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March 2024


Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Housemarque
Release Date: Feb. 15, 2023


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PC Review - 'Returnal'

by Cody Medellin on March 13, 2023 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Returnal transforms roguelike gameplay into a third-person shooter where players fight to survive a hostile planet that changes with every death.

Returnal makes its way to the PC after holding the distinction of being the worst-kept secret of the Sony releases to date, given the constant leaking of its screenshots. Its announcement was met with a sigh of relief that it was finally official. The PC iteration also has the distinction of being the first port of a PS5 game from the company, and while titles like the previous Spider-Man duo of games and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy were PS5 releases, they also had ports and perhaps their roots in the PS4 era. It also happens to release with a $60 price point, $10 less than what PS5 players had to pay when the game launched on that platform a few years prior.

You play the role of Selene, an astronaut flying to the planet Atropos to check out a signal emanating from there. While most of the flight was a smooth one, one environmental mishap sends her craft crashing down to the planet. Selene survives, but with her ship now a wreck. She continues her search for the signal while slowly coming to the realization that something is wrong with the planet.

The first time you start Returnal, it pours on the important narrative details. The discovery of your own corpse coincides with the retrieval of your pistol. The first note left behind gives you a brief synopsis of what's wrong with the alien world. After your first death, you realize that you're repeating the adventure and there's no end in sight. From that point onward, the game resorts to drip-feeding bits and pieces of the narrative every time you play. It's purposefully obtuse, but every bit you get, no matter how minor, keeps you hooked to see what's next story-wise.

If you're unfamiliar with Returnal, it can be best described as a mashup of several different game types. It is a shooter, but instead of a top-down view and a typical twin-stick approach, it has a third-person perspective with the camera pulled back instead of close and over the shoulder. It also happens to be a bullet-hell shooter, something the developers tried with Nex Machina a few years ago.

Considering the studio's pedigree, it should come as no surprise that the shooting and movement is spot-on. Every firearm, from your lowly pistol to the shotgun, has precise aiming that is second nature with a keyboard and mouse but still feels tight on a standard gamepad. You can only hold one weapon at a time, but you're never in a situation where one weapon can put you at a great disadvantage. The various secondary abilities, from homing beams to a large wave, also feel good and remain powerful, while the dodge move helps you dance around bullet streams, laser columns, and spread patterns that look easy to navigate but become treacherous when more enemies start firing. It's frantic, but you never feel powerless.

One element that feels different is the emphasis on aggression. As you attack and kill enemies without getting hit, you get more abilities, like enhanced enemy vision location or better movement speed. That all gets reset once you get hit, and while those perks seem slight, you'll rely on any advantage, so you learn to balance the aggression with caution to maintain that advantage.

Returnal is a roguelike, which is a first for Housemarque. It adopts the basic hallmarks of that genre, from the ever-changing layout per death to upgrades that only last for the current run. You get one life to work with, but the game adopts some of the more classic roguelike traits by ensuring that some traversal tools are permanent upgrades, forcing you to rely heavily on getting better at reading enemies and dodging things, instead of dying to give yourself an advantage with augments on the next run.

Like the shooting, the roguelike elements are handled rather nicely. The rooms are well designed, so each portion feels manageable. Even when rooms repeat, the enemy placement and makeup differ enough that it may take you a few runs to realize that you've seen the place before. There's an element of exploration that heavily encourages you to clear out a room and check every corner to find new weapons or augments. Interestingly, the game also takes a page from Dark Souls by throwing in random corpses of old fights and letting you decide if you should loot the body or replay that fight to get better goods. It works, especially since the randomization is weaved nicely into the narrative, and everything else — from the shooting to the story elements — keeps you going in the hope of beating the game and getting answers to the mysteries.

Everything that was created for the PS5 version is immediately available for the PC. Photo mode is a nice addition, as is co-op. Steam players might be taken aback by the inclusion of Epic's online modules, but we've been told that it's present to ensure Epic Games Store players can play with those on Steam and vice versa, but it would've been nice to see some co-op cross-play for PS5 players, too. The Tower of Sisyphus DLC is here, but perhaps the biggest inclusion is Suspend mode, which lets you put up a temporary save for your run. It remains limited, as the save goes away once you load it up. You can't create a save for different runs at the same time, but considering how long a run can take (up to several hours), it's for a good enough compromise.

