Returnal was my game of the year in 2021, so I did what any unhealthy gamer would and continued playing past the credits to unlock every ending. I could not get enough of the relentless combat and melancholic story, but all good things must end. Eventually, I left Selene to her own torment and moved on to other, not as good, games. Much to my surprise, Housemarque has provided a free update for Returnal. The update, titled Ascension, adds cooperative play to the campaign, and the Tower of Sisyphus, an endless array of increasingly challenging combat rooms. The update is relatively minor, however, when I stepped back into Returnal, I remembered why I fell in love with it in the first place.
The game begins as it always does, with Selene waking up outside a crashed ship on a mysterious planet. However, this time, there is a tower looming in the distance. It was easy to start the updated content since the tower is right at the start, inviting you to enter. Selene comments on narrative threads based on her knowledge of the story to create a spoiler-free atmosphere for all players, wherever they may be in the campaign. Alongside the tower, there is a blue sphere that initiates cooperative play. It’s easy to do and fits with the game’s lore, but I was disappointed to discover that the Tower of Sisyphus is only available in single-player. The revelation might be my biggest disappointment with the update. It’s odd to add co-op to your game, but, at the same time, block co-op from the newest and exciting addition.
Either way, co-op should be an enriching addition to the base game that welcomes new players, and alleviates the difficulty hump. With that aside, I want to focus on the new content, the Tower of Sisyphus. The tower is intimidating as it stretches into the sky with red undertones sketched into its design. Walking up to the base and looking up is like seeing a New York skyscraper for the first time, except this tower never ends. The tower’s base is your new starting place to encourage continuous runs and neutralize the short walk from the crashed ship to the skyscraper. In other words, it’s designed for continuous play after each death. The structure resembles an endless arcade run with several rooms divided by phases. Each time you enter the tower, much like the base game, each room and set of enemies will be different. I like how it plays with all the enemies Selene encounters in the game, mixing them into the same combat encounters. One room may have a couple of those Groot-inspired tree enemies mixed with an envoy of flying drones, while another room has one menacing Severed that teleports across the play area and slashes Selene with his sword.
While the tower is endless, the goal is to get higher each time and beat your previous score. It’s designed with speed in mind, with the player receiving bonuses based on how fast they clear a room, which is an excellent way to encourage players to play Returnal the way it is intended. For me, Returnal clicked when I realized how fast the combat was and how that never interfered with the game’s performance. Everything in Returnal is fast, from Selene’s movement speed to the progress to each new area. Selene will get some brief respite as some rooms don’t have any enemies. They will, instead, have some upgrades to choose from or a series of obstacles that hide valuable items on the other side. I found these rooms crucial to my enjoyment and success in the tower. Sometimes you are low on health and are praying that the next room will reward you in some way instead of being another onslaught of enemies. I would find my hands clinging onto the controller, and my whole body stiffen when I try to make it through a room with a sliver of health, only to experience a moment of relaxation when the next room has a green silphium resource free for the taking.
Sometimes these rooms will have a dual fabricator, meaning you have to choose between two different upgrades. I focused on upgrading my damage output and expanding my health bar by collecting the various silphium found in the world. It’s not only rewards though, the game will also trigger a permanent, unavoidable malfunction in Selene’s suit. It’s normally possible to fix malfunctions by achieving a goal, but this time you’ll have to learn to live with it. The malfunctions include things like obolites, the currency in Returnal, disappearing faster or decreased weapon damage while in the air. I enjoyed playing with these malfunctions because it felt like the game was trying to stop you from making it higher into the tower, only to feel more rewarded when you make it to a few more rooms. Another new element is the disgorgers, which are powerful weapons available for a limited amount of time. It’s hard to describe just how satisfying these weapons are as they unleash an onslaught of projectiles at the enemies or a gigantic beam that destroys everything in its path. They can clear a significant portion of a boss’s health in one go, making me wish the disgorgers were in the original game as well. They almost feel like cheating, but it feels good since the game is so punishing in the first place.
Lastly, the Tower introduces a new boss to Returnal. Though I was disappointed to see the same boss show up a second time (when entering a new phase), it does stand on its own. It’s a creepy manifestation of Selene’s mom, with nasty tentacles from the waist down (symbolizing her spinal injury), and one huge, bulging eye. Its attacks are exactly what you’d expect from Returnal – an onslaught of projectiles that require quick maneuvers to avoid. One of my favorite attacks was a spiral of orange spheres that move almost like the creature’s tentacles. Once the boss is defeated, Selene can move into the next phase of the tower. Here, the tower is broken into several floating landmasses, a welcoming sign that the environments are constantly changing.
By now, you may be asking what’s the point if it’s endless and there is no sense of conclusion. Before I realized there is a story thread and credits will roll, I thought the same thing. That doesn’t mean the tower is over, you are free to play until you die, but the Tower of Sysphus does tell a little side story that deepens the base game’s narrative. I won’t go into much detail, but it does feature the first-person, thriller moments that I loved so much about the base game. Selene must find certain items throughout the tower to progress the story, and you can locate them quickly. I found everything within a single day, only making it to phase 2 of the tower. It’s a smart design choice that gives players the freedom to play how they want. If they want the story content, they can see it with minimal effort. If players only want the challenge of the tower, then they can easily bypass the narrative.
Of course, I’d recommend seeing the narrative through. Returnal tells a story like no other game, and it was fascinating to see this new addition after knowing what Returnal is actually about. The best aspect of the story is how it interacts with Selene’s character and how, in turn, that interacts with the player. In one audio recording, Selene says “I made this into some kind of game. Finding meaning inside torment.” She is just as addicted to the tower as I was. Out of all the time loop games, Returnal does the best at capturing the character’s mental space. As Selene’s mind deteriorates, we can observe how she deals with the tower, turning it into a game.
The Tower of Sysyphus is an excellent addition to Returnal, but, above all else, it reminds me of how much I fell in love with this game. The update wouldn’t be successful if it wasn’t built upon a solid foundation of fun and addictive gameplay. If you have a PlayStation 5, now is the best time to play Returnal. Grab a friend and play through the base game, gather all the trophies, find the secret ending, and ascend the tower. Be careful, though, as you might get drawn into the repeated loop, just like Selene.