Returnal review – magnificent and monstrous

Sometimes, when you talk about games, it helps to think about their personalities: what do they want from you? How do they behave? What role do you play in the relationship here, and what do they think of you in return? Normally this is quite easy. Think about it and you’ll find games will happily fall into their roles – courthouse jester, self-serious actor, cerebral engineer (I’m not going to say which is which). But in this case it’s been tricky. Returnal is hard to pin down. But pinned it down I have: Returnal has the personality of a furious cat with a sore tooth, and it’s your job to be its vet.

I’m saying this because Returnal is good – it’s so good! – but it is incredibly reluctant to let you find that out. It hides its best moments, buries them, beneath repetition and frustration and a byzantine UI, but those moments are just extraordinary. Euphoric, even! It’s in its interest and my own for it to just let me play it, but Returnal is a video game that does not want to be played.

The history is going to be important here, if we’re going to pull all of this apart. Returnal is the latest from Housemarque, the Finnish team behind masterly arcade-style shoot-em-ups like Resogun, twin-stick shooters like Dead Nation and Alienation, and the superlative Nex Machina. It’s their first “triple-A” one though, and with big budget comes big scope. Returnal’s is vast – it wants to be everything. It’s a roguelite, insofar as death returns you to the start and the dungeonlike world procedurally changes with each run through it. But it’s also a metroidvania, handing out new abilities after boss kills which open up new paths. And it’s a third-person shooter, obviously. But also a bullet-hell arcade game. And a first-person narrative horror. And a soulslike. It picks from Ridley Scott, Eugene Jarvis, Hayao Miyazaki, H.R. Giger. From Metroid, P.T., Control. From Defender and Vanquish. Pick your poison – Returnal stocks everything and almost everything is sublime.

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