Returnal might have struggled to wow gamers after its initial reveal as a PS5 exclusive, but it amassed a niche following when some gameplay emerged online. Finnish developer Housemarque faced a few challenges: for one, it was a less-known studio trying to sell an original IP for a full $70 — competing against a pool of well-established AAA creators that anyone could blindly trust. Furthermore, in its original marketing campaign, Sony portrayed the game as a generic action shooter, where all you do is run around and kill aliens. While that is true to an extent, its highly addictive roguelike DNA was made clear a bit later — ultimately turning heads. Joining hands with Climax Studios, Returnal’s frenzied bullet-hell action now heads to PC, with some tweaks for a new audience.
The game opens in a rather abrupt fashion, setting you among the stars as deep space voyager Selene Vassos. Steering her ship into the eye of a cyclone, she approaches the forbidden planet Atropos to investigate a mysterious signal called “White Shadow.” Unfortunately, things go awry and she crashlands on the surface, overgrown with exotic vegetation and strewn with the ruins of an ancient Xeno-type civilisation. Barebone introductions are a hallmark of roguelike titles, giving you only just enough information to get going, as the larger narrative unfurls through repeated runs.
You see, Selene is stuck in a bizarre, infinite time loop, in which every death brings her back to the crash site and scrambles her brain a little. In fact, our journey in Returnal starts right in the middle of one, but that isn’t conveyed directly. By exploring the world and retrieving Scout logs (audio recordings) left by your former selves, you slowly peel apart the layers of the mystery. If anything, Selene’s hazy memory serves as a tool to immerse you, by feeding exposition in a less obvious manner. “I don’t remember recording that,” she says at one point, closing the gap between the character and the player’s mentality. Both start on a similar, relatable note with scant knowledge of the situation they’re in.
With no dramatic build-up but loads of questions, Returnal gets straight into the action with zero hand-holding. Selene is pitted against an array of door-to-door levels, where both the environment and the hostile aliens within them are randomised upon subsequent deaths and runs. While roguelikes commonly have an isometric or top-down view, Housemarque has shaken things up by presenting Returnal in a third-person shooter format. Not only is it visually unique, but the design serves as a gateway for mainstream gamers to get a taste of this niche genre. Even with the pivot, the developer has retained its core bullet-hell philosophy from past titles such as Nex Machina and Matterfall — urging you to time jumps and dashes against a barrage of brightly glowing projectiles. It’s tough, and you will die a bunch of times before getting the hang of it. Don’t feel bad about that, because a bunch of story elements are tucked within those death scenes as well.
Running through the first couple of rooms in the Overgrown Ruins, Housemarque’s emphasis on speed is instantly noticeable. Selene is extremely agile and has no stamina limitations, letting her manoeuvre and change directions constantly. Her standard movement speed is much like sprinting in most other action games, but Returnal also punishes you for relying on it too much. Unlike roguelikes such as Hades, looting in Returnal requires puzzle-solving skills, as some valuable upgrade items are stowed in hard-to-reach areas. Equipped with a jetpack, I could hop across complex platforms to reach my destination, but upon landing, I found this fast pace to be a hindrance, causing me to run off ledges or at times fall straight into the abyss. In the early stages, Selene can’t swim, so I kept rushing haphazardly into water bodies in pursuit of shiny loot, only to get injured. Some of this can be solved by upping the brightness, which makes terrain formations more visible. You’ll also unlock a grappling hook later, which lets you swing around and reach high areas.
The planet Atropos is full of unforgiving beasts, designed uniquely after the habitat they belong to. For instance, the forest biome is packed with celestial parasitic organisms, splashed in a Lovecraftian coat of paint. Meanwhile, desert areas such as the Crimson Wastes are cast in red with giant vertebrae pillars, and are inhabited by formidable enemies such as hard-shelled crustaceans and floating squids, reminding me of the Caelid region from Elden Ring. The barren foundations of the Derelict Citadel, however, are endlessly patrolled by automatons that fire lasers. It just keeps getting worse, doesn’t it?
Tentacles are a recurring theme, with their bioluminescent strands firing waves of neon orbs towards you. While the ambushes were hectic at first, I soon found it easy to just shoot twice, dash in, and slice the tentacles with my Atropian Blade. Repeat this across levels and you’ll be treated to glorious explosions, with the severed appendages wiggling about on the ground. Some particle effects might cause heavy stutters on low-end PCs, so I’d recommend messing around with the slew of graphics options available in Returnal on PC. It also has an FOV (field-of-view) slider — a new PC-exclusive feature — that helps adjust how much of your surroundings can be seen and need to be rendered on screen.
