I’m underwater, diving towards the next boss fight when two electric blue orbs appear in the distance. They immediately teleport beside me and start emitting a constant volley of bright crimson red lasers that cut through the deep sea depths to kill me. They’re shooting rapidly, both horizontally and vertically, and I take a massive hit to my integrity. I reach for a silphium health pack that I don’t have, and I realize I’m doomed. The cacophony of projectiles consumes my body, and I wake up again, back at the start with nothing in my arsenal but a space pistol and burning vengeance.
This frantic feeling of trying to escape failure is a core feature of Housemarque’s Returnal, and it’s one of the main reasons I’m enjoying this (first non-remake or port) high-budget PlayStation 5 exclusive. You play as Selene, an astronaut on a mission to escape from the time-locked planet she crashed on. Every time you die, you wake up at the original crash site; your past bodies forever littered across the land. You collect xeno-gadgets and fight through waves of aliens, exploring an assortment of otherworldly environments ranging from rotting, jungle-like ruins to frigid ice caps riddled with ancient technology. Returnal feels so modern while nailing that dark space aesthetic, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) series and Otomo Katsuhiro’s Memories (1995): groovy retro futurism and mind-melting cataclysmic events galore. Most of the gameplay is speedy and in third-person, but certain segments slow it down and explore first-person horror. Those P.T.-style moments work surprisingly well, and offer a nice palette cleanser after you’ve fought your way through a demanding boss.
Returnal rides the recent time loop and roguelike waves like a seasoned surfer. It utilizes the best parts of both trends to deliver an eerie tale of endless escape with lengthy, randomized runs and high-speed skirmishes. After I beat it, every other game I touched felt like it was dipped in a thin sheen of syrup, unable to match the rapid pace that Returnal routinely expects. The particle effects are unparalleled, each fluorescent pixel fluttering on the screen like members of a rehearsed dance ensemble, dissipating offstage with flair when their role has come to an end. It mostly maintains a solid 60fps, even when the screen is outrageously busy. Often, in the middle of fights and laser-shooting challenge rooms I’d just stand there underneath a lightshow thinking, “Wow. So this is what the PlayStation 5 is for, huh.”
Not many things carry on from run to run, which leads to hopelessness when you get stuck. The most helpful thing you can do for your future self is pick up Ether, a substance that allows you to cleanse malignant materials making them harmless to use, and unlock artifacts that have a random chance of spawning in later runs. Returnal is not a friendly game, but I keep throwing myself at it because I’ve been hardened by recent playthroughs of Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, two beautifully frustrating games that make me crave challenges and value thoughtful movement, item usage, and mechanics: all of which can be found in Returnal.
Parasites and malignant versions of helpful items can be tricky, introducing an element of risk/reward. Often, however, these items are helpful in a bind — even if they come with a brutal con. For example, after surviving a challenge room fight in the desert I found a parasite called “Brittle Needletooth” on the ground. You can pick up these creatures and gain a massive bonus, but they usually come with a disadvantage. This one significantly increases my repair efficiency, so I’ll be healthy again, but it also abruptly turns on fall damage, which isn’t ideal because tall heights and cavernous pits are common on this planet. With no other options left, I swipe it from the floor, curling the monkey’s paw and morphing my playstyle to accommodate for a more cautious, less-fall focused journey off this planet.
During my first few hours it irked me to have vital mechanics altered in desperate situations, but I warmed up to those systems once I died enough times that my hopelessness turned into determination. Some foes can one-shot you, so when I’m down bad and have the option of a malignant health resin, even if that means I take damage when I use keys, I will pick up that resin chunk and hold my L in stride. Defeating bosses is hard — even the journey to get to the boss room is an uphill battle. The risk/reward embedded into many items is often the only way you can make it to the end of a stage, a doubtful advantage that pushes you to another echelon, allowing you to escape this science fiction Groundhog Day.
Returnal is nice and tactile, utilizing the PS5 DualSense’s shiny abilities like emulating the sporadic nature of ambient rain through haptic feedback or the adaptive triggers showing the tension in your alternative shot by stunting how far you can press down. These features are an awesome feeling the first few times you experience them, but they lose their novelty over a few runs due to a lack of kinetic variety. The rain, for example, is only in a select couple of biomes, and every gun has the same pullback tensity. I’m a fan of this technology, but I’d like the controller to simulate more motions from the in-game environment, like reverberations from alternative shots, or a buzz/spark when you get hit, or a creepy, slithery motion when you pick up a parasite.
Returnal is the harbinger of PlayStation’s next generation. It’s the first game exclusively developed for the PS5 (save for the Demon’s Souls remake), and launched belatedly, almost seven months into the PlayStation 5’s lifespan. Returnal was delayed from mid March to the end of April to give the team more time to polish the game, but after playing through 20 hours, it’s still clear they needed more time. It also crashed on me more than five times during crucial fights. In some cases multiple hours of progress vanished out of existence in mere seconds, making an already frustrating game feel like it craved my despair on a personal level. You can’t save either. In one instance, I had the console on rest mode and the game automatically updated, resulting in lost progress again. I don’t hold these issues against developer Housemarque, but they cement my feelings that this generation is rushed and unneeded.
After completing Returnal, finally leaving its supersonic third-person action and shock-filled horror, I’m left in the same spot as before: wondering what the point is to owning a PS5 right now. The games industry too frequently feels like a speeding locomotive that’s running out of tracks but just keeps barrelling down its path without a care in the world. All of the marketing and surrounding hype back in Fall made it feel like this generation was so urgently necessary, but that noticeably isn’t the case now that we’re in the midst of the new age. Returnal is a gloomy and grievous time that I really connect with. It has a spectacular scope and fun, frenzied moment to moment gameplay, but it woefully doesn’t deliver the fabled next generation sensation I’ve been longing for.