Returnal Review - Live Die Repeat

  • First Released Apr 30, 2021
  • PS5

Returnal blends elements of shooters, roguelikes, action games, and horror to redefine bullet hell and conjure a mysterious, moody masterpiece.

Returnal is a hard game to pin down. On the one hand, it is very much a pastiche of existing game genres: Play one run and you will see how it very clearly draws elements from roguelikes, Souls-likes, metroidvanias, action-platformers, bullet hell shooters, and horror games. But while it borrows from all those genres, its unique flow ensures that its chaotic shooting galleries and creepy storytelling feel decidedly new. A shifting, but not jarring pace, an unpredictable narrative, tough-as-nails gameplay, and a constant sense of ambient terror--Returnal's many moving parts coalesce into a rare shooter that grabs you with its mechanics and its story and never lets go, seducing you with its challenges and a foreboding sense of dread every step of the way.

When you start Returnal, interstellar scout Selene Vassos crash-lands on an alien planet, Atropos, which is broadcasting a mysterious signal. Stranded, Selene makes some startling discoveries on the planet, including the game's titular trait: When she dies, Selene "returns" to the site of the crash, seemingly unharmed. To explain much more would give away too much: You want to know as little about Returnal and its story as you can going in.

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Yes, "return" is in the name, which is a not-subtle-not to Returnal’s run-based structure. It falls into the broader definition of a roguelite--Selene starts each run from the crash site but holds a few key upgrades and one of two in-game currencies from run to run. Everything else, including her weapon, "artifacts" that provide passive upgrades, and consumables like healing items disappear with each death. Selene wanders through the procedurally arranged and populated landscapes of Atropos hoarding gear, upgrading her health and weapon level (called proficiency), and gunning down the planet's strange-looking, tentacle-wiggling creatures, all of which want you dead.

Though some swipe at you with teeth, claws, and the aforementioned tentacles, most of your enemies have the ability to shoot some kind of bright, colorful projectiles at you. In a large combat arena, the room very quickly fills with a gauntlet of neon orbs and beams of light for you to sidestep, jump over, and dash through. Each enemy species has its own bullet type with a predictable pattern to learn, but when you put four or more together, even the simple enemies can create complex, beautiful light shows that will put you down if you aren't at the top of your game. Unlike most "bullet hell" shooters, where you're looking down from overhead, Returnal puts projectiles in your face and makes you react quickly and gracefully. That can be a challenge: Sometimes the number of bright beams and orbs on screen gets so unwieldy, it feels impossible to keep up. The only way to make things more manageable is to kill your enemies, so you're constantly planning your offense and defense--looking for a route to safety, while also taking aim and whittling down the opposition.

Returnal’s combat mechanics reward players who can perfectly dodge enemy attacks while keeping their composure. With every kill, Selene builds up adrenaline, which provides temporary bonuses, like a more powerful melee attack and a glowing aura that makes enemies easier to see, so long as you don’t take damage. There’s also an active reload mechanic, which helps you dish out as much bullet hell as you take. Given the ridiculous number of bullets you have to avoid at any given time, it can be tough to work in a quick reload between dodges. In fact, it pays to know when to skip a reload, rather than risk delaying your next attack. More importantly, it’s an easy and very tangible way to see your skills improve run to run.

Selene can find a small but nicely varied array of guns for herself, as well as artifacts, which offer passive upgrades. Her arsenal ranges from classic pistols and assault rifles to the Electropylon Driver, which fires posts that generate laser beams between them, allowing you to trap an enemy in a deadly laser grid. Each weapon type also comes with randomly assigned perks, which you unlock by killing enemies and which persist across runs. As your weapon level grows, the weapons you find have better stats, along with more and better perks. And you always have a sword, which lets you disable enemy shields and can quickly dispatch enemies who get in close. When you have a strong understanding of your tools, you can find a rhythm for working any combat scenario that’s specific to your build.

Not every upgrade is entirely a blessing. Many of the items and chests you'll find will be "malignant," so picking up or opening them will incur a temporary penalty until you complete an objective. For example, you may do half as much damage with your sword until you use two consumable items, like a temporary shield or a healing item. You'll also find parasites, which impose both an upgrade and a debuff, and can't be switched out without a special item or device found in the world. While you can simply avoid any items with potential negative impact, it's hard to build up power without them, so the quest to make a winning build often forces you to make some smart compromises and, occasionally, roll the dice to increase your prowess.

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This wide range of weapons and gear is both a blessing and a curse: On the one hand, you'll never have to run the same strategy twice. On the other, your success is largely contingent on finding the right stuff. This is true in most roguelites to some degree, but it's especially prevalent here: When I had the right gear, I was unstoppable. When I didn't, I struggled to make even incremental progress.

You also have to flex your beam-dodging skills with a fair amount of complex platforming. Many rooms will tempt you with items guarded by laser grids or long trails of small platforms. Returnal's controls are tight and responsive, so you have the tools you need to navigate even when the timing is extremely tight, assuming you have the precision and reflexes to master them. (And Reader: I didn't always have them). Having traps, obstacles, and hidden rooms to find in every run means the act of exploring never feels wasteful or boring. You're always desperate for more health or that next upgrade, and even when you come to know the shape of every pre-fab room, there's always a sense that you don't know what might be around the next corner.

