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Developer Housemarque
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre Third Person Shooter
Release Date April 30, 2021

Returnal is a roguelike action game with a dark sci-fi theme. It is set on the planet Atropos where the ASTRA Corporation explorer Selene Vassos crash lands her space ship Helios, disobeying orders as she chases after a signal she dubs White Shadow. The hostile planet has a dense environment as she looks for a way back. After dying once she discovers she is resurrected right away and is stuck in a time loop, waking up near her a ship and having to start over all again.

The game is played from a behind view as Selene traverses the environments and fights extraterrestrial entities. The game consists of six biomes, each with a distinct biotechnological theme, environment and enemies. Death is permanent and an intended part of the gameplay, as the knowledge from runs is used to push deeper into the alien world. There are also several story fragments at certain points, through animated cut-scenes or interactive sequences played from a first-person view with elements of horror and mystery. Each run takes place in a unique take on the biome with reshuffled rooms, randomized enemies and items. There are also several metroidvania elements as Selene gradually gets access to new abilities, one of the few game elements that are carried over between runs.

Exploring a biome eventually leads to a boss encounter where multi-tier fights borrow heavily from bullet hell games, a developer trademark, as Selene has to dodge a large number of projectiles. She has swift movement that incorporates running, jumping, dashing with a brief window of invincibility, a powerful melee attack and a single ranged weapon. There are several weapons in the game, but only one can be carried at a time. They include a pistol, a blaster and a shotgun, but also exotic types such as the Hollowseeker, an Electropylon Launcher, a Rotgland Lobber, a Pyroshell Caster, a Thermogenic Launcher and more, each with unique projectile types, an alternative fire mode with cooldown and an active reload system that punishes fumbling. A biome consists of connected rooms that feature arena-like combat against diverse and often deadly enemies in a large numbers, exploration with platforms, ledges and tunnels, and a small amount of puzzle-solving, especially for secrets and special items.

There is a currency based around obolites, left behind by destroyed enemies, to fabricate consumable items and augmentations that are lost when Selene dies. This involves a lot of risk and reward as there are also parasites with both positive and negative elements, health items that are often maligned causing negative effects, and vaults (chests) that follow the same principle. Through weapon proficiency better weapons are found and enemies are level matched against them. Even the same weapons are often unique through different statistics, and traits that are unlocked gradually and then become permanent in the item pool, adding effects such as critical hits, stagger or additional attacks. Ammo is always unlimited. Risk and reward also plays a role in traversal, as many rooms and certain encounters are optional, but provide powerful rewards for players that take the risk. The player often has to choose how much time to invest in a run as well, opting to stock up on augmentations, second chances and powerful consumables, or going through biomes quickly to reach a boss fast, but often underpowered.

While almost all progress is lost when dying, gradually a few optional shortcuts open up. The few elements that are carried over between runs are unlocked items that become part of the randomised pool, quicker access to certain biomes, weapon traits, certain abilities, and ether as a permanent currency. Ether is used to unlock items, avenge the ghosts of other players in powerful enemy encounters and participate in daily challenges. There is also a cooperative online mode (added post launch) that is accessed from inside a biome. There is an endless mode set in a separate location called the Tower of Sisyphus, introducing new enemies, weapons, items and story fragments.


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