“Do you see the White Shadow?”
It’s a question that comes up again and again over the course of Returnal, the latest game and first PlayStation 5 exclusive from Housemarque. Finding an answer, though, isn’t really the point. It’s the repetition that matters. Selene, the astronaut “Scout” at the heart of of this story, is caught in an inescapable loop that sees her living and dying again and again as she digs for answers in the hopes of breaking the cycle.
During the 30-odd hours it takes to see this full story unfold you’ll make dozens and dozens of repeat trips through the hostile alien world of Atropos. It looks a little different each time, with map layouts constantly changing the hostile aliens and helpful gear you find along the way. Every time you die — it’s an inevitability here, and intrinsic to Returnal‘s pacing — you’re brought back to the site of the crash landing that left Selene stranded on Atropos in the first place.
This “live, die, repeat” framework should be familiar to fans of games like Hades, Mashable’s 2020 game of the year. Your return trips into a changed Atropos brim with promise. Not for cool weapons or power-enhancing Artifacts, which all disappear any time you die; rather, each new cycle in Returnal brings the possibility that you’ll learn more about this mind-fuck of a story.
The plot is at once the most essential piece of this game and also the hardest thing to talk about with anyone who hasn’t played. Your first disorienting hours on Atropos rely heavily on ambience. Selene is just kind of thrown in, seeming to discover this world for the first time right alongside you. It quickly becomes clear this isn’t Selene’s first time, as she encounters corpses in various states of decomposition that are all wearing her space suit.
Questions pile ever higher as you explore. Why do some of those corpses transform upon inspection, turning into a deadlier version of the tentacled monstrosities that hunt Selene at every turn? Where is that haunting music coming from? And how in the world did a replica of Selene’s childhood home suddenly appear out of the alien woods? What awaits her behind its locked front door?
Each new cycle in Returnal brings the possibility that you’ll learn more about this mind-fuck of a story.
Answers don’t come swiftly, and they’re rarely explicit. Returnal regularly sets all the action aside at pivotal moments to delve into cutscenes and playable story moments that fill in the details of the central mystery at the margins, in oblique and often surreal ways. Selene is haunted throughout her journey by a figure in an Apollo-era spacesuit. Its frequent appearances fuel a growing sense of dread.
The answers are obscured behind a series of cryptic but increasingly detailed Scout Logs left behind by former versions of Selene, as well as Xenoglyphs (i.e., alien wall writing) that you decipher over time as well as other more mysterious sources. Returnal never fully shows its hand, leaving so much open to interpretation. But digging through all the clues and working through the intricate mystery brings a heady sense of satisfaction.
As cerebral as Returnal‘s story ultimately gets, the meat-and-potatoes here is classic video games. Selene’s survival depends on fending off a horde of aggressive alien monstrosities. They’re plenty threatening up close, but almost all of the hostile creatures Selene encounters fire brilliantly colorful arrays of projectiles that you’ve got to constantly dodge and dash around in order to avoid getting hit.
The key to success here is mastering enemy attack patterns. The smaller, weaker threats can usually be dispatched with a swipe of Selene’s blade or a few well-placed bullets, but the larger beasts and slim-but-fearsome lineup of bosses spew out entire constellations of deadly projectiles. If you’re familiar with arcade classics like Galaxian or R-Type — the so-called “shoot ’em up” or “bullet hell” genre of video game — then Returnal‘s emphasis on reading attack patterns and weaving between hailstorms of enemy fire should feel immediately familiar.
Fortunately, Selene doesn’t want for tools. Some of the most important ones even stick with her across cycles once they’re unlocked; in a nod to classics like Metroid, these persistent upgrades let Selene reach parts of the environment that were once inaccessible. So an early unlock that grants her an alien sword and adds melee attacks to her arsenal also lets her break through previously impassable glowing red barriers.
Most of the gear Selene finds isn’t permanent, and it disappears when a cycle ends. This includes the array of weapons, which get increasingly powerful passive benefits like automatic fire and lingering status effects as you progress further and further. There are also powerful Artifacts that provide additional benefits (such as healing Selene automatically when she’s at low health) as well as single-use pickups like healing items and machines that turn incoming enemy fire into Obolites, Returnal‘s currency.
