Traditionally, video games give the player enough time to feel comfortable in between the most difficult challenges — “Returnal” is not one of those games.
After a brief tutorial that teaches you the very basics (how to fire your weapon, how to dodge enemies, how to use alternate fire, how to heal yourself, etc.), the game plunges you into a room with a powerful enemy designed to give you the most important lesson: how to die.
The main hook in “Returnal,” as the name suggests, is that every time you die, you "return" to the beginning and start the game over. Narratively, this hook works well, as the player discovers hints and newfound mysteries that may explain the game's story.
You play as Selene, a woman trapped on the enigmatic planet of Atropos after receiving a distress signal from White Shadow — though the game never truly reveals the answers for many of the mysteries about what White Shadow may be.
The little explanation you do get comes in the form of different recordings of other versions of Selene from different timelines, which help provide context for what's really happening to her.
Other clues to piece together the narrative include collectible alien glyphs that help you translate mysterious scripts. The story, like the level design, is fragmented like a scrambled jigsaw puzzle, encouraging the player to piece together what truly happened to Selene and why she's trapped there.
"Returnal" is a deeply metaphorical story, so you need to read between the lines to understand what the game is trying to convey. Part of what makes the game so emotionally poignant is how you experience Selene’s emotional and mental well-being as you play and in past recordings, crafting a psychological horror narrative. While the concept of returning to the beginning may sound extraordinarily daunting to newcomers, permanent upgrades you get during the game stay with you, like the weapon perks you earn after killing enough enemies, and items that take you to the next levels (the game calls them biomes).
When I say "Returnal" starts you from the beginning, I really mean it starts back at the first level again, with power levels and weapons reseting to their defaults. All maps are also reorganized every time you die.
To put it charitably, "Returnal" isn't an easy game, but it is incredibly enjoyable, largely thanks to its arcade-style gameplay. One of the smartest mechanics of "Returnal" is the adrenaline system that gives the player temporary performance-based boosts.
In addition to the adrenaline system, another gameplay element that empowers the player is alternate fire. Alternate fire functions like a finishing kill for the toughest adversaries, as it unleashes a powerful attack from your gun that deals significant damage. You could deploy the alternate fire on a swarm of weaker enemies to create a combo and boost your adrenaline level, rendering yourself even more formidable.
"Returnal" wants the player to be on a consistent winning streak, but what makes the game so fun to play is how hard it is to maintain said streak across levels. There are six total levels in the game, and you encounter a boss battle in five of them, each with three phases.
By virtue of being the final adversaries before you move on to the next level, these battles possess the greatest risk in the game and force you to learn and understand their attack patterns to succeed. I can attest that many of my most brutal deaths in this game come from these battles.
While I did manage to beat a couple of them on my first try, the first two bosses, Phrike and Ixion, gave me the most problems, which naturally made me very apprehensive about the subsequent battles.
Despite the immense difficulty of these bosses, they still ended up being the high points of the game for me. With the atmospheric, intimidating music that accompanied the daunting display of projectiles that hurtle toward you, it’s not hard for me to say "Returnal" has some of the best boss battles I’ve experienced in a game.
The boss battle music isn't the only impressive part of the game — its presentation is quite solid. While it may not be the most graphically stunning game in the world, it certainly does feel like a next-generation game thanks to the implementation of the DualSense controller, one of the PlayStation 5’s defining features.
It should be noted that "Returnal" is currently a PlayStation 5 exclusive due to the fact that it utilizes the system's new hardware.
The DualSense controller's technology immerses you through vibrations, from the slightest raindrops to the massive rumbles when you activate a portal to the next level. Every weapon also produces its own vibration, which can range from the soft “pew-pews” of your default pistol to a thunderous wave of bullets with a Hollowseeker, a powerful machine gun-type weapon.
While the $70 asking price may seem daunting, there's endless replay potential to make it a bang for your buck. I spent about 50 hours on this game during my first playthrough. With multiple endings and randomized maps and a multitude of ways to strategize for each run, there's a lot of replay incentive. Very little of the game feels tedious or redundant.
The intense attention required for the game also keeps it from being boring. “Returnal” wants you to consider everything you come across. What can hurt you? What can help you? What items do you need? What items can you ignore? There's a constant questioning of the strategy of the game that keeps you attentive during playtime.
Getting a PlayStation 5 these days can be quite a hassle, but if you’re lucky enough to grab one and can manage to fit one in your room in your residence hall or in your home entertainment set-up, I strongly recommend getting “Returnal”.
While the difficulty can seem overwhelming to some (I especially struggled with the third and fifth levels) with perseverance and resilience, you should be able to plow through the game ... eventually.
If you want a hardcore, old-school action game with a disturbing narrative and fast-paced gameplay, “Returnal” is the game to get.