Time is a strange quantity. We live life forwards, understand it backwards and at the same time it's like things are going in circles. The seasons change, so do the holidays. The days take each other. Yesterday's defunct politicians are re-elected tomorrow while failed celebrities are resurrected from the mists of oblivion - only to return to them immediately. And in a blink of an eye, hidden, forgotten or squeezed gaming experiences are recreated, restored or simply re-released on new machines - old wine in new bags, if you will.
There is something fundamentally circular about computer games, after all. From the circuits of microprocessors that enable their existence, to the abstract loops of player activity - gameplay loops - that we retroactively try to divide them into, many things in the world of games - like the wheels on the bus, or the disc in the machine - go round, round, round. There is nothing new in this observation, and several games have attempted, with varying success, to italicize or meditate on the cyclical motif that characterizes so many gaming experiences.
Still, you'll have to look hard for video games that welcome the cursed circular motion to quite the same degree as the bleak and psychologically intricate Returnal. The title is, as you might sense if you strain a nerve cell or two, a contraction of the words eternal and return and with such reminders - or threats - of eternal recurrences and unbreakable time loops, the stage is set from the outset for a Sisyphean tragedy of epic proportions.
For the lost astronaut Selene, things are literally going round in circles. Every time she dies - and she dies often, for the dangers on the shadowy Atropos are many - she wakes up in the same place, next to the dismembered remains of the spaceship she arrived in. Whether by necessity, compulsion or something else entirely, the planet itself - or some evil force indulged in its dark interior - seems to keep Selene in an inexorable cycle of inexorable death and forced rebirth. The unresolved memories of a past life begin to creep up, too, as the captivating circular motion of time takes shape as a downward spiral, hellbound toward the center of madness.
It's a grim, grisly, and irresistibly morbid tale in every sense that Returnal can offer, one that successfully capitalises on the cyclical underpinnings that underpin many games and manages to both quickly and continuously pique curiosity through a mix of existential turmoil, unresolved mystery, pitch-black atmosphere and sporadic horror. While much of the playtime is spent in heavy and intense third-person action, as well as careful navigation across maze-like level modules, there are also contrasting moments where Returnal leaps into deep water as pure horror. That the game's otherwise disparate - even contradictory - elements actually talk together to create the intended mix of thrills and action is a testament to balance and moderation on the part of the developers.
And Returnal is only made more impressive by the thought of who who is actually behind it. Hopefully without taking away from or oversimplifying the developers' previous work, it seems fair to say that the Finnish developer Housemarque has made a long and commendable career out of building glorified, blistering and visually maximalist paraphrases of classic bang-bang games like Space Invaders and Asteroids. Don't get me wrong, titles like Super Stardust, Resogun and Nex Machina possess their own irrepressible wealth of style, charm and elegance, but you'd think the road from colourful explosion orgies to hellish space spirals would be longer.
But behind the game's photorealistic graphics and horrific atmosphere, Returnal hides a gaming experience that still unmistakably consists of Housemarque DNA. This is not a bloodless or passive story-driven gaming experience, but an addictive action game where both precision and caution are in the driver's seat, where the screen is regularly drowned in a sea of deadly projectiles, and where a mix of fast-paced action and frequent deaths engender a high replay value and the dopamine pill's refrain: "Just one more round."
In that sense, Returnal is closer to its predecessors than you might otherwise think. It's a game that at first glance looks like a nice but average third-person shooter, but shows more of its nuances - and diverse inspirations - the further down into its procedural underworld you dare venture. One of the more radical additions is the varied level design. It's not just Selene who loses both consciousness, memory and acquired possessions with each death: the world itself seems to be slowly losing its mind, and with each blood-drenched session the composition of the rooms changes.
The relationship between sustained loss of player progression and switchable levels has been documented and explored across many two-dimensional roguelikes, such as Spelunky, Rogue Legacy and The Binding of Isaac. With an added dimension, the successful use of procedurally composed paths understandably becomes exponentially more complex - not to mention controversial. Returnal's shifting floorplan certainly adds a sense of mystery and reinforces the hostile attitude the game's world generally greets you with, but far and away the variable lane design's success comes down to one thing: moderation.
You quickly learn to navigate and recognize the rough module pieces that are dynamically pieced together throughout the game's areas - and that's the point. Processual lane design doesn't try to reinvent the deep dish or leave the tailored lane journey to chance. But along with a generally high difficulty level and important unknowns like the number of enemies and upgrades the rooms hold, the game's shifting mazes help ensure a predominantly high level of tension, of mystery, of danger. Despite the developers' penchant for projectile saves, you're rarely assaulted by more than a handful of enemies at a time. But you never know how many or what kind of enemies are coming. And that makes all the difference.
