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Video Game / Returnal

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Every death defines you.

Returnal is a Roguelike Third-Person Shooter with Bullet Hell elements developed by Housemarque and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It was released on April 30th, 2021 initially as a PlayStation 5 exclusive, and was later released on PC on February 15, 2023. It is most notably Housemarque's first AAA production.

Selene Vassos (voiced by Jane Perry) is a Greek-American space pilot who crashes into an alien planet called Atropos, after trying to locate a mysterious signal she dubs "White Shadow". With her ship, Helios, sustaining critical damage, Selene is forced to explore the hostile environment of Atropos, using whatever equipment or weaponry she can find. Soon enough, however, she realizes that escaping Atropos won't be an easy task, and every death brings her back to the moment she crash-lands into the planet.

Gameplay focuses on fast-paced combat and evading multiple enemies with frequency for Bullet Hell as Selene has to conquer the various biomes of Atropos. Returnal largely plays as a third-person version to Housemarque's previous titles such as Resogun and Nex Machina, while also placing increased emphasis on narrative and Worldbuilding. Another aspect of the game as a roguelike title is its high difficulty level.

A free update in March 2022 added multiplayer co-op and the Tower of Sisyphus, an infinite combat challenge in which Selene has to climb the titular tower, discovering additional memories and backstory information along the way.

Returnal contains examples of:

