At the start of Returnal, a spacefarer named Selene pilots her ship, the Helios, into a storm. She accelerates into a whirlpool of bruised cloud, and one of her engines is speared by a bolt of lightning—her wing aflame, she plummets to the forest below. Whether or not that is the start of Returnal is another matter. Like Phil Connors, the chronologically challenged hero of Groundhog Day, Selene is chained within a time loop. Whenever she dies, she wakes back at the crash site. Unlike Phil, she isn’t roused by the unceasing strains of Sonny & Cher; instead, her head swims with dreams of dark water, engirdling tentacles, and a white-clad astronaut whose chunky fashion hails from the Apollo era. Furthermore, Andie MacDowell is frankly nowhere to be seen; the only romance on offer is that between Selene and the planet on which she is marooned. Despite its vicious dangers, it won’t let her be defeated, and you can almost hear it crooning to her, after every failed battle: I got you, babe.
The planet is called Atropos, and at this point any passing classicists will have broken into a soft purr. There is a dusting of Greek mythology to the story; “It’s impossible not to think of my books,” says Selene, describing the place and its teeming threats. “I hate to use the term, but it feels… ‘mythic.’” Indeed, the notion that the terrain itself should be named for one of the Fates (specifically, the one in charge of death—of snipping the mortal thread) might seem a little loaded. Then again, credit must go to the developer, Housemarque, for the sensible hedging of its bets. There is more than one set of myths being honoured here.
Most of us, I would guess, when confronted with the sight of a woman in a form-fitting suit of armour, emerging from a shuttle into the rain, would think of Super Metroid and its heroine, Samus Aran. True enough, homage is paid with interest to Nintendo’s masterwork, and its sequel Metroid Prime. Note the ossified remains of an ancient race, which bestow a raft of gifts, and the map: a wraithlike holographic projection, whose chambers hiss with static. But the differences lie in the expression. Selene claws out of the wreckage of her ship (unlike Samus, who ascended gracefully from a ceiling hatch), and she is met with a particularly needling downpour. This you can feel in the controller, which uses haptic feedback to prick at your palms in concert with the audio, and the result is a deluge of feeling. Not only is Selene being drizzled on by the gods but we are right there in her plight—plugged into her helmet and rapped by the elements.
Further sensations await in the judder and clack of the combat. There aren’t many games that one might recommend in lieu of a really good hand massage, but this does the job. Atropos is prowled by an array of creatures—robotic, organic, one sticky green brute appears to be broccoli-based. My favourite is the Kerberon, an unholy splicing of lion and octopus, with a feline pounce and a writhing mane; only, the real kick comes before you even see the beast. It emits a noise: a gluey string of glottal stops, like that which echoed through the jungles of Predator, unspooling from the mandibles of its villain. These creepy clicks rattle through your fingers, and you can’t help the overwhelming desire to shoot in their general direction.
This is, of course, excellent news, given that Housemarque’s treatment of the shoot ’em up verges on the sacerdotal. The studio’s last game was Nex Machina (a delicious title, Latin for “death machine”), in 2017, for which Eugene Jarvis served as creative consultant. Scarcely a day goes by that I don’t think about that game, with its crumbling showers of voxels and its crisp bursts of laser, and there is much of its purity—and of Jarvis’s design approach, honed in games like Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV—in Returnal. Complex systems are made simple, by committing their clutter to muscle memory, and play—good play, at any rate—requires that you, like Selene, ride its enigmatic loop.
