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GOTY 2021

Best Action Game Of 2021: Returnal

Find out why Returnal is one of the years must plays for shooter fans.
by John Carson on Dec 24, 2021 at 12:00 PM

In a year full of satisfying time loops, Returnal’s were often the longest and most punishing. But every time Selene’s ship would crash into the damp, misty enclave on Atropos, it was another opportunity to chase the mysterious white noise. Another shot at challenging the ever-shifting landscape packed with deadly eldritch horrors. One more run at discovering out how long Selene has been making futile attempts at figuring out why she’s on this bleak planet in the first place.

Housemarque’s greatest achievement is how incredible Returnal feels to play. Sprinting from room to room, jumping and dashing, taking out tentacled horrors around every corner; every motion is fast and fluid. You always feel like you’re in control of what Selene is doing. While the control scheme isn’t complicated, it’s structured in a manner that welcomes return visits to the game days, and even sometimes weeks, later and feels like you had only just set down the controller a few minutes ago. Taking lessons from its previous shooters (namely, Super Stardust HD and Resogun), Housemarque implements the bullet hell concept impeccably in Returnal’s 3D space. Incorporating non-stop projectile volleys into most enemy attack patterns means death can come from careless actions or judgment lapses.

Inventive weaponry and the risk/reward nature of malfunctioning collectibles make each run feel wildly different. You may find a powerful carbine with a solid alternate fire and gain incredible perks from parasites, guaranteeing swarms of enemies will dissolve before your newfound power. Or you may have to survive by the skin of your teeth, scraping together a miracle run with a jank, underpowered shotgun and hoping for the best from the next item fabricator you may or may not find. Either way, more often than not, a mystery of the world will become a little clearer, or you’ll become a touch better at surviving, making just about every run a worthwhile adventure.

Backing up the relentless combat are the equally terrifying and beautiful biomes of Atropos. Hidden within the overgrown ruins, sandy wastes, and more varied areas are curious vegetation, desolate structures, and ancient technology like teleporters you can use to your advantage. Along the way, you’ll learn to read alien languages, stumble upon mausoleums and museum-like areas that tell the history of those who once lived on the planet, or you’ll likely have the unfortunate pleasure of fighting to the bitter end. Selene will also learn about her circumstances through run-ins with impossible houses or unsettling visits from an astronaut. These intriguing moments drive the need to gather more information and figure out what Selene’s purpose ultimately is.

Housemarque’s first triple-A adventure shows the promise of what the studio can do with deeper pockets. Whether it’s the gorgeous visuals, stellar audio design, pulse-pounding action, or a story and setting steeped in mystery, Returnal begs to be played over and over. It’s a sensory delight and a thrill ride you want to jump right back into immediately after departing. | Our Review