  • 1-Up: There are a few ways for Selene to keep herself in the current loop a little longer when her health reaches 0, such as the Astronaut Figurine or Reconstructors, which bring back Selene after a fatal blow on the spot/at the reconstructor's location, respectively.
  • Abusive Parents: One of the story's main themes. Selene's mother Theia is implied to be merely neglectful before the crash, but turned into a resentful, emotionally abusive horror after the accident left her paraplegic, to the point where Selene eventually shoved her down the stairs of her farmhouse and set the entire building on fire just to be free of her. Selene in turn was just as resentful towards her son, Helios, though it horrified her to realize she'd become no different than her mother.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Given that the game's narrative merges hard sci-fi with deeply subjective psychological ideas, these are understandably rampant. Is Atropos real? Did Selene actually travel back in time (as the Astronaut) to cause the car crash? In fact, it's not even entirely clear which character in the car crash ending is Selene — the driver, or the child?
  • Ambiguous Time Period: The game's events are implied to take place within a couple decades of the present day - Apollo-esque astronaut suits are familiar, and a Playstation 5 can be seen in a flashback — but ASTRA's sleek spacesuits and deep-space shuttles are closer to science fiction. It's a major hint that the game's events aren't entirely real.
  • Anti-Frustration Features: As they make their way through the game, players will unlock shortcuts and alternative paths that can help them bypass sections they had already completed. Additionally, the start of each biome after the first will have a special calibrator that can boost their weapon proficiency to a pre-determined level, regardless of their current proficiency. This allows players to find appropriately strong weapons relatively quickly.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The Scout Logs Selene can find are recordings of herself containing her thoughts about various things she comes across on Atropos. Considering you usually find them next to corpses, it's safe to say that version of Selene didn't exactly make it out.
  • Arc Words: The phrase "Do you see the White Shadow?" seems to haunt Selene as she makes her way through Atropos. The signal she receives that compels her to land on the planet is designated as "White Shadow", and Selene mentions that it's a phrase that only she could know — how could a signal from an alien planet possibly know about it? The significance of the phrase isn't revealed until the ending of the game: it was the last thing Selene's son Helios ever said to her before the car crash that took his life.
  • The Atoner: Subverted. Selene ultimately decides that atonement is impossible, and settles for "acceptance" instead, noting that Atropos is where she belongs. Subverted further, in that it seems one of the things she feels guilty for is a complete accident she had no way of controlling, being teleported in front of her own mother's car — one of the scenes before the Golden Ending is her rejecting an image of her mother, seemingly indicating that her mother becoming an Abusive Parent after the accident is something she's accepted she has no responsibility for.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The fauna of Atropos fits this to a T. Save for the extinct and largely humanoid Sentients, the aliens are a nightmarish combination of bioluminescence, tentacles, and some bizarrely impossible asymmetry.
  • Break Meter: Every enemy has a Stagger meter that fills up when taking damage, with some weapon types specializing in Stagger damage. If the meter fills up, the enemy will become stunned and take increased damage until they recover.
  • Career-Ending Injury: The accident left Selene's mother a paraplegic, ending her opportunity to be an astronaut and troubled her so greatly that she didn't want to go through physical rehab.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Downplayed. Selene is capable of fighting back proficiently on her own, and ultimately comes to terms with the fact that she will never escape the loop, regardless of who or what is inflicting it upon her. It is clear, however, that Atropos does not play by any rules humans would regard as sane, as she repeatedly returns from death, finds her own dead bodies, and tries to navigate the ruins of a truly alien civilization, as she suffers Sanity Slippage from being stuck with only her ship for company for who-knows-how-long and the planet exploring the traumatic memories of her life.
  • Cursed Item: A common sight on Atropos are items and chests infected with Malignancy, which has a chance to cause Malfunctions, which temporarily weaken or disable certain abilities until you complete a mini-quest associated with that Malfuction. If an unlucky player gets careless and continues picking up Malignant items when they have two Malfuctions, there's a chance of a Critical Malfunction, which will destroy one of your items. If you really want that item but don't want to risk the Malfunction, you can use Ether to cleanse it.
  • Dead Guy Junior: In reverse! Selene is implied to have named her ship, Helios, after her dead son. Also played straight: In the DLC, her son is hinted to have been named after Selene's dead brother.
  • Death as Game Mechanic: Every time the main character Selene perishes, time loops to the moment where her ship crashed, albeit with the weapons and power-ups she collected and paths she unlocked still available.
  • Discovering Your Own Dead Body:
    • During the first crash the player goes through, Selene notices a corpse on the ground and goes to identify it, only to see her own name written on the helmet. The Scout Logs containing recordings of herself are also found next to similar dead bodies, implying these are other versions of Selene that died on Atropos.
