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Feb 24, 2023

Returnal (PC) Review

Lights Off
4 Awesome
Retails for: $59.99
We Recommend: $59.99
  • Developer: Housemarque, Climax Studios
  • Publisher: PlayStation PC LLC
  • Genre: Action
  • Released: Feb 15, 2023
  • Platform: Windows, PlayStation 5
  • Reviewed: Windows

Returnal released onto the PlayStation 5 in April of 2021 to great acclaim, and for good reason. Housemarque made a statement in 2017 saying that “arcade is dead” and that “it’s time for Housemarque to move forward with the industry”. While most of this is true, Returnal contains a lot of the core DNA of what makes Housemarque, well… Housemarque. Climax Studios has helmed the PC version of Housemarque’s game, and it’s just as great as its console counterpart in every way. This is especially true if you have a DualSense controller to experience it with. Returnal transcends its arcade and shoot’em up influences with one of the most unique and best roguelikes yet.

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The game begins with an astronaut on a solo mission sent to explore a planet, only to inadvertently crash land on its surface, with no known way home. You play as Selene, who awakens on the planet with nothing more than her suit in-tact, and a pistol in-hand. Atropos is the most hostile planet, full of creatures and things that absolutely, positively, want you dead. It’s a place that’s full of secrets and story beats to keep you coming back again and again to see the story through to the end.

Returnal is a roguelike, and as a result death is a common theme, and you’ll be frequently resetting from the start. Each time you start anew, you’ll be inside the ship, a sequence where you move about in first-person, which is rather claustrophobic and lets you check out various rooms and even sleep. Once you step out from the ship, the game is in the third-person view that’ll be from that point forward. Unlike other roguelikes, this is a game that’s more skill-based than one centered around gear progression. It takes some getting used to, as the feeling of strength is not felt through the character, but rather the player as they learn the nuances of enemy design, placement, and how to utilize weapons during combat to the fullest.

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Combat in Returnal is coupled with the excellent movement controls, as you’re able to jump, dash, and sprint. Using them all at the right time, lets you come out of most encounters unscathed. I think one of the more unique elements of Returnal is that you can just shoot. There’s no necessity to aim with the left trigger to ensure accuracy, as that happens by default. You can aim your gun for a focus fire attack, but traditional firing is just as powerful. It won’t be long before you’re given an alt-fire attack, and unlike games you’re used to, recharges quick. This is meant to be used, and used a lot, and it’s incredibly exciting as each weapon has a different attack. There’s also a system of weapon proficiency, where as the more you use it, more abilities and levels unlock. As you kill enemies and don’t get hit, you’ll build up adrenaline. Adrenaline is essentially the game’s momentum, you’ll do more damage and feel more powerful as a result. Though as soon as you get hit once, it resets and it feels like you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks. It’s just as easy to get that momentum going again, and you’re mentally encouraged to not let that stop again.

Throughout the course of the game, there are six biomes to traverse. Each location is different than the last, and even offers unique twists on ones you’ve might’ve seen before. This is in addition to the fact that each time you reset from death, the layouts of these locations changes as well. So it never feels like you’re doing the same thing twice. As you navigate these spaces, you’ll activate fast travel points known as translocators that can make quick work when needing to backtrack. In later sections, these traverse great distances for an awesome spectacle. There will often be echoes to avenge or scavenge consisting of other real players of the game. Choosing to avenge them will spawn a tough enemy to dispatch for a great reward, while scavenge will utilize resources to skip that part for a lesser reward. There are also situations in traversal and combat to use your melee attack, a sword on a cooldown that can take down shields on enemies and secret areas. All of this is end-capped by the game’s stunning and unique boss battles. They are difficult, multi-layered, and some of the best parts Returnal has to offer as they are bullet hell symphonies.

