I have rarely felt more dangerously alone than while playing Sony and Housemarque’s “Returnal,” the first essential game of the PS5 generation. Terrifying and thrilling in equal measure, this is an incredible experience that constantly shifts and moves, forcing you to recalibrate what’s around the next corner and if you could possibly survive it. And with echoes of everything from Lovecraft to Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequels, it has deep roots outside of the video game world as well that should appeal to film fans. I’m not finished with the narrative experience yet, and I will probably die hundreds more times before I am ... and I can’t wait.
You play a solo pilot named Selene, who crash lands her ship the Helios on the planet Atropos in the opening scene of a game that instantly feels like it could take place on the same distant orb as Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” (Longtime gamers will also likely notice what feel like nods to “Metroid” in character and even map design.) As you leave your spacecraft to explore, you find signs of a lost race of creatures that clearly designed where you are, and the monstrosities they left behind to kill you. As she investigates a signal somewhere on the planet, Selene quickly comes across the body of another pilot that’s dressed in a similar space suit. She looks at the tag on the fallen soldier. It’s hers. She’s not only somehow been here before but died here before. And recently.
“Returnal” is built on a decades-old structure named “Roguelike,” wherein rooms and levels are procedurally-generated differently every time you play it. Every time Selene dies, she wakes up back at that crash site, which remains mostly the same each time. All progress, all found items, all weapons—gone. And not only that but the first encounter she has will be different every time. And so will the second. There are a limited number of “rooms” in each biome on this planet but the order in which Selene encounters them is never the same. The item locations and even what items drop shift. The enemies change. It adds greatly to the sense of isolation and fear that you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. Video games are so often based on memorizing patterns—roguelike games like “Returnal” challenge that approach. Yes, you have to learn enemy attack patterns that don't change, but the sense that the planet itself is transforming every time adds to the tension. It also adds to the sense that this is more out of your control than most ordinary games.
It’s also a game like “Bloodborne” or “Dark Souls” wherein death is a major part of the experience. And yet progress is made every time through tech upgrades and unlocked items that will then pop up more often in the environment. It’s hard to explain exactly how, but my Selene was definitely more powerful with each death, learning new secrets, gaining new tech, and figuring out new ways to attack her enemies. Don’t get me wrong. Death still has an incredible impact, especially as the length Selene needs to travel from the Helios gets longer and longer. But it’s somehow not as hard to take as the “Souls” games because one can feel palpable advancement even returning to the same starting point every time. "Returnal" is remarkably designed purely in how fresh and challenging its gameplay develops.
Part of the reason it stays fresh is that every run features different decisions. As new items unlock, they appear in chests scattered throughout the environment. Some will be infected with a malignancy that could damage your progress in a different way each time. Do you risk it? Parasites can be found along the way that can offer one positive trait balanced by one negative one—example, 10% more damage but slower melee combat. Maybe this is the key this time? So every run features new choices to make to try to maximize your chance at reaching the goal before getting pulled back to the beginning all over again.
It helps that the gameplay and world-building in “Returnal” is so refined. First and foremost, this game is terrifying. The sense of isolation is amplified through detailed world-building graphics and a fantastic sound design that takes advantage of 3D audio (try the game with headphones if you can) and uses the PS5 controller in a way that feels entirely new. Games like “Astro’s Playroom” and “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” have played with the haptic controller, but “Returnal” does something else entirely. The sounds and vibrations that come out of the controller amplify the experience in an entirely new way, from the pitter of rain on your helmet to a vibration that comes with a brutal hit. And even the controls have a new system wherein pulling down a trigger button halfway fires it in one mode and a full pull fires its alt-mode. (Trust me, this is more organic than it sounds. It's really clever.) It shows how much developers will be able to incorporate controller tech into their visions in the PS5 era.
And then there’s the design of Helios and its many nightmare creatures. The developers at Housemarque were reportedly inspired by what could possibly be living in the large sections of the world’s oceans that have never been explored, bringing to life tentacled monstrosities that would make H.P. Lovecraft smile. There’s a viciousness and a grotesque quality to these enemies that adds a great deal to the uneasiness, which is amplified even further by the sense of complete isolation. This is not a game with NPCs with whom you can have a pleasant chat or merchants who will sell their wares. You’re alone. You’re going to die. Probably at the hands of something you had a nightmare about last night.
And yet “Returnal” is so much fun. At over 15 hours in, I’m barely scratching the surface of what this game has to offer even though I repeat so much of it every time I pick up the controller. It's hard to explain how that's true, but it is. There are even sections of the first biome that keep repeating that I still can’t access because of some unforeseen tech upgrade that will likely come hours from now. It’s a game that’s constantly circling back on itself but feeling new every time it does. It’s “Edge of Tomorrow” but with Ripley from “Alien” in the lead role instead. Who doesn’t want to play that?
Reviewed on the PS5 with a copy provided by Sony.