Returnal – obscurity that triggers you to explore

Returnal is a roguelike third-person shooter video game developed by Housemarque and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment in 2021. As a single-player game available for Play Station 5, Returnal gets unique advantages, such as DualSense controller, ray-tracing effects in real-time, and 3D spatial audio. The gameplay occurs in a sci-fi setting, where the player takes the role of Selene, an astronaut who finds herself captured in a perplexing time loop.

Being a highly demanding and sophisticated game, Returnal was in development for over four years. However, that resulted in speedy loading times, impressive visual animations, and 60 frames per second.

The effort the creators put into the game met a positive response from the public as Returnal received favorable critics. Most reviews noted that the main character is enthralling, and the visuals and audio are top-notch.

On the other side, many players described the game as beyond difficult, making it challenging to reach higher levels as it includes a lot of (perhaps unnecessary) grinding. Another significant critic was that Returnal requires to play the levels repeatedly and still face imminent death. Without the save feature, that can be nerve-racking and taxing.

Despite being a game that takes a lot of time and patience, it reached number two in sales in the UK in May 2021. Moreover, Returnal sold more than 560,000 copies last month, and its success continues to grow.

But what about the game itself? Is it as complex and euphoric as critics say? We played it for you, and here’s what we thought.

Hostility as the core element of the game

Selene Vassos is an explorer who works for ASTRA Corporation but decides to disobey their orders and land on a prohibited territory due to her urge to investigate and examine. She then arrives on an off-limit planet called Atropos, striving to discover the explanation behind the White Shadow signal she previously received.

But Selene doesn’t arrive seamlessly. Instead, she has to crash land, causing alarming damage to her ship. That leaves Selene unable to reach out to Astra or get help. After that, things only get worse.

Soon after the curious cosmonaut starts exploring this strange planet, she finds cadavers of herself. Not long after, the game starts getting its core shape, and the player learns that every time Selene dies, the time will go back to the moment she landed on Atropos.

That reveals that she is stuck in a loop that always takes her back to the start. Yet, the surprises don’t end there. Instead, each time Selene loses her life, the planet will change, leaving her with lucid visions that appear to be random.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t allow any of that to stop her or hinder their determination to identify what the White Shadow signal means and why she finds it familiar. Regardless of her courage, the mission won’t be smooth, and she’ll have to combat various hostile aliens.

Selene has to scavenge and leverage the remains of alien technology left from those who used to live on Atropos. The road takes surprising directions, and, eventually, she finds what seems to be her childhood home.

Without thinking twice, Selene enters her old home, but every time that happens, she gets memories of her past and sees an astronaut in a dated space suit. It’s when she reaches the, perhaps, most shocking truth. It was Selene herself who caused her spaceship to crash on Atropos.

She manages to find the source of the mysterious signal before finally contacting ASTRA and getting help. In the end, Selene believes she came back to Earth, and the player sees her death due to her age. But in a game like Returnal, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

One more time, Selene finds herself back on Atropos, in those moments after her ship crashed. It’s when she realized that escaping this puzzling planet could never be possible, forcing her to continue exploring.

After some time, Selene comes to discoveries, and the underwater abyss is one of them. It’s where she finds what appears to be a replica of a car from the past. At that point, Returnal takes two directions, depending on how well she investigates the house. Nevertheless, we won’t reveal these two outcomes to avoid spoiling the final surprise(s).

It’s challenging to talk about the game without spoiling some of its most curious details to shows what makes Returnal compelling. Indeed, it’s layered, sublime, and it pulls you in with all its subtle and shocking threads.

Returnal has horror-story elements, but it’s also arcade-like entertaining. Moreover, it’s psychological, and it often feels like the game tries to be everything at once. As many critics said, it’s an understatement to say that it’s hard to finish the game. But you might not even want that to happen because you’ll enjoy finding answers to the baffling scientific questions.

The aesthetics are often obscure, and it tends to be hard to navigate and read when necessary. You’ll encounter various threats that seem dormant but are waiting to attack, pointing to the overall hostility of this environment. Because of that, you’ll frequently feel lost in the murky occurrences around you, and the ever-changing biomes won’t help to make you feel at home.

Another element that makes Returnal captivating is its lack of explanations. In most cases, you’ll have to take risks, gamble with your lack, and fathom the things on your own. All in all, this game is about testing your endurance. Hence, don’t expect combat that will overly excite you or be what you never saw before.

But all the fogginess, plot twists, and obstacles are worth it because the world of Atropos is a genuine masterpiece. It’s interactive, and exploring its alien setting will undoubtedly kill you, but you’ll do it regardless of consequences.

The big boss fights are engaging but not overly challenging, although they can get exhausting after a few attempts. Developers wanted the hostility and difficulty level to lie at the core of Returnal, and they didn’t fail. It then remains to find out how long you can persevere and how intense is your urge to explore.

Endurance, challenges, and mysteries

Playing Returnal can get mundane after you die too many times and go back to the starting point. Yet, you’ll have too many questions and mysteries you want to solve that will trigger you to pick the controller again.

Undoubtedly, it’s a game that’s challenging beyond imagination, and it wants to see how much you can endure. But the investment you place on exploration and uncovering the truth is the principal drive that keeps you going no matter how many times you die.

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