The most dramatic boosts, however, reveal a defining focus of the game: the best rewards are tied to significant risks. Alien Parasites that attach to Selene’s suit provide big benefits that always come with a drawback. So one might temporarily boost her speed whenever she gets hit, but it’ll also damage her when she falls from a great height. Another could save her from death one time, but once it’s consumed it leaves behind a Malignancy, or negative effect that can only be cleared away by completing some randomly selected objective.
Weighing the risks of taking on a Malignancy is a big source of the gameplay tension in Returnal. As Selene ventures deeper into Atropos, you’ll often come across chests, Obolite deposits, healing items, and other helpful resources that glow with a sickly purple light. The purple indicates that these objects are infected, and interacting with them carries the chance of leaving Selene with a Malignancy.
You can avoid the risk by cleansing these objects with Ether, a rare resource in Returnal and the only one that actually sticks with you from cycle to cycle. Ether can also be used to extend an ongoing cycle beyond one death, among other things, so the decision to cleanse, say, a health pick-up or weapon chest might not always be the best choice.
The constant recurrence of the “should I or shouldn’t I?” question is the foundation and the heartbeat of this game. It’s easy to find yourself feeling like Returnal is too challenging, especially early on when you don’t fully grasp which weapons and gear works best for a given cycle. It can certainly be a punishing experience, with Selene’s health quickly dwindling after just a couple of careless mistakes or poor choices.
Returnal can also swing just as easily in the other direction, especially once you’ve run through the Atropos gauntlet enough to master enemy patterns and develop preferences for specific gear, Artifacts, and Parasites. It’s good, then, that a three-act structure fundamentally changes the array of threats and Selene’s overarching purpose with each act break.
The constant recurrence of the “should I or shouldn’t I?” question is the heartbeat of this game.
It also helps — though some might see this as a drawback — that Returnal has no interest in hand-holding. There are short, helpful tutorial videos that explain basic mechanics as you discover them, but for the most part you and Selene are left to figure out what to do and where to go in any given cycle. That can make Returnal feel less than approachable at times, especially since there’s no way to tweak the difficulty. But it’s also what makes a good cycle so satisfying.
I must have spent close to 10 hours banging my head against the early portion of Act 2. But when things finally clicked — which is to say, when I found a loadout that worked for me and felt like I had a handle on the tough, new enemy patterns — I managed to drive all the way through Act 2 and on to the credits in a single cycle that lasted a solid four or five hours. It felt great.
As hostile as Atropos can be, it’s also a beautifully designed digital creation that brims with life and personality. Each of Returnal‘s six main environments have their own personality and array of threats. The detailed soundscape evokes feelings of dread as dismebodied growls and splashes spill out of the darkness from every direction.
The lineup of beasts is similarly unsettling, with most of the threats arriving in a swirl of tentacles and menacing red energy. They take on vaguely familiar shapes, but there’s a deeply off-putting vibe in the way they move through the environment. Even after 30 hours, I still went into some encounters nervous that one threat or another would materialize. Returnal isn’t explicitly Lovecraftian, but it’s nonetheless steeped in the ancient and unknown terrors of cosmic horror.
The PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller also merits a special mention here. Its haptic feedback features are used to great effect here, from the bigger rumbles that accompany heavy hits and marauding aliens to the distinctive pinpoint trembles that simulate the feeling of in-game rain hitting the controller.
Returnal‘s use of the DualSense’s “adaptive triggers” is less successful. The default controls relegate aiming down a weapon’s sights to a half-pull of the left trigger; pulling it all the way instead triggers more damaging, but cooldown-limited, alternate fire. This is purely a matter of personal taste, but I found the action to be just a little too hectic at times to regulate my finger tension. Thankfully, adaptive trigger features are easily turned off in the options menu.
All of these pieces — story, gameplay, and ambience — come together in a potent mix that’s hard to put down. These are still early days for Sony’s latest gaming console, but the publisher already has a PS5 winner on its hands in Returnal. Selene’s creepy and surreal journey through a hostile alien world is the best kind of mind-fuck — one that keeps you coming back for more.
Returnal is out for PlayStation 5 exclusively on April 30.