TThis isn’t 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 difficult to find the motivation to face a challenging game about unreliability of memory and elasticity of time. But despite that, it wasn’t hard for me to get totally absorbed in Returnal – it’s relentless, at times daunting but also intriguing, mysterious, and just plain glorious to play.
As Selene, a deep space explorer, we crash onto a planet called Atropos, filled with strangely beautiful and exceptionally hostile creatures that look like the Borg on a nature trip and sound like something out of an Alex Garland movie. Lion creatures with glowing LED tentacle blades leap at you, emitting glowing orbs of death; looming robots shoot walls of orange bullets from the sky; Skinny aliens squeal and spew sticky acid.
If it moves, it will try to kill you, and you better shoot. Every time Selene dies, and this will happen very often, she finds herself back at the crash site, in the middle of a jungle that is subtly remixed each time, having lost every useful weapon, trinket, or skill mod parasite she gathered. in the last race.
My first afternoon with Returnal took me through that jungle, past a pair of truly terrifying boss creatures, and through a Stargate-style portal into the barren ruins of the planet’s second area, the Crimson Wastes, in an epic race of four. hours. I was 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 invading creatures. I found many green pills to recharge and expand my health bar, and a strange alien machine that resurrected me, and an upgrade to my suit that allowed me to do more damage the closer Selene got to death.
I danced through every altercation, running and jumping and running around mesmerizing patterns of plasma orbs and bullets to get closer. Movement and shooting are so fast in Returnal, so instinctive, that when things go right you feel like the archdemon from bullet hell, surviving through thick and thin.
Unfortunately, my shotgun turned out to be nearly useless in the desert, which was populated mostly by ominous tentacled floating cubes. By the time I got to the next boss, I was already fighting, and I missed him by running into a pit trying to escape a faceless alien wielding a sword that kept materializing behind my back. After that, it took me almost two days to get further; with each attempt he seemed beset by bad luck or lack of skill. I kept finding evil items that made my suit malfunction when picked up, or falling across the ground to find a super powerful mortar-firing turtle waiting for me, or opening chests to discover aggressive flying manta rays instead of a decent one. weapon. It was maddening. Over and over, I was sent back to the beginning. But I kept playing.
Everything in Returnal is a gamble, really. Because the planet changes every time, you never know if the chamber in front contains something useful or a multitude of enemies that you are not yet strong enough to face. You never know if your next race 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.
This is all painful, but I always felt like I had a chance, that next time I would find out more about what eternal hell had happened on this planet, or I would discover one of the rare artifacts or enhancements that Selene obtains. Staying or escaping a fight that wasn’t going my way with a little 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 at times even unfair, but it opens up to a committed player. Failure is just learning. It helps tremendously that all the shooting, running and jumping feel so well, no matter how often you do it. It’s an unlikely comparison, but Mario is the only other game I can think of that I’ve felt so perfectly in control of a character’s movement. This is a cutting edge game with the DNA of some of the oldest genres of video games, the arcade shooter, and it is a fascinating combination. The planet looks and sounds extraordinary, each new area a distinctive biotech nightmare. If you’re going to be stuck in a place like this for hours, it helps that it’s so interesting to see.
After a while, you start to meet Selene’s other selves: corpses, or maybe not. Sometimes you find audio logs and they are extremely creepy. I started to wonder how long I’d been trapped on this planet, if the time I’d been controlling her was just a hint of that. Was it possible to take her home? Was even the idea of escaping going to turn into an illusion? This is a game that sticks in your mind that way.
I never knew what to expect and was often surprised. There are spectacularly sinister sequences set in an abandoned house that inexplicably appears in Atropos, interludes that would belong to a magnificent psychological horror game. Something that happened in what turned out to be the midway point of the game made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and made me realize that all the time I had spent reflecting on its subjects had not been in vain. A game hasn’t done that to me in a long time.
To enjoy Returnal, you have to abandon the idea of achievement and stop looking for the trail of nice achievement crumbs that normally take you through a game. Forget about progressing. Forget about seeing the end. Once you do, you can lose yourself in the almost infinite pleasure of movement and combat, and in the almost infinite mystery and progressive horror of Atropos. Each attempt is different and yet it is also the same. But, with the right mindset, you can find meaning and pleasure in it instead of despairing.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism