Returnal PC review: Sony’s latest home run of a port
Sony’s latest PC port of a PS5 exclusive has hit, but how has Returnal come out of the other end after a much longer time in the chamber?
There’s no denying that Returnal has lost all its luster. The rogue-like on a massive budget certainly looked enticing upon launch, with a console that had yet again launched without any killer apps. However, the common complaint around it was that it was a rogue-like with a large difficulty curve to grasp. It wasn’t Spider-Man, or Uncharted and it didn’t hit like a Killzone.
Effectively, Returnal was a flash in the pan to stick amongst the sizzle reels and now belongs in various digital sales on the PS5. This all said, there’s something that Sony, nor ourselves, ever thought about until recently.
Returnal PC port: Key details
- Price: $59.99/£49.99
- Developer: Housemarque/Climax Studios
- Release Date: February 15, 2023
- Platforms: PC
Is the PC port any good?
As with the entire roster of Sony-exclusive PC ports, Returnal is yet another homerun. The variety of options, from supersampling to turning off the bloom, it yet again feels like PlayStation games just belong on PC.
The frantic action and need to be on point at all times have never felt better than being spat out of a high refresh rate monitor. It just feels good to play, better than a 120Hz panel on a PS5.
Of course, the higher up you push the game, the more resources you’re going to need. The RTX 2070, Ryzen 2700X began to struggle on the Epic preset but pushing it down to High fixed a majority of the issues.
In our tests, we found that turning on DLSS improved the game dramatically, and will probably save a lot of older hardware from most issues that crop up.
FSR vs NIS vs DLSS vs VSR
The performance differences between all four options on a regular PC wound up not giving much more than each other. While DLSS held its own at 60FPS and beyond, it also was – once again – the best looker out of all the options available.
FSR generates this muddy image, where you can weirdly see the seams of the world or produce odd parallax effects while in movement. NIS and FSR both produced this odd glitch in some animations too, where the enemies’ heads would bob up and down.
NIS is an interesting addition, one that we haven’t seen yet among the Sony games reviewed. It’s Nvidia’s more open alternative to DLSS, not requiring an RTX GPU to run. While it did its best, NIS just didn’t produce any meaningful results on the PC when DLSS is included.
VSR also produced decent results, but again, when the best is on offer, you don’t go for the third or fourth best available. Once we’d done our tests, we realized that the bigger issue with Returnal is, well, Returnal.
Returnal comes from Housemarque, makers of high-octane, modern arcade games. Nex Machina and Resogun remain high up in my estimations in the retro revival of the 2010s. No-nonsense arcade-style games that didn’t try to linger on its weaker aspects. Sure, a story surrounded it, but it was just window dressing.
Returnal makes me want that, but for the entirety of the game. It hints at a larger world, but not much time is spent on it. The Binding of Isaac’s small hook with a piece of cheese on, slowly dragging it as you played the game is probably the best implementation in a rogue-like.
Here, Housemarque seems to have wanted the story to impact the player more heavily. Its narrative thread of what’s happening on the planet, the main character, Selene’s visions, and if she escapes never coalesces into anything more than a frightfully slow burn to nothing.
The biggest thing here is that Housemarque has made something exquisite to play.
Every aspect of playing Returnal, out of the gate, feels incredible. The smooth animations and visuals just make for a sublime time. Shooting the various aliens that threaten you, only to dodge at the last second as a surprise attack is launched, never feels like a chore.
On PC, this is just amped up to the maximum. If you’re on a high refresh rate monitor, with your favorite mouse and keyboard, this will feel like a dream. It is so smooth, and so wonderfully crafted, that I can overlook a vast majority of the game’s failings.
Housemarque has managed to not only turn its retro arcade style into a big AAA budget game but also managed to keep its soul of it in the process. Each round never feels as if it was a waste, as you learn various things the deeper you go in the game.
What Returnal reminds us of is a PlayStation Vita game, and luckily, there’s a near equivalent at our disposal: The Steam Deck.
Returnal was made to be portable
The Steam Deck cannot run Returnal how it was meant to be played. In fact, I think in the bowels of Housemarque and the porting studio, there is an engineer who is having a fit that their hard work has gone to waste.
No matter how we tried to squeeze the game into the handheld, all it could muster was a maximum of 30FPS for a stable framerate, or 40, if we wanted to be daring.
However, before we dig into the deeper specs, there’s something we need to say. Returnal was made to be portable.
A few hours on the couch, moving around, and even shutting the game off in frustration only led us back. It didn’t matter that the game was running at half the framerate as intended, it was made for the put-down and pick-it-back-up-again nature of handheld consoles.
Like a gnawing brain worm, once we’d done this, we couldn’t play it portably. We even began to stream it from the other room to the Steam Deck for that full 60FPS aspect.
Returnal finally cemented that I miss the Vita, and it is clear that with some extra work, Climax could potentially have a fully functional Returnal on Steam Deck.
Returnal on Steam Deck: Performance and Supersampling
As we mentioned above, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get Returnal to run at a solid 60FPS. We did manage to get 30FPS without a problem, but it still required some sacrifices.
Returnal on the Steam Deck is going to look a little ugly. All three supersampling options aren’t the best in the world, as AMD’s FSR and Nvidia’s NIS options muddied the screen and VSR turned the game into a gloopy mess. There are also options to turn down the rendered resolution, as well as turn on Dynamic Resolution, but nothing ever managed to run or look ‘right’.
It’s a sacrifice you have to make when you play on the Steam Deck, that 30FPS or 40FPS will be more common than 60 for most modern games. However, Returnal lives and dies by its framerate due to the type of action that’s on screen. Uncharted 4 doesn’t need its moment-to-moment gameplay to ever reach snappy levels, but in a game like Returnal where a single stray blob could end a run, it’s crucial.
In the end, we found crunching the game down to a locked 30FPS, performance mode on FSR, and taking the hit on the chin returned the best results.
Verdict – 3/5
The Returnal PC port is yet again, another success from Sony and a further slight against the perceived need to keep things exclusive. Returnal might not be the best game from its current output, but we’re sure it’ll see new life when not beholden to the PS5’s hardware.
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