Returnal, the PS5-exclusive action game about losing all of your hard-earned progress, features one of the most bonkers moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game. I don’t mean the ending (though, yes, that too is bonkers); it’s all to do with a series of events that go down at the midway point. For the past week or so, I’ve had trouble getting this sequence out of my head.
Spoilers follow for Returnal’s first act break.
For the uninitiated, Returnal, the latest from Helsinki-based Housemarque, is a third-person action game wrapped in a roguelike structure. You, as interstellar space explorer Selene Vassos, crash on the uncharted planet of Atropos, landing in a moonlit forest. You die, because the game is tough as nails, and come back to consciousness where you started. Atropos, it turns out, is a shape-shifting planet, which serves as a narrative bedrock for familiar roguelike trappings. You have to fight your way through various biomes, with death sending you back to the beginning of the first each time.
Once you defeat Nemesis, the boss of the Derelict Citadel (biome three), everything flips. You accomplish your stated goal (finding and activating the “white shadow” broadcast). You’re rescued, returned to Earth, and live out your days in a sappy-music montage. And then you die. Game over, right?
Not quite. You wake up where you first crashed on Atropos, except the planet is different — it’s daytime now, and the forest is overgrown. The enemies are a bit tougher. Your starting weapon is more powerful. Act two, baby!
Basically, Returnal, despite featuring six biomes, doesn’t allow for runs longer than three areas. You can either run through biomes one through three, or, following this mid-game junction, biomes four through six. From a gameplay perspective, this threw me for a loop; from pre-release trailers and explainers, I knew Returnal took place across six biomes. I didn’t expect to only have to play through three, at most. I certainly didn’t expect the narrative twist either.
Returnal also breaks up the narrative flow via a series of first-person narrative sections. As you work your way through the biome you start out in (whether that’s the first or the fourth) you’ll come across a mid-century farmhouse. If you’ve defeated a boss for the first time on the prior run, you’ll be able to access the house. When you approach the house for the fourth time, things go completely off the rails.
The game stutters for a moment, and the camera zooms out…and out…and out…until you see the scene on a flatscreen TV. Going by the glow-in-the-dark star stickers, the TV is clearly in a child’s room. You look down. You’re holding a PS5 controller and, uh, you’re playing as an eight-year-old. Jaw, meet floor.
It gets weirder. You can poke around the room and pick up various objects, like an astronaut figurine or a toy spaceship, that show up in the main game as “artifacts,” or equippable accessories that grant stat boosts for the duration of a run. When you walk out of the room, you can see “Helios” — the name of Selene’s ship — written on the door. You can pick up a stuffed octopus plushie, dotingly named Octo, that showed up in a previous house segment (before turning into a tentacle monster). The implication is clear: You’re playing as a young Selene.
Throughout all of the house sequences, a nameless astronaut shows up sporadically, a haunting, silent figure, making these moments kind of feel like Resident Evil: Space Edition. During this fourth visit, you’ll see the astronaut just sitting at the kitchen table. Later, the astronaut moves in to hug you, and their face explodes in a sea of tentacles, much like Octo did in that earlier visit. Annnd scene.
As my colleague Ian Walker put it in Slack, “UM WTF?”
A spoiler warning within a spoiler warning? Yes, it’s spoilerception. Though this post doesn’t cover what happens in Returnal’s (first) ending, it does cover what doesn’t happen. Consider yourself warned.
WTF, indeed. Why did the astronaut and the stuffed octopus turn into a tentacle monster? You tell the astronaut a story (by selecting dialogue options from a menu), but does that story have any meaning? In a previous visit to the house you left a voicemail, and then you hear that voicemail when you’re exploring as the child, so what the hell does that mean? Is Selene her own mother? And what’s the deal with the PS5? Some high-level commentary on how we, as humans, are actually in control of every decision we make, and how fate is as malleable as clay? Or is it just some very obvious play at “brand synergy”?
When you beat Returnal in the most technical sense — the credits roll — you unfortunately don’t get answers to these questions.
But, as the game informs you after the credits roll, there’s more Returnal to return to. After you defeat the boss of the sixth biome, you can swap between biome sets (either one-two-three, or four-five-six) at will. You’re soon tasked with finding six MacGuffins called Sunface Fragments, one of which exists in each biome. I’ve currently located three. I may have rolled the credits and put that colossal final boss in its place. And yet, the grind persists, this time in search of answers that may or may not exist. Bring it on.