Returnal: Game Review
Game of the year? More like game of a lifetime.
!!!!! SPOILERS AHEAD !!!!!
It was voted game of the year for a reason and now that I am a couple days out from beating the main storyline, I’m left with even more questions than I had when I started playing. I admit I’m not angry about that because the questions swirling around my brain are more existential and reality bending than I had ever anticipated and they’ve left me questioning my own choices and patterns, or rather cycles that I find myself repeating unconsciously. So without further ado, here’s a personal analysis of Returnal.
The format of this game is rage inducing to say the least and there’s a reason why only 10% of players actually complete the game. It’s hard, point blank. The storyline is an extraterrestrial horror tale of a woman named Selene on a solo space mission for a company called Astra to investigate a mysterious signal coming from a rogue planet, Atropos. On approach to the planet, she crash lands, her ship unable to fly and she’s left with an intact space suit and a simple handgun. Around her, you see a few things including a doorway forward, another doorway up on an unreachable ledge, some sort of manufacturing machinery and a glowing orb that signals you to play multiplayer, if you wish. I’m a solo player, so I ignored the orb and progressed forward through the door I could reach. The first room I entered was an open space with some small bridge type walkways. The landscape was almost like a wet forest floor, a bit decaying and deep into the night, barely any light. As I walked into the room, enemies began to spawn. A mix of tentacled lion type animals shooting glowing orbs, which I dodged assuming they were harmful, as well as flying creatures that looked like giant bats. When either creature got close to me, they dove and attacked, and it wasn’t long before I was swarmed that I was killed by a mob of hell creatures ruthlessly attacking and not caring that I literally just started the game seconds ago. I had just started the game, so being returned to the beginning wasn’t a shocking element. I returned to the start and approached the door again, but this time it opened to a completely different room. A different layout, no creatures, but inside was a multi level, 20th century house. I approached the house and went inside and while exploring the house, which was very sinister, more details began to come out that the house was actually Selene’s. Her things, her photos, her room, a child’s room with Helios spelled out on the door. That was the moment I realized that Selene is either on some sort of highly advanced planet extracting her memories and creating a landscape around it, or that this was a hallucination in entirety. Selene’s voiceovers are filled with shock and terror. She cannot make sense of what is happening and begins questioning her own sanity. I learned in that first moment in the house that you’re being stalked by a figure in a traditional astronaut suit. No details are revealed whatsoever about the figure. Continuing forward, I encountered many rooms filled with different enemies, ranging in difficulty from one hit kills to many hit kills, forcing me to run and dodge for my life. This second round, I somehow made it pretty far, playing through for about an hour exploring all of the rooms. I was upgrading my weapons and health bar, collecting obolites and ether (game currency used for upgrades.) I thought it was strange that there hadn’t been any sort of save yet and thought that perhaps it was autosaving and upon dying it would reload me somewhere near where I was. Nope. I died and back to the very beginning I went. Any progress I had made, any items I had collected, upgrades I had done, gone. Back to zero. I had read prior to playing that this was that type of game. A long cyclical gaming experience where you must survive if you want to progress, which is a mindset that could certainly be applied to the real world. I played through, beating the first boss (which was one of the hardest boss battles I’ve ever played,) and gaining access to a new area, or biome as it’s called in the game.
The second biome was dramatically different. It was a big stormy desert filled with ancient ruins and finally, seeing visual traces of the civilization that settled the planet. There are giant sculptures everywhere of these beings, you even see actual dead bodies as well. One shocking detail I noticed is that alongside the alien bodies, Selene’s bodies were scattered everywhere, the bodies of her past cycles. Very bizarre and jarring visual. This second biome was the same format as the first. Survive. I had upgraded my health bar and my weapon quite a bit and was feeling good with my knowledge of the gameplay. I died and thought I’d start at that new biome. Nope. Back to the very, very beginning I went. Again, back to zero, seeing myself crash land and exit the ship as if I had never played the game before. This pattern continued for 2 more bosses, learning tidbits about Selene along the way. There were many plot holes floating around. Seeing flashes of a child, a sick mother, the astronaut figure, the house. I reached and beat the 3rd boss and it seemed as if there was resolution. A cut scene plays that Selene had successfully sent a distress signal home to be rescued and that she has returned home, a news broadcast showing the rescue and a life flashing before her eyes moment. She eventually dies of what I assume was old age and sees herself being lowered into the grave and the grave keeps sinking and sinking and sinking until eventually, I was in the ship again crash landing and was returned to the very beginning all over again, but this time, the landscape looks different. It’s like an overgrown forest, like nature taking back over stone structures. Some new hostiles are introduced, but generally the layout of the rooms are similar, if not the same, as before. This time though, upon dying, I returned to this new start, with the same level of weapon upgrades you had when you beat the 3rd boss. It’s the same format on a new scale. Even if I had played this new section for 3 hours and died, back to this new beginning I went, stripped of upgrades and advancements. A completely unforgiving aspect of the game. This jungle area also featured a room with the same 20th century home. But this time as I approached the house, I reached the front door just standing there and the screen slowly zooms out to be this image on a small television and a child holding a PS5 controller as if the child had been playing this story all along. Let me just say this broke my mind a little. It was such am incredibly trippy visual, especially because the child playing the game was the child that lived in the 20th century house I had been inside of multiple times, Helios, who I inferred was Selene’s child, if Selene even really existed at this point. The game continues with unanswered questions as to what in the world just happened and I eventually made it to the second (second) biome.
