Judging by the marketing material and the trailers for 'Returnal', one would be forgiven for expecting something slow-burning, thought-provoking, and along the lines of Alex Garland's 'Annihilation', or esoteric like 'Solaris'.
Instead, 'Returnal' has the gun-crazy, all-blasting carnage of 'Metroid' or 'Smash TV' on steroids and the concept of 'Edge of Tomorrow', even down to some of the enemy design. You play Selene, a lone scout who has crash-landed on a planet known as Atropos with the intent of locating a mysterious signal known as 'White Shadow'. As you progress through the planet, you'll discover lots of pretty weird goings-on involving an old house, an astronaut, and the fact that Selene basically can't die and keeps waking up back at her crashed ship.
The big thing that 'Returnal' keeps hammering to you is that dying is part of the game. It's not that there are some incidents that are solved by dying, but rather that the game's difficulty is such that it's going to happen so get used to it. Unlike 'Demon Souls' or 'Dark Souls', however, it's not so frustrating that you're faced with a lack of motivation to continue. A small handful of items remain on you each time you die. There's a proficiency system for each type of weapon you encounter that remains after death. You also have an adrenaline-based power-up system that gives you an edge with each kill you make. In other words, you're given every chance to succeed and the only thing stopping you is your own skill level. Die enough times, you'll eventually break through.
Of course, while you may be thinking that the environment remains the same and the enemies themselves will be the same, that's not always the case. Some of the areas will shift and change with each cycle, not to mention enemy placement and variety. This means that every time you die, you're going into a fresh situation and, as a result, it softens the repetitive strain. The next cycle might give you an edge that you didn't have before, and therefore allow you to proceed onward. This keeps the game intensely addictive, giving you that 'just one more try' feeling that'll drain all your free time.
In terms of graphics, 'Returnal' gives the PS5 every opportunity to be put through its paces. The haptic-feedback system on the control gives the weapon's fire a convincing rumble, and the rainfall on your suit translates into the movement of the controller. The game is best enjoyed, funnily enough, on headphones as opposed to a sound system thanks to the 3D audio capability on the PS5. Not only that, the high frame-rate keeps the action fast and furious without a shred of lag.
The combat system does have its kinks and quirks that are odd enough to trip you up, but not so unfamiliar that they're going to do it every time. The hot-reload action is reminiscent of, say, 'Gears of War'. The various weapons are distinctive enough that you'll naturally find yourself favouring one as you go through each level, but with the enemies adapting to your own skill level, you're going to be knocked down again and again until you simply get better.
That's what a lot of the story in 'Returnal' is about - defeat, exhaustion, but through it all, perseverance. The only way off the planet for Selene is to get through it and break the loop once and for all. Each time you die, you're presented with the same cutscene of her crash-landing on Atropos, but dropped into each of them is a new clue, a new scene, a new image that gives you something to watch for. What 'Returnal' keeps hammering home is that you learn from every mistake. For you playing, it's learning to make a decision faster and with more confidence. For Selene, it's understanding the planet's uniqueness and why it's reacting specifically to her, and why it seems like she's always been there. Has she? You encounter a version of yourself - dead, of course - along the way, so was this even the first time you were there?
Most games rarely play with the concept of eternal return so fully, because the idea is that the story is meant to be played through once and your part in it is unbroken. In 'Returnal', when you die, you start over. So too does Selene. Like you, she gets angry and frustrated and more determined to stop it than ever. It's odd how much of the game's emotional beats can figure into your own as you play.
When she wakes up raging over a particular death, you yourself are likely in the middle of it. When you do eventually break through, the relief is palpable but it's short-lived. Something else is coming at you both, and you're never far from death - but it's never been this fun.