    • During a run, the player can come across the corpses of other players and can scan them to see their last moments. The player can then choose to use Ether to Scavenge them or attempt to Avenge them, gaining Ether if they succeed.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Selene's dad is implied to have been at least a downplayed example. While the player does learn a few substantial things about him throughout the game, namely that he was a talented organist, his favorite song was "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult, and Selene's most vivid memory of him is him playing a "swallow's nest organ" in a church, he on the whole appears to been a mostly absent figure in her life, compared to her emotionally abusive mother, Theia's very overshadowing presence. His most "overt" appearance in the entire game is through the boss of the Echoing Ruins, Hyperion, who is heavily implied to be based on Selene's memories of him.
    • It is played straight with the father of Selene's son, Helios, who by all means appears to be a complete non-entity in the story.
  • Driving Question: Throughout Act 1, Selene is trying to find the answer to the phrase "Do you see the White Shadow?" that was sent to her across the galaxy from Atropos. The ending in Act 2 reveals the true significance of the phrase. In the past, Selene and her son were driving down a moonlit road when her son asked "Do you see the White Shadow?" At first she thought it was the full moon, but it ended up being the Astronaut, which caused Selene to drive the car into the river.
  • Dying Dream: One interpretation of the story is that it's a death fantasy Selene is experiencing as she dies of her injuries from the second car crash.
  • Eldritch Location: Atropos, a shapeshifting planet home to Tricked Out Time and the ruins of a hyperadvanced civilization.
  • Existential Horror: As the player gather and put together the clues providing the game's story, it becomes clear that the crux of the plot is that Selene is essentially forced to relive her own worst nightmare over and over, time again and again. And even death, whatever forms it comes in, will never save her. Even when it seems she have managed to escape Atropos, she is still not safe; the midpoint game has Selene managing the feat of calling a rescue team, who pick her up and get her off the planet, allowing her living out her natural lifespan in peaceful retirement on Earth, and eventually dying from old age. But this doesn't stop the cycle — after all is said and done, she is once more forced to wake up on Atropos at the point were she woke up the first time and go through everything again. And there is no appearent reason why all of this happening to her, other that the vague and rather ambiguous suggestion that it might be her own guilt that is keeping her trapped in a Dying Dream.
  • Heart Container: During Selene's travels, she can come across a material she calls Resin, which she can use to upgrade her suit's survivability. By default, 3 pieces of Resin is an increase to her health bar, but upgrades can reduce this. In addition, regular health pickups become Resin if Selene is already at full health.
  • Hope Spot: Selene is rescued after reaching the White Shadow, which triggers a long sequence where she is safe on Earth... only for her to die sixty years later of old age and return to the crash site yet again.
  • Humanoid Aliens: The Sentients who inhabit Atropos. Judging from the Reconstructors and Severed, they are generally bipedal beings with long tentacles in place of one hand and large horns that tower over most humans.note 
  • Grappling-Hook Pistol: Selene obtains the Icarian Grapnel after defeating the boss of the Crimson Wastes, allowing her to launch herself towards specific grapple targets.
  • "Groundhog Day" Loop: Selene is doomed to loop back to the crash after each and every death. The idea ends up being subverted, however. It doesn't take long for Selene and the player to encounter evidence that her actions leave lasting changes on Atropos. Then there is the fact that she will occasionally run into a corpse of one of her previous selves, still lying where she fell, though showing obvious signs of decay and exposure to the elements. Turns that whatever is happening on Atropos is not truly a "Groundhog Day" Loop. It is a Resurrection/Death Loop. Selene might die and get resurrected over and over, but time on Atropos keeps on moving along independent of what is happening to her.
  • Hive Mind: A characteristic that the Sentients pride themselves on, to the point where one act of punishment is to sever an individual's connection to the group.
  • Interchangeable Antimatter Keys: For some reason, the inhabitants of Atropos programmed their keys to destroy themselves after unlocking a door.
  • Killing Your Alternate Self: One of the Scout Logs contains a record of Selene talking about her unintentionally shooting an alternate version of herself.
  • Left the Background Music On: The climb towards the confrontation with one of the bosses, Hyperion, is accompanied by sinster organ and synth music. Selene even complains about being able to hear it, feeling tormented by it. When Hyperion is encountered at the top of his tower, he is actually found hunched over an organ which he proceeds to keep playing for her entire boss fight. It is first when Hyperion finally goes down that the music, to Selene's outspoken relief, stops.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The true ending implies the game may be a nearly Dying Dream as Selene regains consciousness before nearly drowning — but that sure as hell doesn't explain how her car nearly crashed into herself.
  • Mission Control Is Off Its Meds: Enemies and items receive log entries back at Helios' console, but all of them are corrupt to some extent. In several cases, especially those related to motherhood or reproduction, the usually dry item descriptions change to sinister stream-of-consciousness ranting.
  • Multiple Life Bars: Every boss has three health bars, which are represented by small pips above the main health bar. They change up their tactics and become more aggressive each time a health bar is emptied.
  • The Musketeer: Selene's main combat options are the Atropian Blade and whatever laser gun she can get her hands on.
