Game review by
Chad Sapieha, Common Sense Media
Returnal Game Poster Image
Punishing sci-fi shooter rewards player perseverance.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this game.

Positive Messages

Game is all about resilience, perseverance. Players must possess both as they deal with repeatedly losing progress and restarting.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Selene, admirable and courageous astronaut, deals with a nightmarish situation as best she can. She uses violence to protect herself, but it's understandable given how many times she's killed and respawned with memory of her previous deaths. 

Ease of Play

Controls should prove simple and intuitive for anyone experienced with third-person shooters, but game itself is very challenging. Players are expected to experience countless deaths -- losing the bulk of their progress each time -- as they slowly work through the story.


Players shoot aliens and mechanical creatures using a variety of sci-fi guns, from pistols to automatic rifles. Enemies screech in pain when hit, and some spurt a fluid that's presumably blood.


Mild profanity appears infrequently in spoken dialogue, including the word "bastard."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Returnal is a third-person sci-fi shooter with elements of horror exclusively for the PlayStation 5. Taking on the role of an astronaut stranded on a hostile alien world, players use various sci-fi weapons -- a handgun, a shotgun, an automatic rifle -- to shoot and kill alien and mechanical enemies. Aliens screech in pain and sometimes bleed before collapsing and disappearing. It's a difficult game, requiring no small amount of tenacity as players lose progress and loot with every death and are forced to start over again almost from scratch, but it may help teach teens the value of perseverance. Parents should also be aware that this game contains a small amount of mild language.

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What's it about?

RETURNAL is a third-person shooter set on a mysterious alien world where it's seemingly impossible to permanently die. Selene, an astronaut from Earth, crash-lands on this planet, finding herself lost amid sprawling, ancient ruins. She's soon attacked -- and killed -- by some very aggressive aliens, only to wake up next to her ship unscathed and find the world around her has shifted and shuffled. Baffled and terrified, she heads out ... only to be killed and respawned again. Each time she ventures out, the world rearranges itself, and each time she's killed and wakes up, she realizes she's lost virtually all of the progress she's made -- her collected guns, weapon proficiency, and resources gone. All she's left with is the knowledge of what she's already experienced, which, hopefully, will be enough for her to make it a little further and learn a bit more of this strange world's secrets before she dies again. Eventually, she'll find her way to specific objectives, such as powerful bosses or locations that will help progress the story or reward her with specific bits of gear that won't disappear on respawn, such as a red energy blade that can cut through barriers to reveal hidden areas. But achieving objectives takes practice and skill, as well as a hard-won understanding of how the game's many consumables, boon-bestowing alien parasites, and gear can be used to your advantage to increase the odds of success during challenging battles.

Is it any good?

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.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Selene's character strengths. How do you think you'd feel if you were placed in a situation where you were imperiled seemingly without end, and even death offered no escape? Is her courage and determination believable?

  • What would it be like to explore an alien world? Do you think people will ever go to planets outside our solar system? What might they find?

Game details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love horror

Themes & Topics

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