You have, at your disposal, (a) an evasive dash, granting a brief grace period of invulnerability, (b) whichever weapon you happen to have found, and (c), providing you have had enough sleep—or, failing that, enough caffeine—your reflexes. On top of this fine foundation a slew of gizmos and buffs are layered. Highlights include a sabre, which springs from its hilt with a hot gleam and gives you a single, punctuating slash; and an energy-powered grappling hook, fired from the wrist, that whips you through environments as quick as the cord retractor on a vacuum cleaner. The shooting is one of those rare, near-nourishing pleasures—the kind that may keep Returnal fused to your hard drive, for those moments where you feel your mood dampen. You begin, near the Helios, with a pistol, and, if you are so inclined, you can end with one as well. I’ve always considered it the measurement of a developer, their treatment of the pistol. There are those that palm you off with all the firepower of a bowl of Rice Krispies, impatient to move up the food chain, to rifles and what have you, but the best give the handgun the weight of what it is: a death machine.
There are other weapons, naturally—carbines, shotguns, etc, as well as farther-flung contraptions. One pelts vials of corrosive green gloop at your foes, another pins them with high-voltage pylons and fries them. All have a good dose of haptic kick, and the triggers have been vested with the requisite levels of ka-thunk. I’m also delighted to report that there is an active reload mechanic here; quite why developers have been so damn good-mannered about cribbing the best thing from Gears of War I have no clue. Pilfer away, I say. The real joy of the action, outside of its weaponry, is the process of encrusting Selene with upgrades. There are parasites, which resemble baby squid, that can be suckered to her arm, increasing her protection at the cost of a longer cooldown for her dash, say, or boosting her speed and damage output while making her vulnerable to long drops.
There is a sense of swelling momentum in each run, a combination of accrued perks and warmed nerves. After three kills, you raise an adrenaline point, to a maximum of five, each level imparting boosts—for example, the ability to see your targets through walls. As soon as you are hit, your adrenaline resets. What a drag, you might think, but inside of a minute you are back on the hunt. As mechanics go, this one is like handing out a pamphlet on grieving; what a smart move for Housemarque to wrap the crux of its game around a microcosm of its defining feature.
When I first heard that Returnal was a roguelike, I shuddered. It’s one of those genres that won’t seem to die. I can understand the appeal from a development standpoint; like the metroidvania, it provides a ready-carved set of rituals, into whose mould an imagination can be poured. Fair enough. But the downside is that, when playing one, I often think, Did this need to be a roguelike? Wouldn’t a checkpoint have been fine? With Returnal, however, Housemarque has opted for the only genre that would suit its subject matter. More than that, though, the pain of losing your progress speaks to something at the heart of the studio’s history. Where else was that sorrow more acute and crushing than the arcade, when the last of your money had been sucked into the slot, and the cabinet in front of you seemed, in some way, to die—its pleasures expired, its shell turned strangely impassive?
As you begin again, you realise that progress is gained across and despite the temporal loop. There are new audio logs, to be found on fallen versions of Selene; she comments on the frazzled and increasingly unhinged tone of the woman on the other end, correcting her use of “I” to “she.” And the landscape rearranges itself for each attempt, renewing your sense of discovery and keeping you off-balance. At one point, I was trudging, deflated, through a clearing and was met with the most striking, surreal vision in games this year: amidst the steamy branches of an alien world, a twentieth-century house, covered in creepers, with a plain wooden porch and light leaking from an upstairs window.
It should come as no surprise that the story, though among the stars, is tightly coiled around Selene’s past, and the far-off traumas of family. As is often the case in science fiction, blasting free of the solar system only has us venturing further inwards, to the constellations of our loved ones. Think of Matthew McConaughey, in Interstellar, bending into a black hole and winding up behind a bookcase at home, trying to communicate with his daughter. The details here are drip-fed through a series of first-person segments and abstract images: a failed NASA application, a news report telling of a car crash, a wrinkled hand enclosed within another. I will give little away, suffice to say that Housemarque, in its choice of genre and in the low orbit of the plot, has rummaged around in this galactically therapeutic trope and come up with fresh treasure. By the end, Selene may have ventured across deserts of rich Martian red, through wastes of ice and under dripping canopies, and she may fail, but she will always wake back where she began, pained but changed—another coin clattering into the slot.
Available on: PS5
Release Date: April 30, 2021
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