Returnal PC is a release of the popular roguelike and bullet hell game from Sony, originally released in 2021 as an exclusive title for the PlayStation 5 console. While the original launch, subsequent fixes, and feature updates happened over time, PC players can rejoice that the re-release will have everything rolled into an excellent package upon the game’s release to Steam and the Epic Games Store. First, however, you may ask yourself if purchasing the PC release is worth it. What new features does it offer?
The answer is a resounding yes because you can access existing features like the in-game progress tracker, achievements, co-op mode, and the Tower of Sisyphus. In addition, you will also have access to additional tools unique to the PC version since many gaming computers are available on the market and are made differently. Tools in Returnal include five graphical pre-sets, in-game performance metrics, an FPS counter, a latency tracker, and a GPU and CPU tracking gauge. While it is possible to get Returnal running on your specific gaming PC, the developers included the above tools for a reason.
Welcome to Atropos
Returnal takes place entirely on an alien planet called Atropos. The Sentients built an advanced civilization encompassing the entire planet, but Atropos’ environment has since reclaimed it. The Sentients are close to extinction as only the Severed remains of their population inhabit the planet. Advanced artifacts of their lost civilization are also scattered across the planet and will help you in your journey of breaking the cycle. From the hive mind structures of the Crimson Wastes to the terrifying depths of the underwater Abyssal Scar, there are five biomes on Atropos that you will traverse, each providing a unique challenge.
I admit Atropos was a bit of a throwaway world for me. Nothing about it stood out to me from a visual or level design standpoint. Other games that were set in alien worlds were more successful. The only standout was the inclusion of the haunted houses used to explore Selene’s background. Everything else was just generic scenery, and it fell into the background.
Hello, Selene Vassos, Have We Met Before?
The protagonist of Returnal is Selene Vassos, voiced by Jane Perry (Hitman, Devils), a Greek American working for ASTRA as a deep space scout. As you further into the cycle, you will unravel Selene’s story as a child leading up to the events of her crash on Atropos.
Selene’s story examines the hurt, guilt, and pain Selene felt after the events of her son and mother. The story is highly elevated and crosses the boundaries of parallel universes and dream sequences. We don’t know what is real or not. At one point, we are left to question if Selene is even an astronaut.
Still, just like the tremendously crafted elevated horror movie, The Babadook, it shows us how trauma affects humankind and how people deal with it differently. The car crash is parallel to the Helios crashing on Atropos. Atropos is a dream sequence that pieces together the real-life events and people of Selene. In it, we learn about her grief, guilt, sadness, and anger because of events surrounding her child and mother.
I didn’t catch it initially, but slight hints are dropped throughout the game. For instance, a throwaway voice line about leaving Helios later turned out to hint at her son, also named Helios. These little nuggets are spread throughout the game and will make all the difference in understanding the story.
Can You Break the Cycle?
Returnal’s primary game mechanic comes from the Roguelike genre. After you die, you will start over again and lose all loot and the progress you gained before your death. However, most games, like Returnal, allow you to keep some upgrades to your character so you can become more powerful with every new playthrough.
This includes abilities that allow you to access locked areas, which will help progress the story. Along with unlocking permanent abilities, you will understand how the game works and survive longer before your death. This all culminates in beating the game. In Returnal, beating the game is called breaking the cycle, which Selene appears to be stuck in since her crash landing on Atropos.
A Fully Immersive Experience
Returnal is an immersive experience that hits you from three primary senses: touch, sight, and sound. Sony, Climax Studios, and Housemarque’s use of haptic feedback, 4K supported visuals, and 3D sound set Returnal apart from most recent Triple-A titles on the market. However, these features require much work from the player to enjoy, so you should expect to tinker with the game as soon as it is installed.
Haptic Feedback and Dynamic Trigger Effects
Rain in Returnal will cause subtle haptic pulses that are procedurally synthesized at runtime, which makes your brain think you are standing in the rain on Atropos. These constant haptic pulses added to the immersion and made it feel like my hands were doing more than just holding a controller. There are also dynamic trigger effects, aka the ability to use focus aim by pulling halfway on the trigger or entering the alt-fire mode by fully holding the trigger down.
However, you must plug a DualSense into your gaming PC to use this feature. One of the reasons why PC players love gaming on PCs is their use of a mouse and keyboard. So a DualSense controller’s requirement to experience one of the game’s features is a loss from the start. Plus, if you don’t own a PlayStation 5, you won’t just have one lying around, which defeats the purpose of a PC port.
4K Resolution With Ray Tracing
One benefit of owning a console is not having to worry about the PC requirements of a game. Unfortunately, this is where Returnal can cause frustration for PC players because the requirements to run Returnal on 4K with Ray Tracing are high. You will need a good gaming PC to run it using these settings. It took me a while to tweak my settings to avoid stuttering or lag in the game because Returnal is demanding on the GPU. Most of the time, the gauge pinged at 100%.
Returnal uses 3D audio for its sound effects and soundtrack, which brings Atropos to life. I played with headphones on, using the available 3D audio options. Multiple times during my playthrough, I looked behind me because I thought the sound was coming from inside my house.
However, this is another pain point of the game because you will need to use stereo headphones, have a system that supports Dolby Atmos, or use a 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound system. You may have to move your gaming rig around to accommodate, which may be more trouble than it’s worth. Trust me, however. It is worth it!
PC vs. PlayStation 5
Where Returnal shines on the PC over its console counterpart is its upscale features like DLSS and AMD FSR. In addition, the game also includes NVIDIA Image Scaling and VRS, which allows for the dynamic rendering of in-game assets. The game will render objects with distinct qualities based on their importance, allowing you to gain additional frames without negatively impacting quality. I gained 10 to 20 additional frames, which makes a difference.
Unfortunately, getting Returnal to work on the PC with all the tools, gauges, and settings was a pain and most likely not worth it to the average player. In addition, finding the perfect balance between amazing graphics and outstanding performance was tedious. It killed my initial excitement for the game before I started it.
Outside of DLSS and FSR, there is little else to be gained from Returnal from the PlayStation 5 version. The game’s mechanics, story, and features are all the same, albeit wrapped in an excellent package that is available from the port’s launch.
Sony did a fantastic job porting another exclusive game on PC. The port includes all features in one polished package. However, getting the game to run can be challenging and a significant turnoff for the average PC player. Therefore, I only recommend it if you didn’t play it on the PlayStation 5 since the story, mechanics, and features are the same.
In addition, I failed to connect with the game because it offers an insane learning curve through its use of two of the most challenging genres. I only beat the game because I loved uncovering Selene’s story and watching the movie-quality cut scenes, not the mechanics themselves.
This game was reviewed using a copy of the game provided by the game's publisher,public relations company, developer or other for the express purpose of a review.
- This article was updated on February 20th, 2023