Last week, the Helsinki-based video game developer Housemarque released Returnal for the PlayStation 5. It’s a spectacular showcase for the brand-new console: a survival horror game set on a distant, menacing planet determined to kill you over and over again.
The lonesome astronaut Selene Vassos, seeking the source of a mysterious signal known as “the White Shadow,” crashes onto the ruined planet Atropos. She recovers from the landing and abandons the wreckage in order to explore the hostile terrain, overrun with beastly hordes and littered with copies of her own corpse. Atropos appears to be a strange new world until Selene, deep in a forest, stumbles upon her own house, filled with hints of her troubled life on Earth and haunted by a second, faceless astronaut who observes Selene without speaking. Selene later encounters titanic opponents who bombard her with lasers, missiles, and orbs. Inevitably, Selene dies—in fact, she dies a lot—only to once again relive the crash, revive by the wreckage, and restart her journey into the heart of darkness. Gradually, Selene learns she’s caught in a time loop. To escape Atropos, Selene must scavenge and fight her way straight from the wreckage to the White Shadow at her journey’s end.
While Sony still struggles to satisfy the retail demand for the PS5, Returnal is the most impressive early demonstration of the console’s key technical merits: better graphics and faster load times. The latter improvement proves crucial in the seamless transition from death to rebirth; a high death count in Returnal might be unbearable, not just challenging, on an older console with slower loading gates. Still, there are some technical limitations that prove a bit too conspicuous in Returnal. The developers, expecting the player to beat the game in a single, high-stakes run, declined to implement a conventional save system. This constraint might be tolerable if not for the game’s tendency to crash, wiping the player’s latest run without warning or recourse. Housemarque has acknowledged the widespread complaints about lost progress in Returnal, but they’ve yet to say whether they’ll improve the game’s stability and revise the save system with software patches. For now, Returnal remains a frustrating but nonetheless brilliant challenge.
Selene must defeat the boss of each biome in order to recover a key to the next. Whenever she dies, she keeps her keys, meaning Selene must vanquish each boss only once. But each time Selene dies and relives her crash landing, she must once again fight her way through the hordes loitering between her and the latest boss. Though swift, Selene is small, outnumbered, and easily overwhelmed in hostile encounters. She can’t just evade the hordes without foregoing the crucial items they supply for overcoming the bosses: better weapons, higher health, and stat bonuses. But she might also live to regret risking another horde encounter in order to salvage just one more upgrade; maybe the health she loses to the horde wasn’t worth the new resources she manages to harvest from the battleground, maybe she dies.
Once a horde descends on Selene, the musical score swells into a pessimistic progression that seems to take the player’s demise for granted. But if Selene defeats the horde, the chord dissipates and the battleground is cleared for her to scavenge before proceeding to the next arena. There’s no getting too comfortable with the topography of Atropos. Though you’ll memorize the layout of certain areas, each new run will reshuffle the room-to-room arrangement of areas as well as the enemies and items inside the areas. Selene’s fortitude in any given run is, to some great degree, a matter of luck.
The survivalism in Returnal is stressful enough, but then there’s the cosmic horror in the design, which often promotes the stress into dread. There’s slime and tentacles everywhere, there’s crabs and androids and angels and supersoldiers, and from beginning to end they remain shrouded in inscrutability. For the most part, Returnal resists the urge to overexplain the mysteries of Atropos. On her own corpses Selene finds logs of her past selves explaining her latest discoveries, milestones, and pitfalls in exploring the planet, but as the player pushes deeper into Atropos her logs become delusional, revealing her descent into madness as she struggles to escape the planet. Selene’s childhood home contains the most straightforward revelations about her distress, and even there the hints are abstracted into mementos: an astronaut figurine, an octopus doll, and a mess of empty pill bottles. There’s much more intrigue than plot in Returnal, and that’s the game’s great strength. It’s less interested in looking more realistic or seeming more cinematic than earlier shooters. It’s far more determined to employ its state-of-the-art specifications toward a new vividness, thanks in large part to haptic feedback in the new controller.
There’s far more prominent franchise titles on the early release calendar for the PS5. There’s a new Resident Evil game this week and a new chapter in the Final Fantasy VII Remake series next month; I’m sure both will unlock new levels of technical excellence in a long-running series. But Returnal emerges as the console’s first grand and original thought, a new title for a new generation.