You play a solo pilot named Selene, who crash lands her ship the Helios on the planet Atropos in the opening scene of a game that instantly feels like it could take place on the same distant orb as Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” (Longtime gamers will also likely notice what feel like nods to “Metroid” in character and even map design.) As you leave your spacecraft to explore, you find signs of a lost race of creatures that clearly designed where you are, and the monstrosities they left behind to kill you. As she investigates a signal somewhere on the planet, Selene quickly comes across the body of another pilot that’s dressed in a similar space suit. She looks at the tag on the fallen soldier. It’s hers. She’s not only somehow been here before but died here before. And recently.
“Returnal” is built on a decades-old structure named “Roguelike,” wherein rooms and levels are procedurally-generated differently every time you play it. Every time Selene dies, she wakes up back at that crash site, which remains mostly the same each time. All progress, all found items, all weapons—gone. And not only that but the first encounter she has will be different every time. And so will the second. There are a limited number of “rooms” in each biome on this planet but the order in which Selene encounters them is never the same. The item locations and even what items drop shift. The enemies change. It adds greatly to the sense of isolation and fear that you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. Video games are so often based on memorizing patterns—roguelike games like “Returnal” challenge that approach. Yes, you have to learn enemy attack patterns that don’t change, but the sense that the planet itself is transforming every time adds to the tension. It also adds to the sense that this is more out of your control than most ordinary games.
It’s also a game like “Bloodborne” or “Dark Souls” wherein death is a major part of the experience. And yet progress is made every time through tech upgrades and unlocked items that will then pop up more often in the environment. It’s hard to explain exactly how, but my Selene was definitely more powerful with each death, learning new secrets, gaining new tech, and figuring out new ways to attack her enemies. Don’t get me wrong. Death still has an incredible impact, especially as the length Selene needs to travel from the Helios gets longer and longer. But it’s somehow not as hard to take as the “Souls” games because one can feel palpable advancement even returning to the same starting point every time. “Returnal” is remarkably designed purely in how fresh and challenging its gameplay develops.
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