sense (get hit, take damage, controller rumbles) and using them in creative, savvy, eye-opening ways like Returnal often does.
Last fall, Astro’s Playroom arguably made the strongest case for the next generation of video game consoles. As a pre-installed game on every PS5—typically the sort of thing you’d either ignore or delete—Astro pulled double duty as a solid platformer and as a built-in technical demonstration for what the DualSense controller could do. It was a neat game, the general consensus suggested, but served more as a harbinger for what PS5 games could really do. Just gotta wait for one to come along. Returnal is that game.
That’s not to say Returnal isn’t devoid of archaic bullshit, nor to absolve Returnal of said bullshit. Exhibit A: There is no official way to save and quit out of the game. A run in Returnal can last hours, especially if you’re combing through every room in every biome for as many resources as you can scrounge up. That you can’t save your game and pivot to something else smacks of a design decision from a prior, less accommodating era of gaming. If, for whatever reason, your PS5 turns off, you’re screwed, out potentially hours of carefully earned progress.
(Speaking personally, my apartment has a curious setup where the living room power is tied to a light switch that rests at head level above our sofa. Sometimes, people accidentally lean into this switch, turning off the power for everything in the room, including my PS5. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened while I’ve been playing Returnal, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t plagued with anxiety about that possibility while knee-deep in a solid run.)
I can’t even begin to see the logic behind this strange decision. In a reviewer’s guide provided to Kotaku, Sony, Returnal’s publisher, suggested using the PS5’s “rest mode” as a workaround. You can pause the game at any point, and putting the console into “rest” will suspend your game. In my experience, this trick hasn’t failed. But I’m an edge case, having devoted nearly every hour of my free time over the past nine days toward playing this game. Most players likely won’t be in that position. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of people who share a PS5, or people who work erratic schedules, or people who can otherwise only play video games in sporadic bursts. At the end of the day, designing the game without a save function at all sure feels like a callous choice meant to wring attention from players who might not always have that attention to spare.
When asked whether or not save functionality will be implemented in the future, representatives for Housemarque said the company is focused on Returnal’s launch and that there are no “further plans to announce at this time.”
During one stellar run—I made it to the fifth biome (!!!) without taking a single hit—I tripped.
I held my left thumbstick maybe three degrees too far to the right, and stepped directly into a bottomless pool of 33º F water. This didn’t kill me—I respawned in the same room with a third of my health bar missing—but it sure threw me off my game. (It also reset my “adrenaline” meter, which is basically a kill-streak that grants you bonus effects, like increased melee damage, for consecutively taking out enemies without getting hit). Sure enough, within a few rooms, I died. Set yourself up for success all you want. Nothing can compensate for a sudden and total loss of momentum.
I tried to imagine what Selene was thinking in that moment. I got nothing. She dies too quickly. Then she wakes up. She dusts herself off. She’s ready to go—or not. There’s always tomorrow, which, for her, will be the same as today, and the next day, and every day.
Last month, in an essay for The Atlantic, Devon Powers, an associate professor at Temple University, addressed the “constrained yet predictable rhythm” many of us surely feel every day.
“This little world is equal parts dull and intense; everyone I know is sad, exhausted, antsy, and resigned,” Powers wrote. “I can’t wait to leave these confines behind, and yet this world is mine.”
As you repeatedly make your way through Atropos, you’ll find Selene’s deceased remains, presumably left behind in previous attempts to escape. Some of these are accompanied by an audio log. These detail Selene’s inner monologues from past escape attempts that happened before the game’s inciting event. Selene, your Selene, will then remark on these recordings. It’s a neat way to not only tell Selene’s present-day story but to shade in the story of her (many, many) pasts.
“There are certain…obstacles I don’t look forward to re-experiencing,” Selene says in one of those scout logs. Later—many, many deaths later—Selene says, “There are certain…sacrifices I do look forward to re-experiencing.”
At that moment, I think I understood what may have gone through Selene’s head when I unwittingly steered her into a pool of ice water and then condemned her to yet another brutal demise: absolutely nothing. It’s just…the way things are. What’re you gonna do?
I’ve found sticking to routine to be a personal salve—an imperative necessity, even, in terms of sanity—for the past 15 months. The routine is a comfort; it’s always there, because it’s the only thing still there. You fall into it. Some days, the overwhelmingly upsetting state of the world is a slight hum in the back of your head you can shut out. Some days it’s a lot. And on those days you can’t help but feel the urge to throw in the towel.
And then you wake up. You dust yourself off. You give it another go—or you don’t. There’s always tomorrow.