  • Numerological Motif: 8:36. The clocks in the House sequences are always at 8:36. During the fourth House section, Selene tells her daughter to put her dinner in the microwave for 8:36. In the Tower of Sisyphus flashbacks, Selene's mother is in hospital room 836. It was the time on the dashboard clock when Selene had her accident.
  • Offing the Offspring: Fitting for a game so beholden to Greek myth. The Theia-thing in the second ending attacks Selene, possibly with killing intent. And that's to say nothing of the implications that Selene hoped, consciously or not, for the second car crash, which is heavily suggested to have killed her son, Helios.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: One of the bosses, Hyperion, is playing an extra ominous organic-looking one during his boss fight. As the fight progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that the song she is playing is "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult.
  • Photo Mode: Added as of 2.0 Update with classic lens and lighting settings.
  • Power at a Price: Creatures native to Atropos are docile parasites that Selene can choose to have attach to her suit, providing a powerful benefit but also a considerable downside (for example, one parasite can negate a single Malfuction from a Malignant item, but deals considerable damage to Selene when it does so).
  • Recurring Riff: A unique melody dogs Selene through the Echoing Ruins, which she recalls from her time on Earth. She would often play it on the piano in her spare time, but hearing it on Atropos over and over seems to cause her a serious amount of distress. Tracking down the source of the music and silencing it becomes one of her primary objectives. It's eventually revealed to be "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult, and that it was the song playing on the car radio when Selene had the car crash that resulted in her son's death.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: Selene, her mother, the boss monsters, and the planet Atropos itself, are all named after figures from Classical Mythology.
  • Resting Recovery: Once per cycle, Selene can use the bed in the Helios or Reclaimers found around Atropos to restore her health.
  • Sanity Slippage:
    • Selene's running commentary on what's going on around her gradually changes over the course of the game. In the earlier areas, she approaches her situation with cautious curiosity, documenting her discoveries and making scientific notes; but as her situation grows more desperate she loses her composure, until by the end of the game pretty much every word that comes out of her mouth is delusional, pseudo-religious nonsense.
      • The voice logs left by past Selenes display this in a non-linear fashion, with the Selene of the early game often reacting with disgust towards her future self’s unhinged rambling.
  • Short-Range Shotgun: Spitmaw Blasters are the typical shotgun-type weapon, specializing in close range combat and dealing high Stagger damage.
  • Shout-Out: One of the game's twists evokes a... certain movie. A character trapped in a purgatorial existence that constantly torments them, getting closure… and then finding that they never left said purgatory? That sounds familiar.
  • Stable Time Loop: Appears twice: Selene somehow causes the crash that strands her on Atropos by shooting down the Helios with an alien cannon and the car accident that plunged her and her son into a lake, killing the latter after her older self got teleported in front of the car.
  • Stationary Boss: At the start of its boss fight, Hyperion is tethered to a pipe organ and cannot move. He starts breaking his tethers from the second phase onward, becoming more mobile as the fight progresses.
  • A Taste of Power: The daily challenges can offer this early on, as they can equip the player with weapons they haven't collected yet, stacked with multiple, high-level traits that can make short work of the enemies they encounter.
  • Video Game Dashing: Utilizing a Jump Jet Pack and provides Selene with invincibility during the dash.
  • The Unfought: A monstrous octopus-like alien is implied to be the cause of the loop, but every time Selene encounters it, she flashes back to the car crash and wakes up back where she started. It may not even be hostile, assuming the real cause of the loop is Selene herself.
  • Waxing Lyrical: Once Selene realizes where the Recurring Riff she hears all over Atropos comes from she starts to quote the song itself.
    Selene: All our times have come. Here but now they're gone... (breaks down crying) Why won't the music end?! (cries) I silenced it, but it's stuck inside me. I don't deserve this. (sobs) ...Seasons don't fear... the Reaper.
  • Wham Line: An innocuous line in the DLC sheds a lot of light on Selene's trauma and the nature of the loop. In a newspaper article detailing Theia's crash, the final sentence mentions that there were two children in the car alongside Theia. This, along with several other hints throughout the DLC, strongly implies that Helios wasn't just Selene's son - he was named after her brother, who died in the crash. By abandoning him in the car, Selene "killed" Helios twice, and is herself condemned to die over and over again as penance.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: Once Selene makes her way across Atropos, reaches the White Shadow signal, and uses it to call for rescue, it seems like the game is over. We even see an Age Cut of Selene living out her life on Earth peacefully. But just because Selene dies away from Atropos, doesn't mean the loop is over. Cue her waking up on an overgrown Atropos all over again, starting the second part of the game.


Video Example(s):



Selene is capable of fighting back proficiently on her own, and the true ending involves her finally breaking the loop. It is clear, however, that Atropos does not play by any rules humans would regard as sane, as she repeatedly returns from death, finds her own dead bodies, and tries to navigate the ruins of a truly alien civilization, as she suffers Sanity Slippage from being stuck with only her ship for company for who-knows-how-long and the planet exploring the traumatic memories of her childhood.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / CosmicHorrorStory

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