Returnal (PC) Review
I have a theory. I’m betting that most owners of high-end PCs with screaming GPUs probably also own a current-gen console. If said gamer was lucky enough to snag a PS5 back in 2021, there’s a fair chance they played Returnal. While it wasn’t billed as a system seller, it was still one of the biggest exclusives for Sony’s new console. So, should those who’ve played — or continue to play — Returnal pick it up again? And what about the countless PC gamers with “just okay” rigs, who never touched it on PS5?
Deja Vu All Over Again
Returnal is a third-person action game-slash-shooter about a crash-landed survivor on a hostile planet. You play as Selene, who quickly discovers remnants of herself on the alien world. She realizes she has literally been there and done that before. This becomes Returnal’s gameplay hook. Die, and in roguelike fashion, you start another, procedurally generated run. Whatever weapons, currency, and consumables you picked are gone. Over time, however, you unlock some permanent upgrades, tools, and the ability to find better weapons. You press forward through a series of biomes, each with a particularly challenging boss. Returnal’s mechanics are easy to understand and become second nature in short order.
Actually, all of Returnal is challenging. Early players and critics both praised and damned what was considered the game’s punishing difficulty. The bullet-hell style combat with multiple enemies and overlapping attacks could be overwhelming. What was worse, at launch there was no way to save a run mid-progress. The only way to preserve your game was to put the PS5 in rest mode. And then pray to the gods that there was no power failure. For the longest time, developers were steadfast in their vision of uncompromising difficulty.
Eventually, though, updates after launch took some of the sting out of Returnal’s punishment. While there was — and still is — no multiple save system, players can now save mid-run. Last March, in the “Ascension” update, the ability to co-op the game became available. While hardcore gamers can ignore these quality-of-life changes, they’re a godsend for mere mortals. It could be argued that difficulty is baked into Returnal for a reason. We’ll save the philosophizing about game design for another time. Playing Returnal with another Selene — there is only one character model, after all — is unlike Dark Souls, where each participant has a very specific build. It’s more like two Selene’s plowing through the levels simultaneously.
Returnal, Welcome to PC
While plenty of newer PS5 games have bested Returnal’s graphics, it’s still a great-looking game two years later. The various biomes are distinctive and memorable, and the enemy design, weapon effects, and lighting are all excellent. Best of all, movement through the game is incredibly refined and a lot of fun. The music and sound design are likewise brilliant. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the modular, procedurally generated levels can become too familiar over multiple runs. On the upside, though, you learn where the secrets and goodies are hidden.
Any current-gen console game ported to PC is expected to land with a long list of accessibility features, graphics enhancements, and added content. In theory, those with a better-than-baseline system should expect banger performance and lots of eye candy. Here’s where things get tricky. All I can do is report on how the game ran for me, on my system. Because there are so many permutations of CPUs, GPUs, and other variables, there’s no way to be really inclusive.
Returnal’s recommended specs are an Intel i7-8700 (6 core 3.7 GHz) or AMD Ryzen 7 2700X (8 core 3.7 GHz), and for the GPU, an NVIDIA RTX 2070 SUPER (8 GB) or AMD RX 6700 XT (12 GB). My PC hits the recommended specs almost exactly, save for a slightly better RTX2080. With NVIDIA’s DLSS dialed in at the balanced setting, I had a rock solid 60 fps at 3840×2160. Cranking everything up to epic, the framerate hovered around the upper 50s, but there was some occasional, but noticeable, stutter during cutscenes. I had no issues with texture pop-in, crashes, or major bugs. Some initial loading times were long.
Fun, Thy Name is Returnal
Returnal on PC supports all the haptic feedback and bells and whistles of the DualSense Controller. It’s definitely the way to play if you have one. Thanks to the implementation of Sony Atmos, it sounds fantastic if you have a rig that supports it. Just like on the PS5, Returnal doesn’t have difficulty options, but there are a couple of aiming assists to play with. Aside from colorblind and sound settings, there aren’t a ton of accessibility features.
I’ve been away from Returnal for some time, and coming back for the PC version was a happy reminder that, for a good long while, Returnal was my go-to action game. Two years later, its combination of fluid movement, engaging story, and challenging combat is still excellent. Some will still bounce off its difficulty but there are small ways to mitigate the pain. PC action game fans who missed Returnal when it was a PS5 exclusive are in for a great time.
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- Fantastic action mechanics
- Interesting story
- Runs well on a mid-range PC
- Some level repetition
- Still too difficult for some
- No new content on PC