A hard landing for Selene on PC with performance issues hampering an excellent gameplay
When RETURNAL first launched on the PlayStation 5 in 2021, it created a flurry of conversation about its difficult combat, moody exploration and alien environments.
It was an uncompromising experience; a meshing of tough-as-nails roguelike dungeon crawling, first-person surrealist horror setpieces and the lonely atmospheric exploration of a good Metroidvania.
Just under two years later, Returnal makes its debut on the PC platform allowing a new collection of players to experience its white-knuckle combat and experience the story of Selene, the lost space-pilot who finds herself trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth on the alien world of Atropos.
Atropos is a suffocating place. Its plant-life responds to your presence, twisting and moving and glowing as Selene gets too close. Its empty ruins tell stories of a collapsed alien empire whose mysteries may never truly be resolved.
While Selene is hunted by vicious creatures, automatons - she does so entirely by herself and it’s hard not to draw an immediate comparison to another game about a stranded space adventurer trying to navigate an empty, alien planet.
There are a lot of nods to the beloved Metroid Prime series throughout Returnal; the way Selene will stop to scan alien devices echoes Samus’ own scientific eye toward cataloging the creatures and lands of Tallon IV.
As Selene explores the world, she’ll discover new equipment and gear allowing her to reach new locations and areas previously inaccessible in prior runs, an echo of the way in which classic Metroid games have you back-tracking and digging through its map.
When Returnal first crash landed in 2021, I was immediately hooked - I wanted to discover all of Atropos’ secrets, understand Selene’s motivations and figure out the core of what was really taking place in the story.
I ended up dumping a furious 40 hours into the game at release, finally unlocking the game’s secret second ending after many, many challenging attempts to triumph over the game’s extremely difficult final biome.
So what’s changed for those coming to PC for the first time?
The most immediate impact is the inclusion of a whole suite of post-release content updates for the game, including a ‘never-ending’ dungeon crawl mode (complete with its own story sequences to discover) and a very fun multiplayer mode - allowing Selene to jump through space and time and sync up with other players, assisting them on their quest to escape Atropos.
Multiplayer is an immediate welcome inclusion to the Returnal formula and significantly lowers the difficulty for players who may be struggling.
Co-op partners bring extra damage and the ability to revive each other when someone is downed - allowing for some very fun and tense moments during boss fights if someone bites the dust.
Also immediately available is the ability to ‘suspend’ and save/turn off Returnal mid-run - a much welcome change from the launch-version of Returnal on PS5 which locked you into long play sessions (runs can sometimes go for 2-3 hours if you’re doing a full run through all the biomes) or running the risk losing your progress if your PS5 updated or powered down.
An Alien Facelift
Returnal PC also brings itself a huge suite of scalable upgrades to the already phenomenal graphics and special effects that made the game a visual spectacle to play on the PS5.
It has an extremely solid benchmarking tool that will allow you to play around with all its new features which include raytraced shadows, reflections, upgraded ambient occlusion, volumetric fog and boosted particle effects that really take centre stage when the combat kicks into high gear.
If you have a great monitor, you’ll also be able to enjoy the impressive HDR support it also offers.
As a final icing on the cake, the game's high quality photo mode allows you to take some truly breath-taking shots.
If you like taking cinematic snaps you’ll be stopping every few minutes to take in the wonder of massive ancient towers, crumbling ruins, breathtaking vistas and skylines.
All this graphical fidelity does come at quite the cost though, currently ray tracing appears to be bugged, creating hitching and stuttering issues for most mid range CPUs which the developers are working to patch.
These stutters can have a dramatic effect on the flow of combat, as Returnal really works best when it’s locked to a high FPS and not dipping.
The random spikes of lag, where your framerate drops to a slideshow often becomes unworkable when you're trying to accurately dodge incoming projectiles.
One of the advantages of a multiplatform release is the ability to take Returnal on the go while playing it on the Steam Deck which it does pretty admirably, despite the limitations of the handheld console.
Returnal isn't officailly "verified" like MARVEL'S SPIDER-MAN REMASTERED or HORIZON ZERO DAWN, but it's definitely a fun experience teaming up for a multiplayer run with a co-op partner, which surprisingly was one of the most stable experiences playing the game yet.
There was a fair amount of environmental pop-in vegetation and environmental assets which was quite jarring to look at, but mostly maintained a high enough frame rate to get you into a flow state.
While Sony might not be working on their next portable handheld, with a little bit of time I can see Returnal being a pretty impressive experience for the handheld console.
A Crash Landing?
I played Returnal on an i9-13900k with an RTX 3080 with 32GB of RAM and was able to initially run the game with very little issues on epic settings on both 2k and 4k resolution. However once I engaged in multiplayer, I encountered severe stuttering and slowdown and had to knock several settings down to keep performance from falling apart.
After a solid 6 hours of play with zero issues, I experienced my first crash to desktop while exploring the roguelike tower dungeon of Sisyphus. Unfortunately, I lost all my progress and my run was wiped.
This was the first of what would become more than a dozen crashes within the next few hours of gameplay.
While future crashes in the story mode dropped me back to the game’s last auto-save (thankfully not destroying all the painstaking progress of a run) it still stung. I could have a few stable hours of play with no issues but then there’d be other play sessions where within 10-15 minutes I’d crash to desktop - a fatal problem with a hyper-difficult roguelike that requires you to get into a flow state and rhythm with its combat to succeed.
So far, troubleshooting the crashes has been unsuccessful - a mix of rolling back graphic drivers, tweaking with various graphics settings and playing around with the games options have still left it in a quite volatile, unstable place. It appears I’m not the only one with the problem as well.
At the time of writing, I can’t quite recommend the PC version of Returnal as the one to dive into and play. If performance stutters/hitches and the frequent crashes can be addressed - then it might be the definitive way to play this modern masterpiece.
For now, see if you can find a friend who’ll let you jump onto their PlayStation 5.
A copy of RETURNAL on PC was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.