Returnal review: an immaculate third-person shooter that may keep you in its loop forever
Let’s go round again
The last thing you need when you’ve just crash-landed on an unknown planet teeming with predatory wildlife is to discover you’re also stuck in a time loop. But that’s the fate of deep-space astronaut Selene in Returnal, when she ditches her single-seater vessel on a remote rock called Atropos. Each time she falls foul of the local fauna, she pops back into existence right next to her broken ship, with no obvious means of escape. Forget Aliens vs Predator, this is Aliens vs Groundhog Day.
But what a day it is, as Returnal combines a best-in-class third-person shooter with a deep dive into the psychology of its protagonist. Selene’s journey into Atropos, through a thick jungle, a burning vermilion desert and beyond, sends her circling through a smorgasbord of emotions – from confusion to hope, despair to determination. And so often, her mood dovetails with your own highs and lows of elation and frustration, until every part of Returnal encases you in its loop.
Indeed, for the last two years, this Sony published title has been one of the best reasons to own a PlayStation 5. It may not have the glamourous reputation of mega-franchise sequels such as Horizon: Forbidden West or God of War: Ragnarök, but Returnal is as much a showcase for the platform as any of them, and utterly essential as long as you don’t mind its rather punishing challenge. Not to mention that since its release Finnish developer Housemarque has addressed early criticisms and planed away rough edges, until the loop runs smoother than ever.
It's gratifying to find, then, that Climax Studios’ PC port is no less essential. At least that is as long as you have a machine with enough grunt to keep up with its luminescent mayhem. I have to admit, I fell a little short in this respect, equipped with a PC that merely matched the recommended settings, and it came as no surprise that I had to tune the graphical bells and whistles down a notch to maintain a solid frame rate. That’s fine, but if you have to venture further down the scale into the ‘Medium’ settings, the drop in quality is steep, and the lively environments lose a lot of their shine. While I’m usually no stickler for performance or fidelity, Returnal’s alien textures and eye-scorching particles deserve to have the dials turned up to max.
The good news is that when it’s running on ‘Epic’ settings, this version is as sumptuous as the original. Battles are a feast of searing lasers, missile swarms and writhing tentacles. Statues explode into hundreds of tiny rocks, enemies dissolve into piles of cascading voxels, and teleporters deconstruct Selene into swirls of light before cannoning her across the world. Combined with the rumble of a control pad and the retro sci-fi vibe of the 3D soundscape, it’s a feast for the senses. Well, three of them.
In amongst all that, the controls and the camera are ever-reliable, somehow never intruding on the illusion. Returnal is one of those rare games where everything just works. You can see what you need to see. Every twitch of the thumb to prompt Selene to run, jump, and dash is obeyed with life-or-death urgency. The grappling wire upgrade you secure partway through propels you across arenas with zero fuss. Sprint towards a health pickup, and you know you can grab it without breaking stride.
Even after dozens of hours on the PS5 version and a good number on this one, I’m still amazed how Housemarque has managed to translate its mastery of 2D arcade action in titles such as Resogun and Nex Machina into three dimensions so fluidly. The result is a kind of behind-the-shoulder bullet hell, where you step and weave between sheets of glowing death orbs like a gun-toting Muhammad Ali. Alternatively, you can duck out of sight until the heat dies down, but it’s all part of the flow. Cover spots in Returnal aren’t the sore-thumb low walls of many a third-person shooter, but organic pillars of rock or blocks of debris that suddenly become useful in a pinch.
Still, this is a tough game, especially in its first half. In the early stages, it’s tempting to hunker down behind doorways to its randomly arranged rooms, picking off individual enemies, and probably a wise idea until you learn how each type behaves. But Selene is built to win battles by staying on the move, shooting from the hip, closing down turrets to take them out with a swing of her blade, scaling the vertical space to find a vantage point. Charge into the fray and you may bite off more than you can chew, but there’s little to match the exhilaration when the noise stops and you’re the only one still moving.
"Returnal drags you by the hand through the sheer terror of the time loop scenario"
While the action alone already makes Returnal special, though, what makes it very special indeed is the atmosphere and narrative that wind around it. Selene is a compelling character to accompany as her logic-hungry personality chafes against her predicament (also thanks to Jane Perry’s voice work). Her fear is palpable when she stumbles upon corpses of other versions of herself, clutching recordings describing journeys she can’t remember. She’s even more befuddled when she discovers a replica of her old house deep in the jungle, with memories inside that suggest new theories, or maybe a descent into madness.
But more than that, with all the clues, names and symbols that enrich the ambiguous fiction, Returnal drags you by the hand through the sheer terror of the time loop scenario. However exciting it is to tackle the challenges of Atropos, at the same time every loop is like entering another ring of hell, as the realisation dawns that the joy of shooting stuff is the only distraction from a seamless, suffocating, circular reality.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the content added to Returnal since its initial release, which is all present here, threatens to detract from that illusion. Pausing to call in a co-op buddy or suspending a game mid-run can’t but rub against the idea that you’re trapped alone and forever in a hostile world. Not that these aren’t welcome options, though, particularly for anyone who doesn’t feel like taking Atropos on at its most uncompromising.
Plus the extras also include the fantastic Tower of Sisyphus, a new ‘endless’ game mode which opens up once you’ve made significant progress along the main path. While Returnal has roguelike elements, including randomised maps and items that throw up little risk-reward choices, the tower is a much more focused roguelike experience, right down to its scoring system and online leaderboard. If there was any doubt before that the game offered enough incentive to continue playing once its story was done, the tower more than plugs the gap.
And with that, Returnal’s circle is complete. Keep playing and each turn reveals with increasing certainty that this is a game totally at one with itself, from its audio-visual spectacle to its pinpoint control to its interweaving narrative and now its longevity. Unlike Selene, I keep coming back to Atropos by choice. Long may its immaculate, horrifying loop continue.