There was another major storyline progression here. This new biome was a frozen tundra and Selene says that it’s strange that these coordinates are the same coordinates as the desert biome she had previously been in. I realized that the story was conveying that she had essentially been trapped in this death/return loop for thousands of years, or at least what seemed like that long. The planet had changed and shifted to something totally new. I progressed forward into an underwater biome, dying and restarting a few times (screaming OH MY GOD over and over again,) until reaching the final boss and defeating them. I was then confronted by a giant squid type creature with glowing red eyes and Selene asked if this creature is who brought her here and that she realized that she deserved to be there and she knew why. The final cut scene plays, which absolutely broke my heart. In the cut scene, you seen Selene driving a car with her child, Helios, in the back seat. Helios says, “Do you see the White Shadow?” and Selene looks forward to see the astronaut standing in the middle of the road. She swerves and drives off the bridge, throwing the car into the water and sinking to the bottom. She frees herself, but is unable to free the child and is pulled away by some force, leaving the child to drown in the backseat.
This was essentially the end of the main game. I was returned to the very, very beginning, as if you had never started playing, though any body technology you had discovered remained. I sat there as I was returned to the ship and honestly had to catch my breath. It’s such a high stress game, but also an extremely emotional one. There are so many ways to interpret the story and I’m not even sure if I’ve landed on one yet, but thoughts I have gathered are that this place she was trapped in was some sort of purgatory. Almost a metaphor for haunting thoughts you try to bury so deep that you don’t want to remember. The astronaut figure was essentially Selene herself, a visual representation of her career, which often took her away from home and away from her child. Her seeing it in the road and not driving through it was her choosing her career. She tried to swerve to save both the child and the astronaut, ultimately loosing everything in the process. My personal opinion is that she died in that car with the child and these final images of remembering, the game itself, were the final moments of processing. A final opportunity to remember and make peace. There is a spiritual element involved and it leaves me asking, did her soul actually go somewhere? Is there a purgatory in which we are punished for the deeds of this life? Or is the mind simply the worst purgatory of all, or is that all just the same thing? Grief is an incredibly powerful force that can move and shape your entire world and even make you see and experience things that others aren’t experiencing. It is mentioned throughout the story that Selene had a mother that was emotionally cold and abusive and her dream to be an astronaut was actually her mother’s and not her own. I believe this psychologically set Selene up to have this guilt ridden conscience that she failed her child, as her mother failed her. She yearned to receive presence and love and acceptance from her mother and wasn’t even able to provide that to her own child until it was too late and all that was left was her memory. Being returned to the beginning of the game again made me feel deeply for Selene. I wanted to reach into the television and free her from this torture, having to remind myself that this was just a game, a game that made me question the very fabric of our own reality. Perhaps when we die, we get a second chance in another exact reality to get it right. Perhaps there is a constant regeneration of outcomes of our choices and one day, we will get the chance to process it all and make right what we thought was wrong. If the game taught me anything, it was the poignancy of our own reality and that we could make these changes now. Why wait to find out if you have another chance to change at death? Make peace now with the pain, the failures, the losses. Forgive those who have passed and those that live in a way that brings you out of your own mental purgatory. If we invented a technology to see a cinematic view of what’s happening inside of our own minds, we’d likely find that it looks a lot like Selene’s purgatory, trapped in a cycle of visual reminders of past pains. Processing what hurts ultimately brings healing and the difference between us and Selene is that we have the ability to turn off the game and remind ourselves of what’s true, that we are in charge of freeing ourselves from ourselves.
This game is not for the faint of heart, but if you are intrigued by a challenge, both in the game and psychologically, I 1000/10 recommend. Get past the frustration of having to start over and push yourself to survive. It’s all we can do at the end of the day.
About the author
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
All things philosophy, magic, humanity, and emotion.