Returnal PC Review: Once More Unto the Breach
One of the best roguelikes has arrived on PC.
Returnal on PC
First released on the PlayStation 5 back in 2021, Housemarque’s AAA roguelike, Returnal, blew my expectations out of the water with its blend of hard-hitting action, strategic depth, and an atmosphere of dread that is quite unlike anything out there. Fast forward two years, and the game now finds its way to the PC platform courtesy of Climax Studios, and the work put into this port has Returnal shining brighter than before, an irresistible call back into the darkness of repeated death and learning.
Weaving together a blend of swift third-person action, platforming, and roguelike progression, it stars ASTRA scout Selene, now trapped in a seemingly neverending loop of death and rebirth on the planet of Atropos. The very first time you discover the lifeless body of a previous explorer, Returnal starts to kick into gear. Really, this intoxicating adventure only gets better and better with each run, albeit sometimes dependent on your luck.
As you descend deeper into the mysteries of Atropos, dealing with alien creatures that are as vicious as they are intriguing, Selene begins augmenting her abilities through new weapons and more permanent additions like gear upgrades and the like. With the threat of death removing your hard-earned currency that can be used for purchasing items and current weapons, there is always that added incentive of going one step further than before to discover more while trying to avoid death.
The roguelike setup is certainly not a genre for everyone, but in Returnal, Housemarque has created just the right experience that renders it a near-perfect encapsulation of the genre’s beauty and unmistakable hook.
Naturally, the combat in Returnal is a huge component of that, even if you start things off with just a pistol. Every creature that stands in your way brings something unique to the table, offering a level of challenge that tests your fast reflexes and aiming, and at the same time, pushing you when it comes to cosmic horror. As if that was not enough, the bosses that serve as gatekeepers in Returnal go several levels higher, providing players with a first-hand experience of bullet hell in all its three-dimensional glory.
Each of the biomes that you will visit in Returnal will have a final boss that requires overcoming, and conquering them goes beyond just mastering your weapons and the dodging mechanics of Selene. Multiple phases to the fights require different approaches, with the combat intensifying as more projectiles fill the screen and the boss’ behavior tweaks and changes. There is a reason victories against the odds often feel sweeter, and that is a common consequence of besting Returnal’s big bads.
And even if you perish, the cyclical nature of Returnal ensures that you are rewarded in various ways. New weapons found during runs become available as part of the mix, giving players not just more powerful weaponry, but also new ways to bring the hurt. The pistol hits hard but is limited by its ammo, while the carbine rifle does a great job at range but not up close; different combat scenarios call for the best solution, and the alternate firing abilities can further enhance your combat prowess.
Eventually, weapons become more interesting with added traits, ensuring that no two runs ever truly feel the same. Perhaps you prefer bullets that can ricochet off surfaces for added damage, or weapons that can summon portals that deal an immense amount of damage, the possibilities are aplenty, and it further adds to the unpredictable nature of Returnal, which is a delight.
In addition to that, Returnal uses something called the Overload mechanic that is similar to Gears of War’s Active Reload. Essentially, players are rewarded for proper timing when reloading, getting them straight back into the fight with instantly replenished ammo if they succeed. Fail, and it becomes a mad dash to find cover before you can go again. If you are adept at killing foes without getting harmed, Selene also builds up Adrenaline levels, a risk-and-reward system that makes her even more powerful.
It could mean seeing enemies behind objects, an improved Overload mechanic, or more currency being gained; there is a delicate balance between being aggressive and cautious at the same time, and Returnal does it better than most at incentivizing the player. All in all, this constant progression of your mastery, together with various items that can confer a variety of bonuses, always gives you a fighting chance. There’s also co-op if you wish for someone else to be there to share the joy and the pain.
On the defensive side of things, Selene can get hardier with every Silphium collected, which upgrades the maximum integrity of her suit. The caveat is that you will have to be at full health when collecting it; otherwise, it just heals you. Considering that your enhanced health only lasts for the current run, making the most of a fortunate run with more health is imperative.
For those looking for an added challenge, Returnal’s Malfunction and Parasite mechanics will be right up your alley. The former is a gamble on collecting Malignant items on Atropos, valuable loot that stands a chance of inflicting a debilitating condition in your current run. Amass a third Malfunction, and the game can even confiscate your artefacts and other vital items. The risk-taking applies to the Parasites as well, which are modifiers that add both a bane and boon, having players take stock of what they feel will be the best path forward.
Thanks to the power of the PC, Returnal delivers a stunningly beautiful experience with an array of new visual, display, and upscaling settings. Already a technical marvel on the PS5, playing the game on PC on a powerful rig manages to make things even better than before, with vibrant colors filling the darkness across the six biomes. Support for ray-traced shadows and reflections take things up a notch, as does the inclusion of Nvidia’s DLSS and NIS, together with AMD’s FSR to help with image scaling.
Players can easily find the best settings for their rig thanks to the impressive benchmark tool that comes with Returnal. More than just your normal benchmarking, this nifty process breaks down all aspects of the game during the testing, allowing you to see just which parts of your system is being taxed in which sequences. This makes it much easier to toggle settings and find the perfect setup for efficent performance without sacrificing the graphical fidelity.
As the game requires speed and precision, making sure you are always at least playing at 60 FPS is critical to your success. The added control input of using the mouse and keyboard also helps in that aspect, although the recommendation is to play the game using a connected DualSense controller, which allows the wonders of haptics and adaptive triggers to be felt when playing on the PC.
Despite the time between the PS5 version and the PC port, Returnal still suffers from certain issues both old and new that have not been ironed out just yet. Procedural generation of levels are a key aspect of the genre, but when it is actively working against you in terms of discovering more lore about the game, the randomness will start to annoy. With runs taking a considerable amount of time to get through, it can be a headache for those that are constantly looking for the next payoff.
There are also moments of stuttering when the game loads between each new room, which is strange when you have one of the best benchmarking tools out there in the video game space. Although it usually happens at the start when danger is minimal, it is still an annoyance that players can do without.
That said, having Returnal on PC is an excellent move for everyone involved, especially with the quality shown in the port. A new audience can finally have a taste of that amazing blend of gameplay that constantly beguiles players into taking one more run, enhanced by the bells and whistles made possible by the power of the PC. As one of the PS5’s best games, it would make perfect sense that Returnal maintains that form in its migration to the PC, and it proves just that.
- Excellent visual fidelity and effects, and plenty of options.
- Engaging gameplay loop with multiple complementary systems.
- Gunplay and platforming work really well together.
- Enemy and world design are refreshingly horrifying.
- Procedural generation can be an obstacle in learning about the world.
- Hitches here and there can build up to frustation.
February 15, 2023
Housemarque, Climax Studios
PlayStation PC LLC
PC, PlayStation 5
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