As a result, the game's levels don't feel like a long intestine of randomly composed map elements, but more like a handful of rotating - but carefully selected - scenarios, similar to the caves a game master puts together for a campaign in a tabletop RPG. At the same time, you're always accompanied by a hugely generous 3D map that visualises and interprets your surroundings in real time, making it easy to quickly find hidden healing items or upgrades. If anything, I found myself almost a little too often looking down in the right corner, rather than orienting myself dynamically. Some of the dissonance undeniably also comes from the fact that the game's almost photorealistic environments must simultaneously accommodate red laser cones and pulsing upgrade fogs, whose placement and visuals, in many on better description, seem incredibly computer game-like.
It's these little frictions, again, that I think will make Returnal seem to some like a game that yawns over too much - an experience where the oil keeps parting the waters, no matter how hard developers and players try to whip things together in concert. And that's fair enough. For some, there will be too much distance between the snaps - the audiobooks and wall inscriptions that carry the bulk of the game's narrative burden - for the game's story to grab them like that. For others, the frequency of enemies and action will be too low to scratch in all the right places. For third parties entirely, the balance between semi-permanent progression and procedural gameplay elements will seem like a half-hearted attempt to incorporate the key lessons of an extraordinarily rich design school.
However, I have no doubt that Returnal can do something - and that something is very special. It's in the mixing of these diverse, slightly uncurated game elements that the game's identity comes into focus for me. It's a unique blend of philosophical space thrills, nerve-wracking action and procedural gameplay elements that not only testify to the developers' metier as skilled game builders, but also their future status as great storytellers - standard bearers in Sony's fleet of flagship titles.
So of course I'm delighted that the game has now come to PC, although I find it hard to believe that we're now in the third year of the PlayStation 5. With a PC release naturally comes a number of technical upgrades and boasts, though I've enjoyed few of them. Ultra-high resolution is unfortunately beyond the realms of possibility for me and if I can state that Sony's current console has already aged, then I can double state that my computers have become even older. In any case, I have experienced severe technical problems on my desktop computer - in fact, to such an extent that a review seemed impossible for a long time. Not only was performance shaky, but there was a more fundamental problem where the game's numerous cutscenes never loaded properly and the game constantly crashed as a result. What I can appreciate, on the other hand, is how the game's use of haptic feedback and dynamic trigger effects can also be experienced on the computer - if you're the lucky owner of a DualSense 5, that is. If you're not in possession of such a technological marvel, I can reassure you that Returnal plays quite superbly with the mouse and keyboard combination instead. Reaction speed is one thing, but in where the best way to avoid threats in the end is to eliminate them, precision is more precious than any weapon upgrade. After being stuck with a boss for a few hours, I switched from controller to mouse and the difference was felt immediately.
And this thing about being stuck is significant enough, because Returnal certainly doesn't twiddle its thumbs. It's not like it drowns you in a maelstrom of strong enemies or constantly takes you on with sweeping gotcha jabs. You can just die quickly and when you do, it hurts. Because then you're back to square one, with no sexy extra equipment or tuned weapons. Sure, you continually unlock upgrades of a more permanent nature, but there's a long way between them and many of them are tied up with the main story. This is probably where the game runs the biggest risk in terms of losing the player. A generous map compass always tells you where you have to move to get further in the game, but the game is correspondingly silent when telling you what you could do to facilitate the journey there. It's not a question of the game should be easier, but of giving the player more or better options to negotiate that difficulty dynamically.
One such bargaining opportunity is surely the possibility of teaming up with a Selena from an alternate universe - that is, with another player, via the internet. Despite patient searching, I have unfortunately not been able to find a playmate, but I don't know if I'm tempted either. There is something slow, dangerous and methodical about Returnal that I feel in my solitude with the game and that I don't necessarily want to share, but who knows? Maybe I'll give it a shot now the game has officially released. Or maybe the increasing difficulty will end up leaving me no choice.
Returnal isn't for everyone and if the game's distinctive blend of psychological horror, heavy atmosphere and nerve-wracking die-and-start-again gameplay doesn't hook you during the first few hours, then the game doesn't do much during the subsequent rounds of weeping and gnashing of teeth to convince you either. For my part, I can feel the game taking root in me - like Selene, I've slowly become caught up in Atropi's spiralling web of torment, death and resurrection. Not since the crew of Nostromo landed on LV-426, and indirectly initiated the birth of the 8th passenger into the collective unconscious, has a turbulent and darkened planet made such an impression on me. Selene's exalted journey down the alien hostility of Atropos brings to mind both cinematic and ludic space thrills - from Alien to Metroid, from Ripley to Ripley - and if this is the future of Housemarque's work, well, I welcome it.