I was losing faith in Returnal until I encountered the second boss.
After a few dozen runs, the enchanting presentation and sense of discovery from my first few hours had started to wear off. I felt weak compared to the colossal creatures that defended their territory against an unwanted visitor. I had seen and used all weapons available at the time, slowly unlocking new alt-fires and passive skills for them, but none had managed to impress me enough. The first boss had only taken me a couple of tries to conquer, yet I could barely make any progress in the second area. I was running in circles.
I stopped playing and came back the next day. After some painful runs, I finally managed to move through the enemies’ lines, dodging lasers in midair and never ceasing fire. I climbed all the way up a mountain, facing wave after wave of foes and traps as I made my way through. But all of a sudden, the chaos stopped. Up there in the summit, a dormant creature waited for me to step into the arena.
Up to that point, the lessons I had learned had seemed unrelated, but they all culminated in this moment. I used all of the movement options at my disposal, carefully planning their execution. The music, which had been almost as quiet as the enemy before my arrival, quickly ramped up. All the while, the boss showcased its plethora of attacks, perhaps as a warning of what was to come. In one moment, a storm of projectiles would follow my toes. In another, the creature would fly quickly through the arena. During the battle’s final phase, the enemy started attacking in close quarters in a much weaker stance, rampaging against the floor, producing shock waves with each hit, using whatever strength it had left.
Seeing the boss struggling to stand on its feet as it tried to defeat me one more time symbolized what Returnal is about: It’s a showcase of the toll that comes from repetition.
This PlayStation 5 exclusive introduces itself as a third-person roguelike with set levels that reorient themselves in each run, across a total of six areas. Traversing through them means facing increasingly harder enemies, collecting weapons and items as you explore an array of rooms per area. You do so through the eyes of Selene, a space pilot stuck in a time loop on a hostile alien planet, attempting to solve the mystery of how to escape. Roguelikes have stopped being a niche genre; all the while, more games are iterating on loop-based structures to tell stories. This game is a take on the genre that intertwines horror with almost every aspect of itself.
Returnal’s bosses take the bullet-hell chaos that developer Housemarque is known for and subvert it by putting the player’s perspective front and center. Orbs that would usually just plague the screen as small circles (when viewed from above) now come toward you. Melee attacks are much more terrifying when the creature unleashing them is three times taller than you and covered in tentacles.
Returnal is tough. Even when you get to the point of having learned all the ins and outs of a biome, you’ll find yourself in a new one with different enemy arenas and rooms to plunge through. And it all starts again. Each biome has its own set-pieces that alternate with every run, altering enemy placements and shifting the pool of items you can find or purchase. Aside from permanent spacesuit upgrades, which correspond to specific objects and areas in the game, and the passive skills you’ve unlocked for your weapons, not much more is retained after a time loop. More often than not, I found myself with my hands gripped to the triggers, doing my best to ignore the fact that I was facing uneven odds.
Selene can only carry one weapon at a time. Each one has different passive skills that are unlocked purely by using the weapon, as well as an alternate fire that can be activated by pulling the DualSense’s left trigger all the way down, instead of depressing it halfway to aim — a feature I loved.
As for movement options, Selene can only jump once, and her dash is somewhat limited. While it allows you to dodge through almost all projectiles (as long as they’re not purple), it has a hefty cooldown. In a game where split-second decisions can save you from a killing blow, the short wait until the dash becomes available again can feel eternal. It takes some time to get used to this, especially since the enemies aren’t exactly patient about it.
Item descriptions in roguelikes tend to consist merely of quick, catchy blurbs that are mysterious as they are unhelpful. Unfortunately, Returnal upholds that trope. It’s rather annoying to see “this affects your dash” reflected in a more colorful animation and not much else. Throwing yourself off a cliff or dashing toward an enemy attack on purpose aren’t really good ways to test out an item, either, since you always have to be aware of your health.
