Difficult games always have a breaking point. It's the moment when players must decide if it's their execution that's holding them back, or their tactics.

In Housemarque's genre-bending "Returnal," players face that decision constantly. The developers behind "Alienation" and "Resogun" take their expertise in bullet hell shmups and apply it to a third-person rogue-lite for a unique but challenging experience.

It begins as Astra space scout Selene Vassos crash-lands on the planet Atropos after being drawn in by a mysterious signal. She awakens amid a crumbled alien civilization. Her only way out is to investigate the broadcast that drew her in.

Sounds simple enough, but where "Returnal" ends up is messy. You see, Selene eventually dies while exploring the ruins and she finds herself in a "Groundhog Day" situation, back at her ship and forced to resume the exploration again.

It starts in a rainy forest and moves through five other biomes, with different creatures and power-ups each time. That makes each playthrough one of a kind, meaning players can't rely on rote memorization. Instead, they need strategy and skill to advance. That means learning how to adapt to the environment and use trees and pillars to dodge fire from the fauna, flora and sentients that inhabit Atropos.

It's brutal at first, but as players master the basics, they'll discover a game with incredible depth. Every decision they make is important. Early on, they should bypass treasure chests and secret rooms until they level up their weapon proficiency. When collecting spoiled resin or malignant power-ups, they have to determine whether they have the health or skill to survive bad side effects.

An unsettling atmosphere pervades "Returnal," making it a psychological horror trip through a world that looks like it's straight out of the mind of "Alien" designer H.R. Giger.

Thankfully, as players progress through "Returnal," they won't always have to start at zero, and certain points offer a shortcut. What will really drive players is a feeling of progress as they reach that maddening breaking point, find a way through it and ultimately beat seemingly impossible odds.


Platform: PlayStation 5.
Rating: Teen.