Though Returnal's basic mechanics fall within the broad specifications of a roguelite, it features more ways to make permanent progress than your average run-based game. Though they change with every life, each zone follows a loose basic structure with a main path and branching side paths. On your first time through each zone, you'll come across a barrier on the main path that you can't breach, either because you need a key or a movement ability you don't have, like a grappling hook or an item that lets you explore underwater. This will lead you down a secondary main path that, once completed, you will not need to repeat on future runs. The result is a shifting and changing micro-run: To reach the next objective, you'll need to play through the next 2-4 hours of the game without dying to advance the story, but you won't need to complete every step on a winning run.

It creates a balance between the endurance-based challenge of the traditional roguelite, where you not only need to succeed, but to do so well enough that you can continue on, and the extreme challenge put forth by the bullet hell-style shooting galleries you have to conquer. It also opens the door for Returnal's many challenging boss fights which, in typical Souls-like fashion, asks you to fight giant, daunting enemies that can literally fill the screen with waves of attacks that are as beautiful as they are deadly. No matter the challenge, progress always feels attainable, removing some of the sting from the repetitive, unforgiving nature of the run-based structure.

Moreover, on a narrative level, mixing up your objectives helps create a sort of fog around your goals. You always know the way forward, but what you're actually doing changes over time. Between the shifting maps and the ever-changing objectives, you’re never quite sure where you’re headed, which feels nerve-wracking. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lost--the way forward is almost always clear--but your lack of awareness fosters a general sense of confusion that amplifies this undercurrent of discomfort that washes over you while exploring Atropos.

I wouldn't describe Returnal as a horror game, exactly, but it is consistently spooky and occasionally terrifying. You don't get much about Selene, the planet, or why she's there early on, but the mystery is constantly at the forefront of your mind. You receive a drip-feed of information from run to run through audio logs, monologues, and cutscenes, which you find by exploring the different rooms that pop up as you make it closer and closer to your goal. Scouring each area many, many times is crucial to getting the full story, as new notes appear as you make it further in the world and uncover other secrets.

Returnal uses that lack of information aggressively, frequently showing you images and referencing events for which you have no context, all in service of creating a slippery understanding of Selene, a nightmarish impression of Atropos, and a mystique around the true nature of your mission. From its first moments, it's clear that something is very wrong, but you have no idea what it is or how it might manifest next. The need to know what's going on never leaves your thoughts, even as it instills a strong sense of ominous dread.

The "horror" of Returnal is largely sequestered to the narrative of the game, but there are a handful of playable story sequences where it comes through front and center. From time to time, Selene will find an area with her home from Earth, a literal American house, just sitting in the middle of the wilderness. When the time is right and she enters the house, you're put into a short, first-person sequence that focuses on narrative and mood. You have no guns, no real control over what to do, and you're subjected to some spooky events that teach you more about the world, while sending shivers down your spine.

Returnal uses the tech of the PS5 to give you tons of sensory feedback that connects you to the world and amplifies your general state of confusion and fear. When playing with headphones on--and I strongly urge you to do so--you can hear the sounds of creatures rustling through the underbrush and howling in the distance all around you, giving you the sense that you could be attacked at any time. In the heat of combat, using surround sound gives you the chance to keep track of enemies and their attacks by ear. Using the DualSense'’s haptics, you can feel the rain hitting Selene'’s space suit and other environmental effects. Certain weapons perks will also add resistance to the triggers to change how the gun fires, which helps create a tactile connection to the game. (Though, it can be annoying to suddenly find you need to press the trigger twice as hard to fire your gun.)

Returnal is constantly unsettling and consistently challenging. Its mysterious story and demanding action feel intense, urgent, and fresh. The fast-moving combat manages to appear incredibly daunting, bordering on overwhelming, without ever actually becoming insurmountable. Every moment is a rush, either because you just barely evaded a giant purple laser or because you have no idea why there's an Apollo-era astronaut following your every move. Do you need to be a little brave to play Returnal? Yeah. Do you need to be glutton for punishment? It helps. They say that anything worth doing should scare you at least a little bit. I'm not sure if that's always true, but Returnal makes a strong case.

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The Good

  • Mysterious story teases you with progress and spurs your journey forward
  • Scary cutscenes and spooky ambiance grab your attention and never let go
  • Tight platforming and shooting meets challenging randomized encounters that always feel fresh, even when they aren't
  • Innovative use of PS5 tech, including DualSense haptics and Tempest 3D sound, creates a visceral awareness of the world, which enhances ambient storytelling and gameplay

The Bad

  • Overabundance of projectiles from you and your opponents can make it hard to keep track of what's coming and going
  • Success on any given run depends, in part, on what upgrades the game randomly puts in front of you

About the Author

After reviewing many roguelikes, Mike Epstein sometimes feels like he too is stuck in a loop that punishes his every mistake. He played Returnal for about 25 hours. Despite that, he will almost certainly be back for another run before too long. A review code for the game was provided by the publisher.