I was losing faith in Returnal until I encountered the second boss.
After a few dozen runs, the enchanting presentation and sense of discovery from my first few hours had started to wear off. I felt weak compared to the colossal creatures that defended their territory against an unwanted visitor. I had seen and used all weapons available at the time, slowly unlocking new alt-fires and passive skills for them, but none had managed to impress me enough. The first boss had only taken me a couple of tries to conquer, yet I could barely make any progress in the second area. I was running in circles.
I stopped playing and came back the next day. After some painful runs, I finally managed to move through the enemies’ lines, dodging lasers in midair and never ceasing fire. I climbed all the way up a mountain, facing wave after wave of foes and traps as I made my way through. But all of a sudden, the chaos stopped. Up there in the summit, a dormant creature waited for me to step into the arena.
Up to that point, the lessons I had learned had seemed unrelated, but they all culminated in this moment. I used all of the movement options at my disposal, carefully planning their execution. The music, which had been almost as quiet as the enemy before my arrival, quickly ramped up. All the while, the boss showcased its plethora of attacks, perhaps as a warning of what was to come. In one moment, a storm of projectiles would follow my toes. In another, the creature would fly quickly through the arena. During the battle’s final phase, the enemy started attacking in close quarters in a much weaker stance, rampaging against the floor, producing shock waves with each hit, using whatever strength it had left.
Seeing the boss struggling to stand on its feet as it tried to defeat me one more time symbolized what Returnal is about: It’s a showcase of the toll that comes from repetition.
This PlayStation 5 exclusive introduces itself as a third-person roguelike with set levels that reorient themselves in each run, across a total of six areas. Traversing through them means facing increasingly harder enemies, collecting weapons and items as you explore an array of rooms per area. You do so through the eyes of Selene, a space pilot stuck in a time loop on a hostile alien planet, attempting to solve the mystery of how to escape. Roguelikes have stopped being a niche genre; all the while, more games are iterating on loop-based structures to tell stories. This game is a take on the genre that intertwines horror with almost every aspect of itself.
Returnal’s bosses take the bullet-hell chaos that developer Housemarque is known for and subvert it by putting the player’s perspective front and center. Orbs that would usually just plague the screen as small circles (when viewed from above) now come toward you. Melee attacks are much more terrifying when the creature unleashing them is three times taller than you and covered in tentacles.
Returnal is tough. Even when you get to the point of having learned all the ins and outs of a biome, you’ll find yourself in a new one with different enemy arenas and rooms to plunge through. And it all starts again. Each biome has its own set-pieces that alternate with every run, altering enemy placements and shifting the pool of items you can find or purchase. Aside from permanent spacesuit upgrades, which correspond to specific objects and areas in the game, and the passive skills you’ve unlocked for your weapons, not much more is retained after a time loop. More often than not, I found myself with my hands gripped to the triggers, doing my best to ignore the fact…