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Items play a significant role in the game, from various resources and equipment items to the risk vs reward kind. These come in the form malignants, a way to buff your character in some way, but has the probability to cause a suit malfunction which could hamper you like taking damage when falling from a height. Artifacts are a boon to your survivability as they will grant some bonus to weapons or your suit. There are also consumables like restoring health or initiating a one-time use attack that does massive damage. There are even areas gated by keys that ask you to explore in order to find them which can hold even better items. All of this takes time, and the requisites of beating bosses or finishing locations may grant you one of a few tools you’re teased about. It’ll take two biomes and bosses defeated before you get the grapple tool, but it’s an invaluable time saving traversal tool that essentially unlocks the whole game. There’s even an item that lets you navigate water safely, and while it comes at the last few hours of the main story, it is no less useful or welcome.

Returnal begs for you to delve deeper, uncover its mysteries and secrets. It does a great job at obfuscating the story bits, and holding things back by having you find pieces of languages that you slowly uncover more details. While there’s a traditional ending, the game also houses a secret ending that I’ve yet to even discover. All this to say is that while there’s payoff for finding out the truth, the air of mystery that surrounds every part of the game’s world is just as exciting.

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I played the majority of the game on mouse and keyboard. Look, I’m not saying this definitively, I was able to clear the game multiple times, which is way more progress than I ever made on my PlayStation 5 save of the game. I did try my DualSense on PC, and after selecting “Disable Steam Input”, the game recognized the DualSense and used it to its full capabilities (while plugged in via USB). There’s simply no comparison, the implementation of haptics and rumble on the DualSense is something you absolutely have to experience, it completely enhances the experience. There’s no true way to save in the game, but it does include a PlayStation 5 feature of “Suspend and Exit” that’s really clever, in that it does create a save for you to return to. Once you die, that save is deleted to make room for another one, and you’re off to start a new run.

If you don’t find the game hard enough, after your first clear, the new “Simulation Tier” opens up to enable. If that’s not at all what you want, you can at least make things more fun to play in the recent co-op mode. Now you and a friend can tackle the planet together for an equally challenging, but less isolated experience. And lastly, if more is what you crave, the Tower of Sisyphus is an Endless Mode that challenges you to go as far as you can before dying.

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The very first time you start Returnal , there’s a shader compilation that’ll occupy the first couple of minutes. It’s well worth it to do, but there are still many moments of struggling with the stutter. It’s not frequent enough to be a bother, but it’s enough that you notice. I never had a stutter that resulted in death, so thankfully when it happens, it’s been minimal. This really only applies to the first biome, but the game can be really dark. I played the game in SDR, so this is one of the few games where I had to adjust the brightness to level out all the heavy blacks that are in the game. After I progressed further, this became less of a problem to the nature and lighting of the locales. During the benchmark and even gameplay, I achieved high framerates with ray tracing turned on that was well over 120fps. This changes when you get later into the game, and there’s a high volume of particles in close quarter situations, where I saw the framerate drop down into the 40fps range. This ebbs and flows, as you clear enemies, the framerate will jump back out. The game feels incredibly smooth, even when it’s not above 60fps, and it’s a gorgeous looking game.

My PC Specs:

– Microsoft Windows 11 Pro
– Intel Core i9 9900K @ 5Ghz (Turbo)
– Corsair H115i RGB PLATINUM 97 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler
– Corsair Vengeance RGB Pro 32 GB (2 x 16 GB) DDR4-3200 Memory
– Seagate FireCuda SSD (500GB)
– Seagate BarraCuda SSD (1TB + 2TB)
– OWC Aura P12 NVMe SSD (2TB)

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The planet of Atropos is sprawling cornucopia of danger, colors, and excitement. At times, Returnal can be borderline on being space horror with its themes and setting, which makes it so good at what it does. Housemarque still retains those arcadey and shmup elements that they essentially have baked into their core. The PC version of Returnal gives those without a PlayStation 5 or a desire to own one a way to play one of the most unique roguelikes to ever exist. Returnal is this homogeneous blend of elements that fuse into something so beautiful and wonderful, that you just have to play and experience for yourself.

A Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes