Returnal is a very difficult game to describe. It’s something of a randomly generated, third-person shooter, psychological horror title that keeps sending you back to the same starting point while it reshuffles the visual deck. And the game expects you to figure out what’s going on.
For some, those elements will yield a unique-feeling, graphically stimulating and haunted-gaming tapestry. For others, it will feel more like a frustrating, ever-repeating fever-dream.
Gamers play as Selene, an astronaut who finds herself stranded on a strange planet after crashing her small, single-pilot spacecraft. She sets out to explore, only to make a discomforting discovery: herself. Selene finds her own spacesuit-clad corpse, crumpled in an open field. And as she listens to left-behind spacelogs, she learns that she’s repeated this adventure before, even though she remembers nothing of it.
It makes a little more sense, however, after Selene’s inevitable first death. Upon dying, the astronaut gets pulled back to the moments leading up to her initial crash all over again. The world around her is tweaked and shifted slightly, while new story elements and alien foes are scattered around the expansive, explorable Biomes.
The idea behind the game is that each pass reveals new bits of information and adds pieces to Selene’s ever-growing story. Those new takes slowly reveal the puzzle behind the ancient world she’s been sucked into.
Though procedurally generated, in some respects, there are also familiar repetitions that pop up in the mix and that open the door to discovering hidden powerups, improved weapons and vital tools in hard-to-find places. As gamers make progress, certain tools give them the ability to grapple to higher areas, travel under water, teleport short distances, etc.
One of the very interesting aspects of this game is that Selene must explore aspects of her own past while she tries to piece together the mystery of the planet’s ancient society and the ever-repeating cycle in the present.
There are layers upon layers of almost dream-like situations to make your way through. And all of those story challenges give gamers something to grapple with mentally as they strive to overcome physical obstacles in their path.
Along with the mental gymnastics side of play, gameplay here definitely emphasizes a lot of shooting. Gamers use rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers against sharp-clawed and sharp-toothed beasties of all sizes, as well as alien humanoids and robotic sentries. And the combat can be incredibly frenetic, too. The air is often filled with hundreds of swirling and blazing blasts that you must maneuver around while trying to hit foes with attacks of your own.
There are explosions, cries of pain and splashes of blood. Some areas feature stacks of desiccated corpses. And your character dies over and over in sometimes lightly horrific ways. If players take the time to read through in-game manuscripts they uncover, they’ll see the word “b–tard.”
Players will also encounter some creepy and nightmarish elements in Selene’s story—memories of abuses and dream-like situations that some might find disturbing.
There’s no doubt that the gameplay in this T-rated PS5 exclusive is very compelling, even if its final chapters aren’t as revealing and satisfying as you might hope. The biggest drawback for many, however, will be the games psychological horror underpinnings. There’s a creepy and nightmarish aspect to Returnal that you ultimately cannot avoid.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.