Returnal is a hard game to pin down. On the one hand, it is very much a pastiche of existing game genres: Play one run and you will see how it very clearly draws elements from roguelikes, Souls-likes, metroidvanias, action-platformers, bullet hell shooters, and horror games. But while it borrows from all those genres, its unique flow ensures that its chaotic shooting galleries and creepy storytelling feel decidedly new. A shifting, but not jarring pace, an unpredictable narrative, tough-as-nails gameplay, and a constant sense of ambient terror–Returnal’s many moving parts coalesce into a rare shooter that grabs you with its mechanics and its story and never lets go, seducing you with its challenges and a foreboding sense of dread every step of the way.
When you start Returnal, interstellar scout Selene Vassos crash-lands on an alien planet, Atropos, which is broadcasting a mysterious signal. Stranded, Selene makes some startling discoveries on the planet, including the game’s titular trait: When she dies, Selene “returns” to the site of the crash, seemingly unharmed. To explain much more would give away too much: You want to know as little about Returnal and its story as you can going in.
Yes, “return” is in the name, which is a not-subtle-not to Returnal’s run-based structure. It falls into the broader definition of a roguelite–Selene starts each run from the crash site but holds a few key upgrades and one of two in-game currencies from run to run. Everything else, including her weapon, “artifacts” that provide passive upgrades, and consumables like healing items disappear with each death. Selene wanders through the procedurally arranged and populated landscapes of Atropos hoarding gear, upgrading her health and weapon level (called proficiency), and gunning down the planet’s strange-looking, tentacle-wiggling creatures, all of which want you dead.