Returnal: PC - A Masterful Port
The ever-continuing march of Sony putting their past hits on the PC continues with the release of Housemarque’s tour de force, Returnal. Easily their most ambitious game yet, Housemarque’s spin on the rogue-like genre was a huge hit during the early days of the PS5. The question that needs to be asked however, was that hit status because of a lack of options at the time or was it truly a grand game? I am pleased to report that with a few years of patches and the power of a beasty PC behind it, Returnal is better than it has ever been.
For those that missed this game when it was initially released (which wasn’t hard to do considering the scarcity of PS5 consoles at the time), Returnal focuses on Selene, an astronaut that has ignored orders and headed to the planet of Atropos to investigate a mysterious radio signal. This signal, dubbed White Shadow, holds some alluring pieces of information for Selene, with vague personal references that only she would understand. As she comes in close to the planet, her ship breaks down and she is forced to crash land. Once on the ground she quickly discovers two things. The first is the planet is extremely hostile, with a host of nasties all willing and able to take Selene down. The second is that death is not the end for Selene, she simply wakes up back at the site of the crash to begin her journey all over again.
To go into any more detail would be to spoil what is a fun, if convoluted plot that involves all sorts of paradoxical conundrums and narrative twists and turns. The sort of thing that Doctor Who or Star Trek fans should be familiar with, though without the sense of humour that those esteemed shows bring. The narrative hinges solely on the character of Selene and her inner monologue as well as messages her past lives have left around the ever-changing world of Atropos. Luckily the voice acting is spot on with Jane Perry giving a fantastic and nuanced performance. Had it not been such a tour de force bit of voice acting, I feel like the story would have been a hard sell. As it is, however, I was invested the entire way.
As for the gameplay, this is something of a basic third-person shooter, in that it doesn’t really add any new twists to a time-old formula. Instead, it focuses on creating the perfect balance between challenge and flow, allowing players to really push themselves while dodging and shooting their way through a host of engaging and terrifying enemies. As I said it is a simple system, but it is one that has been buffed to a shine so once I had my head around all of the tools on offer, I had a blast taking on the dangers of Atropos, including some truly epic boss battles.
The biggest problem the game has, however, is the length of each run. Once you have mastered the game, it takes about 3-4 hours to get through from start to finish, but there is a lot of learning to do before that point. So as you head out into Atropos, you can expect 2-3 hours for each run as you make your way through the world. While the launch issue of not being able to save the game mid-run has been fixed, it does still feel like it is a bit of an epic undertaking to commit to this sort of timeframe each time you sit down with the game. It is a barrier to the enjoyment that could have been tackled with some balancing and tweaks to the main systems. It is a minor problem, especially now you can save halfway through, but it is one worth mentioning all the same.
Returnal has had a lot of balancing and tweaks over the years since its release and all of those improvements are present here in the PC version. When I first played the game, there were clearly some balance issues with weapons, damage, and enemies that made the game feel unfairly challenging at times. That has all been balanced and Returnal is now a much more enjoyable experience because of it. The challenge is absolutely still there, but it is a fair and engaging challenge that never feels cheap or like the AI is cheating. When I failed, it was because I failed, not because the AI used dirty tactics or exploits, something I felt happened way too often when the game first came out.
On the PC side of things, this is a game that really uses the extra power of a high-end PC exceptionally well. It was a stunning game on the PS5 but it is even more so now if you have the PC to power it. Great use of RTX and DLSS means that this game runs silky smooth while stunning the eye at every turn. I feel like the team over at Sony that is helping this steady flow of PC ports is finally really getting a handle on what modern PCs can do because, on a technical level, This is probably the best port yet. The stunning looks come at a cost though, because it really does demand a high-end pc, so much so that this is the first of the Sony ports that doesn’t work on the Steam Deck, though that may change down the line with some tweaking and tuning from the developers.
Returnal on PC is not just the same game that came out about 2 years ago. It is a better version of that game. Months of tweaking and patching to the main game, along with the power of a high-end PC means that this version of Returnal is the best one available. There are still some minor issues in regard to combat and pacing, but none of those issues detract too much from one of the best rogue-like experiences available. If you haven’t played it yet and you have the PC to run it, Returnal should absolutely be on your must-play list. It is addictive, engaging, and challenging in all the right ways.
Returnal was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Playstation Australia