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Returnal review – epic dance of death with beautiful, brutal aliens

·6 min read

This is not the best year for a game about being stuck in an eternal time loop, where nothing much changes but things are always extremely difficult. Many people will find it hard to find the motivation to face down a punishingly challenging game about the unreliability of memory and the elasticity of time. But, despite that, I didn’t find it hard to become totally absorbed in Returnal – it’s unforgiving, sometimes dispiriting but also intriguing, mysterious, and just glorious to play.

As Selene, a deep-space scout, we crash on a planet called Atropos, full of eerily beautiful and exceptionally hostile creatures that look like the Borg on a nature trip and sound like something out of an Alex Garland movie. Leonine creatures with fronds of glowing LED tentacles leap towards you, emitting glowing orbs of death; looming robots shoot walls of orange bullets from the sky; skinny aliens screech and lob sticky acid.

If it moves, it will try to kill you, and you’d better shoot back. Every time Selene dies – and this will be very often – she finds herself back at the crash site, in the middle of a jungle that remixes itself subtly every time, having lost every useful weapon or trinket or ability modifying parasite that she gathered on the last run.

My first afternoon with Returnal took me through that jungle, past a couple of truly terrifying boss creatures, and through a Stargate-style portal to the arid ruins of the planet’s second area, the Crimson Wastes, in one epic four-hour run. I got lucky with a weapon I found early on, a shotgun-style thing with a secondary-fire mode that sent a horizontal wall of pain towards encroaching creatures. I found plenty of green pickups to refill and expand my health bar, and a weird alien machine-thing that resurrected me, and an upgrade for my suit that let me do more damage the closer Selene got to death.

I danced through every altercation, dashing and jumping and sprinting around mesmerising patterns of plasma orbs and bullets to get up close. Movement and shooting are so fast in Returnal, so instinctive, that when things are going well you feel like the archdemon of bullet hell, surviving against the odds.

Unfortunately, my shotgun turned out to be next to useless in the desert, which was mostly populated by ominous floating cubes with tentacles. By the time I got to the next boss, I was already struggling, and I flubbed it by sprinting into a pit trying to run away from a sword-wielding faceless alien that kept materialising behind my back. After that, it took me almost two days to get any further; on every attempt I seemed plagued by bad luck or failing skill. I kept coming across malignant items that caused my suit to malfunction when I picked them up, or falling through the floor to find a super-powerful mortar-firing turtle waiting for me, or opening chests to discover aggressive flying manta rays instead of a decent weapon. It was maddening. Over and over, I was sent back to the beginning. But still I kept playing.

Everything in Returnal is a gamble, really. Because the planet changes every time, you never know whether the chamber ahead contains something useful, or a crowd of enemies that you’re not strong enough to face yet. You never know whether your next run will last two hours or 10 minutes. A momentary lapse of concentration in the heat of a fight can be enough to dispense with half your health bar, leaving you weakened before the next encounter.

All of this is painful, but I always felt as if I had a chance – that next time I’d find out more about what the everliving hell had happened on this planet, or discover one of the rare artefacts or upgrades that Selene gets to keep, or squeak out of a fight that was very much not in my favour with a sliver of health and the sound of my heart pounding in my ears.

I’ve always been drawn to games like this. Like the dark fantasy masterpiece Dark Souls, and Demon’s Souls before it, Returnal feels impenetrable and mysterious and sometimes even unfair, but opens itself up to a committed player. Failure is just learning. It helps tremendously that all the shooting and running and leaping just feel so good, no matter how often you do it. It’s an unlikely comparison, but Mario is the only other game I can think of where I’ve felt so perfectly in control of a character’s movement. This is a cutting-edge game with the DNA of some of gaming’s oldest genres, the arcade shoot-em-up, and it’s a fascinating combination. The planet looks and sounds extraordinary, each new area a distinctive biotechnological nightmare. If you’re going to spend hours stuck in a place like this, it helps that it’s so interesting to look at.

After a while, you start coming across Selene’s other selves – corpses, or maybe not. Sometimes you find audio logs, and they are supremely chilling. I started to wonder how long she’d been stuck on this planet, whether the time I’d been controlling her was only a sliver of it. Was it even possible to get her home? Was even the idea of escape going to turn out to be an illusion? This is a game that sticks in the mind like that.

I never knew what was ahead, and I was frequently surprised. There are spectacularly ominous sequences set in a derelict house that inexplicably turns up on Atropos, interludes that would belong in a superb psychological horror game. Something that happened at what turned out to be the midpoint of the game made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and made me realise all the time I’d spent pondering its themes was absolutely not wasted. A game hasn’t done that to me in a long time.

To enjoy Returnal you have to abandon the idea of accomplishment, and stop looking for the breadcrumb trail of pleasing achievements that typically pulls you through a game. Forget about making progress. Forget about seeing the end. Once you do that, you can lose yourself in the near-infinite pleasure of the movement and combat, and the near-infinite mystery and creeping horror of Atropos. Every try is different, and yet also the same. But, with the right mindset, you can find meaning and pleasure in that instead of despair.

• Returnal is out now; £69.99.