Returnal is the latest game from the Finnish studio Housemarque. Best known for games like Resogun and Nex Machina, Returnal is their most ambitious and biggest project to date. After 30 hours and countless failures in, I still don’t want to put my controller down.
Originally released back in 2021 for the PlayStation 5, it has finally made its way to PC, much like a few other offerings from SIE. Does the gameplay still hold up? and is it a well-optimized experience on PC? let’s find out.
AT A GLANCE
Release date: 30 April 2021(PS5), 15 Feb 2023(PC)
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Final Score: 9/10
Kill, Die, Repeat
Returnal is a roguelike game where players assume the role of Selene, an astronaut working for Astra corporation who becomes stranded on the dangerous planet Atropos. While battling the hazardous fauna, Selene discovers that she is stuck in a time loop, and each death brings her back to her starting point. In order to escape the cycle, Selene must persevere and fight her way out.
Returnal’s exceptional production values and engaging gameplay make it stand out among the vast number of roguelikes flooding the gaming industry, though it still experiences some of the genre’s typical limitations. Selene’s resolute nature and willpower make her the perfect protagonist for the game, and players can easily sympathize with her desire to break free from her fate.
Returnal, like other games in the roguelike genre, follows the same fundamental mechanic of starting from the beginning after death. However, there are certain aspects that remain consistent between playthroughs, such as the game’s currency, and the knowledge gained from every run. Players can unlock weapons and upgrades as they progress, and these can occasionally reappear earlier in the game to help give a boost during early stages.
The bosses that players defeat during a run won’t have to be defeated in the next one, but doing so will reward the player with upgrades and other advantages. Despite these benefits, each run still starts from square one, with nothing but the player’s skills and a trusty pistol to get through the challenges ahead.
Difficulty in games is a delicate balance to maintain, as it needs to be challenging enough to keep players engaged but not so difficult that it becomes frustrating. Returnal strikes a balance by providing a clear path to victory while still making the player work hard for it. Unfair mechanics and bullet sponge enemies can make a game frustrating, but Returnal doesn’t rely on those cheap tactics. Instead, it rewards hard work and determination and provides a sense of accomplishment that comes from conquering difficult challenges.
Returnal is an exceptional game that perfectly balances challenge and reward. Although it can be tough, the game manages to keep players engaged by allowing them to learn from their failures. Every death is a chance to learn and refine your strategy, as you understand how to avoid or counter the circumstances that led to your demise. Every boss encounter is an opportunity to identify their weaknesses and build the best tactics to defeat them. The game’s bullet gameplay is incredibly engaging, offering a challenging and satisfying experience that Housemarque is known for, and Returnal takes it to new heights.
As you watch Selene brace herself for another battle, you can feel the intensity rise, and every time you start a new run, you tell yourself that this time, you’re going to make it. The game’s various biomes offer a unique and challenging environment, but it is the level design that sets Returnal apart. As players progress through the game, they become familiar with the geography of each biome, making it easier to navigate and find items and upgrades on subsequent runs.
But it’s not just about familiarity, the game’s level design enables players to unlock tools by defeating bosses, opening up new paths and shortcuts that allow players to reach previously inaccessible areas. This makes traversal faster and more manageable, preventing players from having to backtrack or face bosses repeatedly. With a strong balance of challenge and reward, Returnal delivers an immersive and engaging gameplay experience that is both punishing and deeply satisfying.
The game offers a well-designed and challenging experience that keeps players engaged from start to finish. While the game can be brutal at times, it’s always conquerable, and every death feels like an opportunity to learn and improve. This is due to the game’s mechanics, which allow players to keep the game’s currency and, in some cases, unlock certain weapons and upgrades that may appear earlier in the game. However, players start from scratch with each new run, armed only with their trusty pistol and the knowledge gained from previous attempts.
Returnal takes the bullet gameplay that Housemarque is known for and turns it up a few notches. Players face a variety of biomes, each with unique challenges and enemies to overcome. Boss battles are particularly challenging, requiring quick reflexes, quick thinking, and decision-making. Each boss feels like a puzzle, and every defeat is an opportunity to find out their weakness, making future encounters easier. Players become intimately familiar with the game’s geography and level design, which makes it easy to find items and upgrades on subsequent runs.
I highly recommend installing this game on a good SSD, as the fast loading times will allow you to immediately return to action after each death. Daily challenges provide resources that players can use to progress further. The game also features an ever-expanding arsenal of weapons that players can unlock, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. Artifacts and parasites can also be equipped to provide bonuses. Artifacts usually cost obolites, the main currency of the game, while parasites are free but come with a negative side effect. Players can find parasites and artifacts throughout stages, but some of the latter come with the ability to trigger glitches in Selene’s outfit. To fix these glitches, players must meet certain conditions while suffering the effects of the rift or reverse Aether.
With the vast amount of options at their disposal, allowing players to adapt a variety of play styles. Despite allowing experimentation, however, it should be noted that Returnal primarily rewards perfect execution. This is reflected in the Adrenaline system, which offers bonuses to Selene for killing streaks, and awarding certain bonuses. You must use every trick in the book to get through the fights, and the game constantly pushes you to become more and more aggressive as it throws enemy after enemy at you.
The game does suffer from a bit of repetitiveness, and it’s limited by the fact that the genre and the nature of this type of gameplay demand repetition and monotony to be one of the consequences of your failure.
Returnal is a game that delivers an impressive experience through its presentation and production values. The visuals are sharp and highly detailed, which becomes evident as soon as you step onto the alien planet Atropos. The game’s visual identity is striking, with a design that evokes a sense of unease and dread, alluding to the personal hell that the protagonist Selene finds herself in.
The enemies you encounter and the various biomes you explore are all intricately designed, providing a unique and immersive experience with each playthrough. But the game’s presentation doesn’t stop there. The soundtrack composed by Bobby Krlic is a perfect match for the game’s setting, providing an eerie and haunting ambiance that elevates the sense of dread and unease.
The PC version of the game comes with achievements, an in-game progress tracker, and 5 graphical presets. Supports 16:10, Ultrawide, and Super Ultrawide aspect ratios in 4K. Ray-traced reflections and shadows, customizable lighting options, and performance-enhancing technologies such as NVIDIA’s DLSS and NIS, and AMD’s FSR are available. Play with the DualSense controller for haptic feedback and dynamic trigger effects, or use a mouse and keyboard or other controllers with customizable button prompts. Expanded accessibility options added, including alt-fire crosshair charging notification and Co-op ping system. It also supports Dolby Atmos and various 3D audio options.
One of the most impressive aspects of Returnal’s presentation was its use of the DualSense controller. The haptic feedback from the triggers provides a satisfying sensation when switching between normal and alternate fire. The controller’s unique features are also used to simulate different elements of the environment, such as the feeling of rain and hot wind from the desert. These small details made the game feel incredibly immersive, drawing players further into the game’s world. All of this is of course lost when you are playing with a mouse and keyboard, and it kind of ruins the magic for me a bit, but thankfully Returnal does offer official support for controllers.
Upon launching Returnal, the game quickly analyzes your computer and recommends graphic settings that should work for you. It’s incredibly important to have good framerates in a game like Returnal where occasional frame dips can distract and potentially lead to your death during a run. To improve your experience, I highly recommend spending some time tinkering with the settings. Fortunately, Returnal features a built-in benchmarking tool that allows you to analyze your performance in great detail, allowing you to get the best experience.