This fast-paced action adventure isn't for the faint of heart, but it rewards the player's perseverance toward solving what's happening on this mysterious planet. Returnal assumes players understand (or perhaps teaches players the value of) tenacity, and that before you can claim a satisfying victory, you must first fail. A lot. And learn from those failures. The whole premise of the game is to fight to the bitter end, go down with your finger firmly on the trigger, and then wake up and do it all over again -- hopefully a little better. But it's not all doom and gloom. Assuming you make it a little further each time, you'll discover new items and strategies that you'll be able to use going forward, and you'll be rewarded with tantalizing bits of story -- such as alien scripts that must be translated, or a glimpse of Selene's pre-mission life -- that slowly but surely reveal what everything means. These are the dangling carrots that will keep dedicated players going, even after multiple deaths without any progress.
It all hinges on the action, though, which most players will likely either love or hate. The controls are tight and the weapons feel gratifyingly powerful. Developer Housemarque has made admirable use of some of the novel features of Sony's DualSense controller, including the two-stage trigger for aiming, haptic feedback to quickly convey key information, and the built-in speaker to create a multidimensional soundscape. But the enemies themselves are of the "bullet curtain" variety, which means they emit huge waves of floaty energy balls in complex patterns that players must dodge by running, jumping, and dashing. Judging the depth and distance of these orbs as they approach is challenging at best, frustrating at worst. It will take some players a lot of time and effort to adapt to this style of combat. If you manage to make it through to the other side, though, you'll likely discover the reward to be worth the trouble. Returnal skips the mollycoddling and assumes players can take a bit of punishment, and there are plenty of serious gamers out there bound to take up the challenge.