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Returnal’s intense, unsettling first hours offer more risks than rewards

The PS5 exclusive keeps you guessing in its opening level

Selene, the main character of Returnal, wearing a space helmet Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Despite having an infinite amount of lives to solve the mystery behind Returnal, many of the ones I’ve lost felt like the result of gambling at an unfair table.

Each death brings me back to where my journey began: alone, after crash-landing on an alien planet. To understand what’s going on and return to safety, I have to delve into the unknown, which leads to more death. Each new loop remixes the layout of the planet. No two lives end the same way.

I learn more about Selene, the marooned space scout who is just trying to find out why she heard a signal from her past, as I venture deeper into the dark labyrinths and desolate landscapes of Returnal.

The problem is that untangling her story requires juggling the game’s various temporary and permanent upgrade systems, most of which require me to take on a hindrance if I’d also like the benefit. The trade-offs are often obscured, which makes opening a chest much more of a gamble than a calculated risk in the first hours of the game.

Death becomes her

Similar to other roguelikes, Returnal makes the repeated loops through randomly generated maps interesting by adding in various risk/reward systems for upgrades and pickups.

The best implementation of this idea is the parasite system. I occasionally come across parasites scattered through the planet that I can allow to latch onto me, giving myself both a random benefit and a random ailment. A parasite could begin restoring my health automatically once it drops below a certain threshold, for instance, but I’ll also take damage every time I open an item chest.

I can attach several parasites to my body, in fact, and I can see how many I’m using just by looking at Selene and counting the wriggling attached creatures. My menu keeps track of each one so I can double-check which buffs and debuffs I’m using during each run.

The parasite system works great because it’s optional, and because it tells me what’s about to happen. I can instantly see the benefit and downside to each parasite before I put it on or leave it off, and make a judgment call on the spot. Do I take a parasite that lets me use a crucial health-boosting item twice, but causes my melee attacks to do half the damage? That’s a trade-off I’m willing to make. If I don’t need the buff, or its downside outweighs the benefit, I can ignore that parasite and move on.

Returnal has a few other upgrade systems that aren’t as user-friendly.

Random nuisance generator

Returnal’s other systems rely so heavily on randomness that everything feels like a risk in the early game, especially since the punishments often feel like they outweigh the benefits.

Several objects in the game, such as item boxes, resource pickups, and even healing boosts, can become “maligned.” This means there’s a chance that I’ll be given a “malfunction” when I pick up the item.

Malfunctions are random, temporary debuffs. One might make my attacks weaker, or damage me for using items like keys. These impairments can be removed by performing a randomly assigned task, like defeating a certain number of enemies, but I’m stuck with the disadvantage until I do that. You only have a limited idea of how likely it is to pick up a malfunction, and you’re never told in advance what the malfunction will be.

A space character stands in front of an old house in Returnal
Having more than one malfunction can be a pain.
Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Maligned objects can also be cleansed using a rare item called ether. Once cleansed, a formerly maligned item or chest can be used without penalty. However, since ether is so hard to come by, and has more valuable uses — like unlocking new items — I rarely found myself cleansing objects this early in the game.

Malfunctions can be manageable if I choose to interact with a maligned resource pickup. In that instance, at least I know what I’ll receive in exchange for the malfunction. Of course, I won’t know the severity of the debuff, but at least the reward for taking the risk is clear.

I mostly ignore maligned item boxes, however, since I don’t know what’s in the box and I can’t tell which malfunction I’ll get by checking. Opening the box at all is a gamble in a few ways: Will the item be maligned, how bad will my malfunction be if it is, and what is the item I’ll gain in exchange for the malfunction?

I rarely find it’s worth my time.

Still a worthy gamble

While the balancing of maligned objects and their benefits seems a bit skewed, I discovered ways to move through Returnal utilizing the game’s systems in a way I found manageable.

In some of my best runs, my body would be crawling with parasites. Knowing the risks and rewards of those creatures helps me craft specific and challenging playthroughs. Understanding how I’m helping and hurting myself makes each cycle feel different and experimental.

glowing blue weeds surrounding a space scout in Returnal
Returnal is beautiful, haunting, and worth returning to.
Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

On the other hand, opening chests that may hold maligned objects feels like rolling dice that are weighted against me — and the items mostly made things more difficult, not easier. Removing malfunctions can also feel more like a chore than an interesting back-and-forth. For now, until I learn more and gain some permanent upgrades, I’ll likely ignore most of these objects.

As I delve deeper into Returnal’s dark sci-fi story, I’ll discover if I’m making the right bets. In the meantime, I’m more than happy to strap a handful of parasites to my spacesuit to help me blast further into the unknown.

Returnal will be released April 30 exclusively on PlayStation 5.

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