Just when you think you’ve mastered combat, Returnal surprises you with new threats that test your ability to adapt. There are airborne creatures that close distances, teleporting corpses that send out fungal spores, and even minibosses that serve to make your life hell — and this is in just the first biome! Forgetting my learned tactics, I began making decisions on the fly — panic dodging, missing shots, and wrongly timing skill checks, which led to longer reloads. As fights grew in intensity, all I could think of was somehow zigzagging my way to healing items, hoping I didn’t get shot in the back. The highly devastating Alt Fire mode, which every firearm you come across has, saved my sorry butt so many times, inflicting big chunks of damage that made quick work of minibosses. You can lob a grenade, shoot a flurry of homing bullets, and deal continuous shock damage for crowd control — akin to Winston from Overwatch. There’s also one weapon that fires tentacular creatures that latch onto foes and deplete their health over time.
Having lived through all that, it was time to reap rewards. In addition to looting upgrade items from chests and random areas on the map, Returnal has an in-game shop. Here, you can exchange Obolites collected during gameplay for single-use consumables, enhancements, and traps that give you an extra edge in heated moments. Some rooms might provide higher-level guns, or lead you to purple-hued malignant items that inflict a negative effect. Think of this as a high-risk high-reward trade, where you’re granted a decent perk but get a debuff as well. Assess whether the pros outweigh the cons, and make informed decisions for the run ahead. Try not to overthink it, as these ‘malfunctions’ can be cleansed by completing specific objectives or by spending Ether, a rare Atropian resource. That said, I’d recommend saving the latter since it has a more beneficial use — respawning — more on that later :). Ether also happens to be the only item that stays in your inventory after deaths.
It’s easy to get mesmerised by the bosses’ appearance, but try not to get carried away as a simple mistake could cost you an entire run. No matter whether you face the three-armed Phrike in the chasms or the airborne Ixiom atop the mountains of the Crimson Wastes, your strategy will more or less have to remain the same. Think of fighting Sigrún in God of War (2018), where everything you’ve learnt from past battles culminates in this supreme moment. That said, the boss fights in Returnal do not feel like a test of endurance. Sure, they have three phases each, but bosses’ attack patterns change accordingly — switching between relentless barrages of orbs, laser beams, and spiralling bullets that are guaranteed to test your mettle.
I’d gotten way too comfortable with spamming Selene’s dash ability, abusing its brief invincibility window to cheese past boss attacks. The game recognised this and in response, integrated some energy ring/ wall attacks that demanded I leap over them while simultaneously trying to avoid incoming projectiles. It’s safe to say that I relied on my muscle memory too much and died pretty quickly.
However, I wasn’t dispirited. Yes, I kept losing my items. Yes, I choked at some pivotal points in fights. But there was something so alluring about memorising attack patterns and going through the loop over and over again until I perfected my runs. If you don’t feel the same way or can’t afford to no-life this game, you just need to be lucky enough to reach Reconstructors scattered across the biomes. Remember when I told you to save Ether earlier? By exchanging six of these tokens at designated sites, you can activate a checkpoint. If you die later on, you will respawn at the Reconstructor without being penalised by way of lost weapons, upgrades, and progress. It’s essentially an extra life. Also, since Returnal’s PC port carries over the co-op mode from the original PS5 version, you can summon friends or random players online to help ease your journey.
Throughout repeated runs, you’ll also encounter a mysterious, out-of-place house, nested within the Overgrown Ruins. Echoing the vibes of Hideo Kojima’s P.T., you’ll find horror mini-games that serve as fragmented storytelling devices, dropping clues to Selene’s past and what led her to embark on this interstellar trip. It’s super cryptic — the kind of challenging narrative that demands you come up with interpretations and piece things together. My favourite kind of storytelling! Adding to the immersion is a sudden shift to a first-person perspective, where instead of a chest POV, — as seen in other FPS games — the camera is enclosed within Selene’s space helmet. While it feels disorienting at first, Housemarque’s goal was to foster a greater sense of intimacy, and the claustrophobia of that effect is further improved by masked breathing noises and grunts. Thanks to support for Dolby Atmos audio, the right equipment could make Returnal’s sound design come alive.
Returnal PC review: Verdict
Returnal is a test of the human capacity to adapt and persevere, fuelled by a relentless stream of Lovecraftian horror. Mixing roguelike mechanics with the wonders of exploration, every biome on planet Atropos offers fresh challenges through randomised gameplay design, plus satisfying gunplay. The cryptic storytelling might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it never failed to keep my attention, making Selene an intriguing protagonist. There were a few performance dips here and there, but that’s to be expected with the particle effects that flood the screen. Returnal is (and was) truly an underrated gem, and I hope this PC release gets more eyes on it.
- Beautiful, and runs well
- Fragmented storytelling
- Fresh encounters on each run
- Lovecraftian vibes
- Satisfying gunplay
- Rewards risky decisions
- FOV slider, performance trackers included
- Playthroughs can seem lengthy
- Fast movement can lead to mistakes
- A tad bit pricey
Rating (out of 10): 9