Then there are parasites, which grant a buff and a debuff, both of which are explained before you pick them up. It’s an excellent idea on paper, but it quickly became more of a nuisance, as the drawbacks would often outweigh the benefits. These debuffs are also present in some items and chests, but unlike with the parasites, you have no idea what to expect there. Sometimes I got lucky, but in most cases I would get a debuff that significantly affected my run. I would always have the option to break free of it by completing a specific challenge, but there weren’t many times that I was able to do that before dying.
Toward the end of the game, I started to avoid parasites and items with possible debuffs altogether. I could rarely find reasons to risk my run in the mere hopes of getting an item or a cool buff. Some consumable items do help to mitigate harmful status effects, such as one that detaches parasites and another that eliminates all debuffs. The latter, for example, pushed me to go on a chest-opening spree before the next fight, and then I just used the item to undo my debuffs ahead of the battle. This dynamic was refreshing. I just wish items like this weren’t so few and far between.
I had to be smart about the risks I was willing to take in each run, and Selene’s demeanor often matched how I was feeling. She faces uneven odds from the moment she sets foot on the planet, and that is clear in every encounter. It makes every victory significant, and revisiting past areas after learning the ropes feels immensely rewarding. But I was particularly impressed by the way Returnal portrays Selene’s exhaustion, which gets elevated by the planet’s cyclical nature.
Every time Selene is defeated, she’s taken back to the initial landing spot, a crash site where her ship lies broken into pieces. But before she’s able to try again, a sequence of cutscenes appears on screen. They replay the crash and Selene’s arrival on this planet, but also display new events that begin to happen as the story unravels, making the flashback more poignant and terrifying with each death. These cutscenes tend to repeat themselves, but whenever I thought I knew what to expect, a new vision would shake me to the core, leaving me with even more questions about Selene’s life before the crash.
Desperation and uncertainty are ever-present feelings in each run of Returnal. They are there whenever Selene picks up a recording from the ground only to hear her own voice, relating events and thoughts that we as the player haven’t seen yet. Perhaps even more terrifying are the moments when Selene finds her own body, time and time again, in different places. This loses some impact at the cost of adding a fun but gimmicky online component where you can find other players’ corpses and trigger an optional fight if you choose to avenge them. Despite that, seeing Selene’s body across some key locations after a couple of runs, often sitting in stillness, as if it had been shut down, becomes a scary constant.
After defeating a few bosses, Selene finds a house that further toys around with these ideas. It did feel a bit reminiscent of P.T., but the visits were usually short enough and different enough from one another that I never tired of visiting the house. I won’t spoil any of its surprises, so instead I’ll say that it always left me with a wide range of emotions. Fear was the foundation, but there were story twists and even new momentary mechanics introduced there that took me by surprise and left me smiling at the screen, lost in a mix of confusion and admiration.
Returnal’s biggest achievement is the way it presents the horror of being stuck in place. It’s bold and unapologetic in crafting its universe, making up for some of its more frustrating decisions by carving its own path and fulfilling its haunting potential. It doesn’t matter how hard Selene fights; she’s back in the same place with the same questions as before, if not more. The terror of fighting tooth and nail, seeing her suit covered in snow, mud, and sand, her visions tormenting her in her sleep — it stuck with me.
After the 26 hours that it took me to see the final credits, I could relate to Selene’s exhaustion. But by the time I was at the final boss, dodging hundreds of projectiles at once and side-eyeing my health bar, I felt consumed. I beat it with only one hit left on me, and I stood there watching the screen as I slowly regained my breath. All the while, Selene was in critical condition, as illustrated by a black-and-white filter, a flashing red signal on her suit, and a slow walk that reflected her injuries. I watched the final cutscene, waiting for a big revelation that would tie everything together, but the discovery was only one more piece of the puzzle. And I got sent back to the crash site, as ever.
Even after more than 60 runs of Returnal, the enchanting presentation and sense of discovery still remain. I now feel vigorous compared to the creatures that have tried to defend their territory against an unwanted visitor. The last boss only took me one try to beat it, yet I could barely make any progress in finding the right answers. I feel like I’m running in circles. But I’m not giving up.
Returnal will be released April 30 on PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.