Returnal is what happens when you let the masters of arcade revamps like Resogun and Nex Machina loose with a sizeable budget. It’s a twitch injection into third-person shooters – as close to Robotron as Gears of War. It even makes Vanquish look a little pudgy. More complex than Housemarque’s usual wares, it’s no less immediate or precise, doing so much so well with such little fuss. Control of Selene, your tormented protagonist, is instinctive to the point you can almost finish the tutorials’ sentences for them. DualSense rumble is the only reminder that her bounding, strafing, and dashing doesn’t stream direct from your cerebral cortex.
The frictionless flow is ideal for one of those precious games that offers the faintest of guiding hands, leaving you to test its systems, the limits of naturally forming cover points, and the risks of stasis in open space. It silently hopes you’ll be daring and observant, and readies rewards for when you are. Atropos is varied and bountiful, compressing, elongating, or fragmenting its structures. It prods you to improvise manoeuvres that many games would reserve for their proudest set-pieces, then to break walls or find beneficial uses for man-eating vines, to excavate the treasures tucked in its nooks.
From colour palette to ominous alien music, each biome recalls a different sci-fi aesthetic. The close opening jungle, interrupted by ruins and stalked by pack predators, warps into a pastel-red desert, wide and planted with stone settlements, where floating cuboid squid gob out waves of hot plasma. Yet the whole thing coheres with convincing visual and audio detail. The tentacles – so many tentacles – squirming for a second after their owners have been shot to goo. The honking siren as robotic security forces react to your presence. The crisp chirp as your secondary fire mode recharges. Swirling particles, meaty blasts, and an unrelenting pace harmonise until this impossible, shifting world of combat arenas and laser traps makes perfect sense.
With Housemarque’s pedigree, none of this is unexpected, except perhaps how clinically they’ve upscaled. The real surprise is how they’ve worked this immaculate action around a quietly powerful narrative. Its key is in Selene’s personal backstory and in Greek mythology, with names cribbed with a pertinent nod from old gods, goddesses, and titans. Yet aside from a gut-punching midpoint twist, its impact stems less from the plot than the overlap between your own toil and Selene’s struggle to comprehend her situation, alone in a loop that never ends.
As you stumble across voice recordings left by past (or future?) Selene corpses, and Selene’s own thoughts echo in your ears, Returnal spellbinds in the meeting of your states of mind. Other games do time loops, but none capture the terror of facing an eternity, or the growing desperation, the way Returnal does. To play it is to be in Selene’s head, and in the loop – there’s not even a title screen to exit to for respite. Everything from demoralising ambushes to the ecstasy of vanquishing bullet-hell bosses melds with Selene’s mental tremors as she chases answers, recoils into nihilistic spirals, then spies a fresh glimmer of hope.
In this way, any gripes that Returnal lacks some of the iterative comforts of other modern roguelikes feel beside the point. Returnal isn’t a roguelike with a story. It’s a story that dissects the roguelike, extracts the organs it needs, discards the rest, and elegantly replaces what’s lost. Each significant achievement equates to permanent progress, as Metroid-like keys and upgrades shortcut you through portals or across chasms. New gear also opens new paths in starting areas, and in the case of the zippy hookshot grappling beam, adds another dimension to combat. Plus, rooms aren’t procedurally designed so much as procedurally arranged and filled from a pool of possibilities – why else would the arenas be so uniformly fit for purpose? The randomness within can be harsh, with occasional chambers that raise all hell, but it’s precisely that sudden jolt that brings the best highs. And as much as Returnal dwells on the darkness in its Groundhog Day scenario, it equally values the perks of learning and anticipating. You’re at once the victim of this world and, eventually, its master.
If anything, a level of mastery might come a little soon, after the steep climb in the first half of the game. Once you acquire the burliest weapons and bonus traits, a lucky synergy of items and buffs can make you hard to kill, at least for one blessed run. But whether you see the ending(s) sooner or later, the corporeal thrill of simply playing Returnal sticks. Boosting and blasting through its vibrant rain of death is compulsive, for online daily challenges or purely for its own sake. You die. You go again. Until you accept that Atropos isn’t your host, it’s your new home. There really is no place like it.
The fourth biome greets you with a whistling X-Files melody that whispers ever louder as you follow the critical path. As you ascend towards the finale, it reaches a crescendo, revealing the source – an organ-playing monstrosity of a boss. It’s a stunning moment, only surpassed when you later comprehend the tune’s real significance.
An immaculate blend of sublime artistry, arcade purity, PS5 pyrotechnics, and emotional punch.
Genre: Roguelike Format: PS5 Developer: Housemarque Publisher: Sony Price: £69.99 Release: Out now