There's always concepts that just wow gamers and others that are basically so similar to something elae that you lose interest.
Returnal is pretty much in both of these camps. The idea that everytime you die is a brand new version of yourself and you need to start from scratch again isn't a particularly new idea, Demon's Souls covered that one back in the days of the PS3. What's annoying about Returnal's version, is that you also have to go back through the entire level again and again and again. Opposed to other games idea that once you've done a boss, you're done with that section. It feels like a device thought out to give the illusion of a well fleshed out game. Which is a shame because the lore is there within the bare bones, you don't need to do it constantly.
There's a painful element to it because once you reach a new area, that area's doorway might spawn close to the crash site, or you'll have to fight a few large groups of enemies in order to get there, which ends up with you losing a large chunk of health meaning you may as well die because the enemies in the next section hit harder.
The ever changing order of zones is a welcome idea, however, you can learn sections still but you'll have them in different orders everytime you die, which breathes some new life to it, enemies may also spawn in different areas to the last one, further shaking the game up.
Gameplay itself is super fun and does give some longevity to the game (which is why we have to start the game from scratch again and again). Within it are several aspects. We're not unfamiliar with the concept of guns in an 3rd person shooter like this one. What makes this different though, is only being able to carry one at a time, which is actually frustrating as you can be faced with an army of creatures and run out of ammo having to wait for your one weapon to recharge, this makes you a sitting duck and although this is created for suspense, it strikes the player as odd as you'd just switch weapons in other games. A weapons speacial power also takes a lot longer to recharge, which you'd expect in any game, but when you're only allowed one weapon, it isn't ideal. Although, with a select few consumables and parasites, little creatures you can attach to your armour for both negative and positive traits, you can make recharge times faster, you can also add other benefits from them, which we will get to later
The lack of health options can also be a pain, unless you're lucky and the game gives you a fabricator at almost every turn (a machine where you trade materials for consumables) you're going to struggle as it normally couples that with very few plants around to help you boost your health. When enemies hit harder than health given back, you can't swim like Assassin's Creed's Altaïr, by the way, bodies of water also take health away if you fall in them, and the fact you can easily mistime traps, it's a very odd combination.
Then there's a strange set of rules, for some people, this will just be too annoying, but it does actually add to the challenge, and in most cases more fun to play. Every now and then an item, chest or consumable will be purple, picking these up without cleansing them, with another rare collectible called Ether, will cause your suit to malfunction. In turn it will generate a new minitask to do in order to remove this malfunction. Some are kill 5 enemies with the sword or kill 4 enemies simultaneously. These make it slightly more challenging as until these are completed, your suit is more useless at withstanding damage. On top of that though is parasites, these purple monsters will attach themselves to your suit and give it a bonus, making you slightly stronger, however, there is a downside as they'll make you weaker in another way. For example, you may get a parasite that makes your health much more durable, but in turn, you'll pick up a small amount of damage per item you pick up.
In a way, which is a shame, it has a direct comparrison of being a Godfall-esque kind of game. What I mean is, it's just a set of battle arenas plonked together with ever changing rules set around them. Unlike the aforementioned game though, is a world that actually has a story behind it and more of a lore to find beneath it all. Gameplay that goes beyond a melee-looter and actually offers a storyline worth buying into. Is it perfect? No. Is it a game you could spend hours playing? Yes. Under all of the annoyances that inevitably will come with having to start the game from the same place everytime and having the world change constantly, is a game worth playing, but there is slighlty more style than substance.
I wanted to touch on difficulty since I've seen lots of people online complain the game is far too difficult.
There isn't a set of difficulties to choose from like in other 3rd person shooters, mainly because the game is also a rogue-lite, which are normally fairly difficult. The issue is not with difficulty, but with save files. As I said earlier in the review, enemies can hit pretty hard, but that isn't neccessarily the issue. The issue comes from lack (in most cases not all) of ways to regenerate health. You could say, however, that this fits with the horror undertones of the game, it can be on parr with Last of Us' Grounded campaign. Which isn't always a bad thing, it can just be infuriating because you could be at a boss (most of which seem to be a pain to get to) and then the boss eats you alive forcing you to force your way through the jungle again. The other route to go is to make sure you have an Astronaut figurine or two in your inventory when you know you're about to hit a boss battle. This will allow you to carry on by Selene reviving herself. Difficulty isn't up there with the likes of Seikiro or the Souls-Bourne universe, but it does have its annoyances.
There is a sort of work around if you don't want to play the game properly, using PS+ save storage, but you'd be missing out on other things the game has to offer. Recently, the developer has mentioned maybe putting an save system in place. If the game recognised you was at a boss and allowed you to keep trying from the entrance or respawn, it might not be an issue.