Returnal is an essential PS5 experience, but the difficulty of this roguelike bullet-hell shooter may be daunting to some. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with neon projectiles flying at you while tentacled monsters leap from the shadows intent on your demise. Selene’s endless deaths and rebirths are all about learning from the cycles that came before; a journey of player discovery that enables you to level up your own skills and knowledge in order to overcome what seems unconquerable.
Still, Returnal has a lot of complex layers that can be overwhelming at first, especially if you don’t dive deep into its various currencies, persistent upgrade paths, and other elements that can entirely change how you play the game.
We’re keeping things entirely spoiler-free from a narrative perspective, but we want to help you get a handle on how to best approach each cycle to ultimately reach the credits of Returnal and beyond.
Here are 10 things you should know before playing Returnal.
Returnal Guide- 10 Tips For a Successful Cycle
Death is part of the experience. You’ll die. You’ll lose progress and items. You’ll start all over again at your crashed ship with barely more than you had to start out with. But you’ll learn. You’ll gain valuable knowledge. Maybe you rushed into that mysterious golden door on the map without realizing there would be a gauntlet of enemies on the other side. Perhaps you faced off against the area’s boss before you were ready. Now the next time you see a golden door or that boss room, you’ll think twice and perhaps play a little more cautiously, or know how to avoid the attacks that killed you. To break the cycle, you need to embrace the cycle. Death is not the end, but an opportunity for a new beginning.
Luck also plays a factor here. Sometimes you’ll get excellent weapons and Artifacts and biome layouts, and sometimes you’ll just have an unlucky cycle. Learning to adapt is part of the experience, but learning to accept the hand of fate is another. Sometimes death can simply lead to an objectively better cycle the next time around, and you can still use those bad cycles to make progress on certain permanent upgrades.
Don’t Be Afraid to Play it Safe
Sure, trailers and livestreams may show Selene rushing around, deftly dodging bullets and exploding enemies into brilliant particles, but don’t be afraid to play it safe if Returnal’s got you on your heels. There’s no shame in taking out a group of enemies at a distance, or running through a doorway to better manage the waves of foes rushing you. If it gets you through alive, it was worth it.
Note, however, that while items will stay on the ground for you to pick up once the carnage is over, Obololites will disappear. So playing it safe has the risk of keeping you pretty low on the game’s currency if you aren’t dashing in to pick up these little sparkles of light before they vanish.
Use Dash and Melee
On the other side of the spectrum from playing it safe are the Dash and Melee abilities. Don’t forget these valuable tools in your arsenal, and use them in tandem with your weapon. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to play aggressively. Melee is a very powerful ability that can kill many smaller enemies in one hit and stun larger enemies, and your Dash makes you immune to most projectiles while it is active. Dashing can save your life with a wall of lasers and projectiles headed for you. Sometimes it may seem counter intuitive to Dash into the things that can damage you, but often this is a much better course of action than trying to dodge or escape.
Use Different Guns to Unlock Traits
When you pick up a new weapon, you may see that it has a new trait that is locked. Using the weapon with the locked trait will eventually permanently unlock that trait. Future rolls of the weapon with that specific trait will have it available immediately. Some of these weapon traits can be game changing, and while there’s an element of randomness to it, the more weapons you are using and traits you unlock, the better your possible rolls can be in future cycles.
This is one of those permanent progression systems that makes the game wildly different between your first hour playing and your 20th. I hated the Coldspine Launcher (basically a sniper/railgun) when I first got it, but with added traits? That thing becomes a beast. The starting sidearm is a weak little thing, but don’t discount picking up pistols with better traits later on. It also promotes variety in the gameplay by forcing you to actually use the different guns and become familiar with them to unlock their inert abilities.
