Returnal: The Psychological Horror Game You Don’t Want to Miss
By: James Sokoloski
If you came here looking for a review I have some bad news: you will not be getting one. Instead, allow me to dive into how developer Housemarque built both an alien planet and narrative that I can’t stop myself from enjoying.
Returnal came out at the end of April, and I admit I still haven’t rolled credits on it. At this point I don't know if I'll ever beat it. Yet, I still find myself firing up the game for a few runs each week.
The reason I keep doing this is not the belief that “this will be the run that gets me over the top'', but because the psychological horror, atmosphere, and lore all push Housemarque’s rogue-like onto my early list for being one of the best games of the season. Yes, you read that correctly. Somehow, a game that I don't think I will ever beat is my frontrunner for Game Of The Year.
For those of you who have no idea what Returnal is about, here is a very quick summary: Returnal is a third-person shooter where you play as an astronaut named Selene. Crashing on the alien planet Atropos while investigating a mysterious signal, you eventually discover that you are stuck in a time loop. Not even death can free you from the loop and so, understandably, you look for a way to break the cycle. Simple enough…. or so it seems.
The story of who Selene is unfolds in both the past and present, as the player is given audio logs and flashbacks to her life before the crash. You learn pretty quickly that something in Selene’s past is haunting her psyche as you try to find a way to get off the alien planet. At various points you come across dead versions of Selene that have audio recordings of what that specific version had experienced.
As you get further into the game madness slowly creeps into these logs. Seeing your own dead body repeatedly- accompanied by recordings that increasingly sound like Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now- builds a persistent feeling of isolation as you fight across alien territory. However, despite my slow progress through the game, the drive to find out more about Selene’s life and the cataclysm that happened on the planet keeps pushing me to return to the series.
The easiest way to describe the Returnal’s atmospheric setting is Alien meets H.P. Lovecraft. The diversity of enemies you encounter and different biomes you explore establishes that you are stranded on a fully-realized alien world, where each biome has unique enemy types that add a different sense of dread. This is established from the outset, where the fungus-like Mycomorph enemy makes the overgrowth of the opening biome feel as though the vegetation of the planet is against you. Returnal also switches into a first-person perspective when Selene enters a house from her past that appears on Atropos. Instead of going for first-person jump scares, the title leans into psychological horror as you slowly investigate structures that are jarringly out of place on the alien planet.
Returnal is easily the best showcase for what the PlayStation 5 can do with audio and the new its fancy new DualSense controller. (Sorry Ratchet and Clank, it’s true!) Between the rain effects going through my headset and the feeling of raindrops lightly pulsating off the controller the game somehow makes you feel wet in the first biome. Not only that, but the original soundtrack created by Bobby Krlic is truly is what brings everything together in Returnal. I can only describe it as Hans Zimmer on his loneliest day. Seriously- it should be showered with awards. This is where I would also like to give a special shout-out to the organ-playing boss on the fourth biome. The audio and sound elevate the confrontation to one of my favourite boss fights ever in 20 years of gaming.
Will I beat Returnal before the holiday season? At this point I can't really say. What I can say, however, is that the 25 hours I have spent as Selene on Atropos has made a bigger impact on me than I believe seeing the end credits roll ever could. Through Returnal, Housemarque has created something special that any sci-fi lover will return to again and again.