Time loops aren’t exactly a novel concept. In fact, they’ve become quite trendy in 2021 with games like Deathloop and Twelve Minutes utilizing time loops as the main conceit. Reliving events over and over doesn’t always have to be scary, but when you’re trapped on an alien planet riddled with overpowered monsters trying to destroy you, it descends into full-on horror. That’s what one of the PlayStation 5’s very best — and scariest — exclusive games has to offer.
We’re, of course, talking about Returnal, the brilliant third-person action roguelike developed by Housemarque that capitalizes on the PS5’s unique hardware and software to deliver a gripping and immersive experience. It just may give you nightmares (in a good way). For anybody looking to experience a bit of absolute terror and cerebral Lovecraftian horror, then look no further.
In Returnal, you play as Selene Vassos, a space explorer with the ASTRA Corporation who investigates a mysterious signal on the off-limits planet of Atropos. After a storm damages her ship, resulting in an emergency crash-landing, she awakens on the planet’s surface and begins exploring a dangerous forest where hostile alien life forms inevitably and brutally destroy her. Except every time, she loops back in time to the crash and must explore the planet yet again. The mystery deepens when Selene encounters her own dead body. Some of them even mutate and reanimate.
Even the weakest of enemies can take you out in one or two hits, so the anxious feeling of vulnerability and dread is on par with the likes of Dark Souls or Bloodborne. You are a weak human in a dangerous place, and every single demise is sudden and brutal enough that I found myself screaming in literal terror.
The planet also changes in every loop, adding a sense of mystery and intrigue. Over time, you’ll recognize some patterns, but everything from the environments to the enemies and items you discover are procedurally generated at random. This is a staple of the roguelike genre, but unlike games like Hades where you’ll construct a synergistic build using the Boons you discover along the way, Returnal is a bit more chaotic and left up to chance.
Some upgrades are permanent as Selene harvests alien technology from the long-dead corpses of a sentient civilization, like a grappling hook or Atropian Blade melee weapon. But most items you pick up disappear upon your demise. There are Optional Parasites that cling to Selene’s body, offering some kind of perk at the expense of a negative effect. Your suit might repair itself when heavily damaged, but your melee damage output could take a 50 percent reduction.
The most important attribute to monitor, however, is your Suit Integrity which functions as your HP or health bar. Picking up various kinds of Resin can heal or increase overall health. But Returnal offers a bevy of other consumables, Artifacts that upgrade your suit, and a variety of guns and devices that impact every run.
The sci-fi weapons and overall combat is reminiscent of other third-person action titles like Mass Effect, and Returnal does interesting things with the DualSense controller’s adaptive triggers. It also incorporates elements of bullet hell games, meaning that every enemy type fires an overwhelming number of energy projectiles you have to dodge.
Returnal is stressful and difficult, but once you adjust to its nightmarish gameplay, you can sink into the cerebral and haunting story. It has a total of six biomes, including the starting forest. Selene has to explore more and more of the planet to locate the source of the signal, but along the way, she’s literally haunted by a figure in a retro spacesuit. Even more puzzling, a recreation of her home on Earth appears somewhat randomly in the forest, allowing her to explore memories as a way of further understanding her past, present, and future.
The atmosphere is key here, and the PS5’s 3D audio sounds noticeably different from most other games out there. The way it enhances the story and gameplay elements truly make it feel like a next-generation game.
We won’t spoil some of Returnal’s biggest and best surprises, but after one of the most epic and exciting boss encounters I’ve ever played, the story delivers a jaw-dropping twist you’ll never see coming. It’ll make you question Selene’s sanity — and maybe even your own. How did Selene really get trapped in this time loop? What cosmic forces are at play here? The answers to these questions are hard to comprehend for a game that delves so deeply into cosmic horror, drawing clear inspiration from the Alien franchise and Lovecraft ... especially with all of the tentacles you’ll encounter along the way.
Returnal is available now exclusively on PlayStation 5.