You play as a solo pilot named Selene, who crashes into her ship Helios on the planet Atropos in the opening scene of a game that instantly makes it seem like it could be set on the same distant orb as “Prometheus” “from Ridley Scott. (Longtime gamers will likely notice what looks like nods to “Metroid” in character design and even the map.) As you leave your spaceship to explore, you find signs of a lost race of creatures that have clearly designed where you are, and the monstrosities they’ve set out to kill you. While investigating a signal somewhere on the planet, Selene quickly comes across the body of another pilot dressed in a similar spacesuit. She looks at the tag on the fallen soldier. It’s hers. She’s not only been here before, but she’s died here before. And recently.
“Returnal” is built on a decades-old structure called “Roguelike,” where rooms and levels are generated differently each time you play them. Every time Selene dies, she wakes up to the crash site, which remains virtually the same every time. All progress, all found, all weapons – gone. And not only that, but the first meeting she has will be different every time. And it will be the same for the second. There are a limited number of “rooms” in each biome on this planet, but the order in which Selene meets them is never the same. Item locations and even abandoned items change. Enemies change. It adds a lot to the feeling of isolation and the fear of never being completely sure of what is to come. Video games are so often based on memorization schemes – roguelike games like “Returnal” challenge this approach. Yes, you have to learn enemy attack patterns that don’t change, but the feeling that the planet itself is transforming each time adds to the tension. It also adds to the feeling that it’s more out of your control than most regular games.
It is also a game like “Bloodborne” or “Dark Souls” in which death is an important part of the experience. And yet, progress is made every time through technology upgrades and unlocked items that will then spawn in the environment more often. It’s hard to explain exactly how, but my Selene was definitely more powerful with each death, learning new secrets, acquiring new technology, and finding new ways to attack enemies. Do not mistake yourself. Death always has an incredible impact, especially as the length Selene needs to travel from the Helios gets longer and longer. But it’s sort of not as hard to pick up as the Souls games because you can feel a palpable progression even going back to the same starting point every time. “Returnal” is remarkably crafted only in the way its new and challenging gameplay develops.