The Malignancy Gamble, or “To Malfunction or Not to Malfunction”
Some items in the game will be “malignant,” glowing purple with a possibility of giving you a suit malfunction. In my early cycles, I was intent on picking up everything I could, and that meant gambling on random malfunctions with malignant items. I’d quickly find myself weakened, with impairments like my Overload (reload) not functioning or an extended cooldown on the Dash ability. Malignant items are part of the risk/reward structure of Returnal, but more often than not, I found them not worth the hassle. My most successful cycles were often avoiding gambling on malfunctions, and in later runs, making those gambles very carefully. If you’re having a hard time, I’d recommend ignoring malignant items altogether until you better understand how they will impact your build and can mitigate their effects.
Ether Caps Out at 30
Ether is the one currency that carries over between cycles. You’ll lose all of your Obolites, but the valuable Ether will remain. But if you’re hesitant to spend that valuable Ether on anything, be aware that it caps out at 30, so you can’t hoard it. Any Ether you pick up or earn past 30 essentially goes to waste, so feel free to spend it on things like reconstitution chambers (basically checkpoints that let you die once in a region without penalty), new item unlocks, and a few other surprises. Make sure you aren’t capping out and wasting future Ether drops.
You Can Dismantle Artifacts
You probably won’t run into this problem until later runs, but the number of Artifacts you can have during a cycle is 15. After that, you’ll be unable to pick up any more. Artifacts improve various functions and skills for Selene, such as improved melee and dash, or letting you heal when your health gets low. If you find yourself maxed out, but really want that new Artifact that just dropped, you can dismantle existing older Artifacts you don’t want from the equipment menu. This allows you to craft your build around the skills and abilities that you are utilizing that particular cycle, rather than being forced to gamble on whether or not to pick up one Artifact in hopes of a better one coming along later.
Take the Shortcuts, but Not Too Much
As you advance through the various areas of Atropos, you’ll unlock shortcuts allowing you to bypass certain areas and tough bosses. If you’ve already taken down the boss of the first biome, you don’t need to fight it again to move onto the second. The gate key is a permanent item. There are similar shortcuts throughout the rest of the game that will let you move more quickly through each biome and avoid encounters that may end your run prematurely.
That said, don’t skip over too much! Moving forward too quickly without acquiring more Weapon Proficiency, Artifacts, and Obolites can make you quite underpowered for the challenges ahead. You may not have to re-fight the boss, but clearing rooms and collecting items can make a big difference in the challenges to come.
Closing the App is Equal to Death
One of the more controversial aspects of Returnal, be aware that your current cycle will end if you shut off your console or change to another game, and you’ll be forced to start over at the Helios crash site, absent any Artifacts, weapons, or other impermanent upgrades you picked up. Putting your console into Rest Mode will suspend the app and allow you to pick up exactly where you left off. Additionally, using video streaming apps doesn’t close Returnal and will allow you to essentially have a soft “save.” But anytime you have to fully restart the application—whether because of a full console power off or from playing another game—you’ll lose the progress of your current run. It essentially counts closing the app as a “death.”
The Credits Are Not The End
I don’t want to say too much here because narrative discovery is important to Returnal, but the credits are hardly the end of Selene’s journey. Continue exploring with added abilities gained in later biomes. Find additional story pieces and mysterious items after the credits roll. Continue unlocking weapon traits and items. Go for the game’s Platinum Trophy. And partake in the wonderful arcadey Daily Challenges that task players with racking up high scores in single-biome runs. A single perfect run through of Returnal might only take you a few hours if you’re good, but this game is so much more than that linear path from beginning to end.
Can’t figure out how to get somewhere? Rest assured that you’ll get an item or ability later one that will allow you to access the inaccessible. That item on the high-up ledge or that distant platform that seems impossible to reach; you may not be able to reach them during this cycle, but things will open up for you quite a bit the further into Returnal you get.
The more you play Returnal, the more you’ll learn and adapt and grow as a player, in addition to in-game progression. Your first moments on the world of Atropos will feel very different from your 20th hour there.
Hopefully these quick tips can help you get the most out of Returnal. Have any other tips for players on surviving the harsh and hostile alien world of Atropos? Let your cycle take you down to the comments below to let us know.