Returnal PC review: What’s it like for a roguelike veteran?

Recently Hypertext published a review in progress for the PC port of Returnal and now, just like the central conceit of the game, I have returned for a more definite appraisal with more hours in the game under my belt. That preview is required reading so go give it a look before we continue.

Just for context as we get deeper in here: Returnal is likely the biggest budget game in the modern roguelike genre. This is a genre that I’m rather fond of and have sunk thousands of hours into games that pioneered. I’ve 100 percent Enter the Gungeon on both PC and console. I was playing The Binding of Isaac when it was still a Flash game. I even cut my teeth on the Spelunky Classic demo.

Nuclear Throne, Hades, Slay the Spire, Dead Cells, FTL, Darkest Dungeon, both Risk of Rains and both Rogue Legacys (Legacies?), not to mention both often forgotten Hand of Fates… I’ve played them all.

This isn’t some weird flex, it’s just to highlight that Returnal has a lot to live up to, especially after myself and many others without PS5s waited quite a while for it to come to PC. So did it deliver? Well kind of.

The mark of any good roguelike is how eager players are to go for another run after dying and losing everything. It’s why so many games in this genre keep their runs to around the hour mark as investing anything more into a failed attempt can be “delete the game” levels of frustrating.

Returnal fails in this regard as dying rarely ever encouraged me to try again, but rather cut my gaming sessions short to try again tomorrow. Its runs are also several hours long – if you don’t die – so when death does eventually come it’s all the more irritating.

While there is a system to save, exit and continue later with zero penalty, developer Housemarque seems to have simply missed a trick to properly balancing the entire concept of dying and repeating which, you know, is the core of a roguelike.

The unsatisfying death loop (no not that Deathloop, which I also played) is balanced against moment to moment gameplay which is very much satisfying. As mentioned in the preview, protagonist Selene is an absolute joy to play as with lighting fast movement and snappy gunplay, the latter even better on PC with the precision of a mouse.

But again I found myself disappointed as the hours rolled on. The very first second you take control of Selene you’ll be having fun, but as time goes on you feel the pang of a loss of variety. There are a decent amount of guns and upgrades in Returnal, and some can completely change the way you play with vast modifiers, but eventually the well runs dry.

This may be a case of other roguelikes simply offering an embarrassment of riches that Returnal can’t compete with. My beloved Enter the Gungeon, for example, is infamous for having so much on offer that many players bounce off the sheer variety and are lost in choice. It could be that this level of vast difference in available playstyles has become the norm, but that may be a “me” problem.

What is less subjective is a problem with clarity and visual style in Returnal. As you can see from the trailers on this page it has a very alien approach to art design with both H.R. Giger and H. P. Lovecraft both appeased, especially in the realm of tentacles. There are a lot of tentacles in Returnal. Enemies are tentacles. The environment has tentacles. Even Selene sprouts them as upgrades in the form of parasites.

While that’s all very good and a joy to look at, it leads to a visual mess, especially when the combat is going at max speed with a dozen enemies and hundreds of projectiles on screen. All those tentacles overlap and become an undiscernible mass, and the game tries to fight against this with glowing weak points on enemies and brightly coloured bullets.

But it’s just not enough and you will feel lost and overwhelmed a lot of the time. There’s also the problem of enemies and their projectiles hitting you offscreen. This is an inherent problem with the choice of third person shooter as you can never have 360 degree view of the world compared to a platformer or top down shooter, but when the penalty of a single hit is so high – both because of damage and the adrenalin system – the offscreen damage becomes less acceptable.

Maybe I just need to get good, and Housemarque has engineered audio cues for most enemy attacks, but maybe more work should have gone into catering for gameplay over aesthetics.

I’d also like to make special mention of a gun alt fire that shoots a mass of tentacles at enemies. As most enemies are, themselves, masses of tentacles, I genuinely thought this alt fire was broken until I took the time to waste it and shoot it at a wall. Small examples like this pile up over the course of a game as big as Returnal, so don’t read that as one pain point I felt like complaining about.

What I can praise with no reservations is the music and overall presentation. It would have been easy to make a spacefaring game with the classic moon or Mars-like look and generic aliens that we’ve seen before, but being inside of this game feels unsettling, managing to capture the essence of “damn I really shouldn’t be here” and all the anxiety that comes with it. Combining these feelings of tension and unease with player empowerment, and the fact that I can blast through the game with a rocket launcher, is a commendable balancing act.

Let’s end on PC-port specific topics. Again head back to the preview as little has changed since then.

One change is that the hardware auto-detection and suggested settings aren’t perfect. I managed to squeeze out quite a few graphic setting upgrades without tanking performance, so you do need to do some experimenting using both gameplay and the built-in benchmark.

Another change is an increase in the rather serious technical problems I encountered. In the preview I had to end a very successful run due to being softlocked, then I had a black screen where the game kept running but wouldn’t display anything. After that there was a rather peculiar problem of the game refusing to accept keyboard inputs after ending a daily challenge, and then there was a less peculiar fatal error as soon as a boss fight loaded up.

Between subjective complaints and objective technical problems it may seem that I am down on Returnal, but I found myself returning to it even when these negatives piled up. The combination of supremely tight gameplay and compelling story that manages to break away from the expected Groundhog Day structure is what did it for me, but in the end I just expected more from Returnal than it had to give, despite being a great game.

Final score: 7 out of 10.


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