Called a lesser known PlayStation 5 game Return is coming to PC, and while it hasn’t had as much fanfare as major titles like Spider-Man, The last of usor Horizon, it’s definitely one you should try. It’s simultaneously a throwback to classic arcade action games, a PC-style Roguelike, a tech showcase for modern systems, and a tribute to the moody sci-fi novels and movies of the 1970s and 1980s. But most importantly, it’s a good game. is.
Published by Sony and developed by (now owned by Sony) Finnish studio Housemarque, Return was one of the first PS5 exclusives when it launched in early 2021, and it was a big step up in the triple-A game major leagues for Housemarque, which previously had arcade-style games like Super Stardust HD and Resogun.
At The Game Awards on Thursday, Sony announced that, like many of its other recent first-party titles, Return launches on PC with as-yet-unnamed PC-specific improvements. The port is being handled by Climax Studios and the release window is “early 2023”.
Although it was first a PS5 game, Return‘s DNA can be traced back to multiple PC gaming traditions – and its themes and aesthetics draw from the same background that those PC games leaned on as well.
Return‘s retro and PC gaming influences
The gimmick of the game, if you will, is that your protagonist is stuck in a time loop similar to the one in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect.” Every time she dies, the cycle starts over and you’re usually back to square one. But some of the knowledge you gain (and a very limited number of other character-level enhancements) carries on from cycle to cycle, allowing you to win a hard-fought battle of attrition against your circumstances through many, many deaths.
The environments, enemies, and loot are (mostly) random, and the player regularly faces tough choices with clear pros and cons for each option that will follow them for the rest of the cycle. These, of course, are all elements of a Roguelike, a genre that goes back to the made-of-ASCII Villain on PCs way back in 1980. Villain went on to inspire multiple genres including Diabloaction RPGs in style.
Return borrows significantly from contemporary Roguelikes that have done well on Steam, especially games like Nuclear Throne– yet another way it’s firmly in a PC gaming tradition.
Beyond that, Return plays like something from a very specific lineage of PC-based third-person shooters – a tradition that spans all of MDK until Max Payne until Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy and Check. Of course, most of those games also came out on consoles, but they always felt most at home on their leading development platform, the PC.
Housemarque is known for creating arcade style games inspired by the likes of Galagaand some of that DNA survives in Return, so there’s a hard retro bend here. In short, if you like retro or PC games, Return might have your number, especially if you’re into 1970s and 1980s sci-fi whose influence underpinned many of those classic games.
Aliens, Solarisand classic sci-fi horror
Ultra-fast action games are usually not heavy on atmosphere or even storytelling, but Return is an exception. The game takes its aesthetics, themes, and general presentation from moody or gruesome sci-fi like the Alien films and the work of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who made atmospheric films such as Solaris and stalker.
You spend most of the game battling enemies in grim environments such as the decayed, damp forests of an unknown world or the sandblasted ruins of alien civilizations lost through untold ages. These are designed more to create a mood – an unsettling one appearance even – than to tell an explicit story, but they draw heavily on sci-fi horror novels and movies from the 1970s and 1980s. The game’s aesthetic also has some similarities to more contemporary science movies, such as Edge of tomorrow and Destruction.
The actual narration mostly takes place in an eerie rendition of protagonist Selene’s home, somehow anachronistically generated on this alien world. For these scenes, you’ll go into first-person perspective and explore Selene’s life through cryptic and incomplete glimpses. The disturbing oddity of these sequences is clearly inspired by author Stanislaw Lem and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s renditions of Solarisa story about an inscrutable alien intelligence who communicates with the protagonist by producing mind-boggling, dream-like renditions of events, places and people locked away in the annals of his memory.
Part of that feels unusually gripping because the game features a middle-aged female protagonist, which is quite unusual in big-budget video games. It’s an interesting and welcome departure from the norm in these sorts of games, and adds to the personal nature of the story. There’s also Bobby Krlic’s excellent soundtrack, which couldn’t possibly be more inspired blade runner. Enough said, right?
Return was already a technical showcase
The PC gaming platform is about advanced technology, among other things. Many games native to the platform more or less exist as showcases for expensive hardware. Return of course that was on PS5 – the 60 frames per second action game could never have been the same experience on PS4 – but that could be on PC too.
Yes, Housemarque claimed some very limited ray tracing for Return on PS5, and the maddening complexity and scale of its infernal combat is something you don’t often see in a 3D game of this level of detail and production values. But Housemarque – and by extension Return– is also known for its downright insane particle effects, used for things like a transporter that disintegrates the character into thousands of odd little blobs. It’s hard to describe, but if you see it in-game, you’ll probably at least think, “Huh, that’s neat.”
Sony, Housemarque and Climax Studios haven’t detailed what will be unique about the PC version, but we’re hoping for more robust ray-tracing support, Nvidia DLSS or AMD FidelityFX and more. Also, the game’s ultra-fast, jittery combat lends itself well to high-refresh-rate monitors. The PS5 supports those, but the PS5 version of Return not, so the PC could be a place where this game can really shine.
A big warning: Return is not for the weak willed
There’s one reason Return may not be a slam dunk with some PC gamers: it’s viciously difficult. The game is about learning from failure, and you will fail many times. The combat can be overwhelming and small mistakes can be punished with massive damage that is hard to recover from. Combine that with the fact that some late-game lives last as long as 45 minutes, and you’ve got a potential recipe for frustration.
The game collected a number of comparisons with the likes of Dark souls when it first came out because, well, Dark souls has become an abbreviation for “punishingly difficult game.” But in truth, Return looks little like Dark souls. From software games like Dark souls and Elder ring are difficult, but their worlds and encounters tend to be deterministic, and they all involve building muscle memory and tactics for responding to clear, recurring patterns.
You’ve got a point Return also, but the game has a greater random element. So while players who die in Dark souls can almost always brush off that death, knowing it was a mistake they can learn from, Return can feel erratic and unfair at times.
As long as you can accept the premise – that you will die many times, and sometimes it’s just bad luck – there’s a lot to enjoy. I recommend giving it a try. Just… brace yourself. Return is very challenging. Then again, so were the classic and contemporary games that inspired it.
Frame image by Ars Technica