The presentation is hauntingly beautiful, especially if you have the horsepower on the PC. From the audio side, there's only one voice actor most of the time, and she handles Selene's monologues and notes wonderfully; she's trying to professionally analyze her situation while still eliciting a sense of bewilderment and dread at what's going on. The effects are solid, and if you have the card for it, the inclusion of ray-traced audio does a good job of enriching the environmental effects to make them sound more realistic. The music is a good mix of action-based sci-fi with a little bit of horror thrown in, and it also does a good job of helping you stay interested in each run while also keeping you on the move.

Graphically, Returnal does a good job of surpassing what was done on the PS5. The characters and their animations look just as good as ever, with slightly more fidelity given to little details like the apparatus on Selene's suit and weapons. The environment is where things really shine, as this is a true 4K presentation where everything gets loads more detail than before and excellent draw distances to back it up. Lighting is superb and vibrant, which matches up well against the darker environments to ensure that enemies and their gunfire aren't accidentally obscured. Seeing the game run at a full resolution at 60fps makes for the right experience, but if you're lucky enough to see it in smooth 120fps, it makes it difficult to go back. In case you don't have the hardware to do this natively, the game has resolution scaling and every variety of upscaling technology. Keep in mind that this isn't the latest iteration, so you're still dealing with FSR 1.0 and DLSS 2 for now.

There is one thing that mars the presentation, and it is the presence of stuttering. Depending on your hardware setup, there's a good chance you'll see the game hitch every so often, and while most of it occurs during traversal from room to room, it can also manifest if you're in combat and haven't quite dialed in your settings. If you turn on ray tracing effects of any sort, the issue becomes more pronounced and happens more often. It doesn't do it to the point of unplayability, but it is very noticeable in heavy combat situations. Digital Foundry discovered this issue with ray tracing, and we can corroborate that here as we're running the game on a RTX 4090 with 32GB of DDR4 RAM and a Ryzen 7 5800X. The developers seem to have figured out what the issue is and are currently working on a fix. While the game is still very playable, having that smoothed out would lead to a much better overall experience.

The PC port comes with the usual slate of features we've come to expect from every Sony game thus far. For audio, this means 3D audio support if you have the speakers for it as well as Dolby Atmos support. For the graphics, this means support for 21:9 and 32:9 ultrawide formats, with the proper HUD scaling to go along with it and options to ensure that pre-rendered movies in 16:9 can eliminate the pillar-boxing without looking out of place. There's also a benchmarking tool that ranks as one of the best; it's very granular and points out specific sections where your equipment may be faltering so you know exactly what needs to be tweaked. It is detailed enough that you wish other big titles would take this approach. Like all of the other ports that had a PS5 version, DualSense support is here, but the adaptive triggers and haptics are only present if you use the wired controller. The team has done a good job of emulating the haptics wirelessly on other controllers. It might not be as fine-tuned as Sony's device, but going through the menus and feeling the dull shake of the motors as you hold down buttons is something so rarely done in other titles that it feels somewhat magical to get this on something like an Xbox One gamepad.

Returnal continues Sony's reputation of making sure that its PC ports run well enough on the Steam Deck. The game defaults to 1280x800, but it will carry over your settings from a previous machine instead of defaulting to one for the Deck. Turning everything down to the Low graphical preset will get the game running below 30fps on average, and while the title has a bevy of upscaling techniques, they only help when it comes to getting the game to hit a stable 30fps. Looking at the numbers may give you the impression that the game experience is subpar, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Even when the numbers drop, the experience feels solid, and while there is some hitching, it does so with less frequency than its Windows iteration. The game reduces the draw distance, so you'll see grass magically grow before your eyes and some enemies have their animations cut, all in the name of keeping a steady frame rate for the overall picture.

The game also does a good job of trying to emulate things like quick loading time by not showing you transitions between the overworld and the pits or the actual traversal when using teleporters. What's funny is that it makes some sacrifices in areas like this, but it still maintains an abundance of particle effects that somehow never cause the frame rate to tank. All of that graphical grunt takes a toll on the battery life, so you'll be lucky to get two hours of it on a full charge. Some may argue the battery life is fine considering we're getting this port of a PS5 game, and the game's nature ensures that you'll die a few times before the battery does.

Returnal is a solid roguelike that does a very good job of encouraging you to play just one more run over and over again. The shooting and traversal are solid, and the fights may be tough but never feel cheap. The inclusion of the DLC and the Suspend mode from the get-go ensures that the game seems more fair, even though death can still come easily. The presentation shows that the PC can still provide a top-of-the-line experience for modern games. The stuttering is the only real thing dragging down this experience, but if you are somehow immune to that or are reading this by the time the patch has been released, Returnal is a must-have for those who enjoy difficult solo shooters.

Score: 8.5/10

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