How Saving In Returnal Actually Works

How Saving In Returnal Actually Works
Image: Housemarque / Sony

One of the main hangups ahead of Returnal’s launch later this week is the ability to save — or, rather, the game’s explicit warning that you can’t save. There’s a bit of confusion about what that actually means in practice, however, so I figured I’d clear it up for everyone.

Returnal is pretty straightforward with how it advertises itself. Housemarque has always made tough but fair bullet-hell shooters, and Returnal carries on in that vein but from the perspective of a third-person shooter.

When you boot the game up for the first time, or fire up the game from a fresh save (either via a new account or by using the Guest login mode on the PS5), you’ll see this prompt.

A splash screen you get when firing up the game for the first time, or on a fresh save.

“When you die or close Returnal you will always be returned to the crash site, and all non-permanent progression will be lost, ” the game says. “You can suspend your cycle by using the console’s rest mode functionality.”

That’s caused a fair bit of confusion, primarily because people aren’t sure exactly how long runs of Returnal could or should be. Do you have to finish the game in an entire sitting? Do you have to permanently put your console into rest mode if you’re having a really good run but can’t finish a boss fight?

Well, yes and no.

Image: Returnal

Returnal is split into a series of biomes. After beating the boss of each area, they’ll drop a key which unlocks access to the next area, usually through a massive Stargate-esque teleport. And this is the first point of confusion people have: once you beat a boss in Returnal, you don’t have to fight it again. You can if you want, and there’s actually a lot of reasons why you might want to do this.

The key thing here is if you beat a boss, then die in the next area, you’ll return to the Helios. But Returnal plays fair by moving the teleport to the next area much closer to the Helios, so you don’t have to spend hours clearing out rooms you just beat to get back to where you were. And if you do skip ahead, you’ll immediately find a power-up on the other side that boosts your weapon level so you’re not underpowered for all the foes ahead.

The next question I’ve seen is whether that means you have to finish the entire game in a single run. The simple answer: no, you don’t.

When you play the game for the first time, Selene will be given a basic task: find the source of the White Shadow broadcast. That whole process is about three levels and boss fights long, and how long it might take you to complete that varies. You might have quicker runs with better loot, and you might end up just trying to brute force things a little because you get a killer weapon off the bat and some juicy upgrades. That’s how Returnal goes.

I won’t say anything about what happens in those levels. But I think it makes a lot of sense to say that once you reach Returnal‘s fourth biome, all your progress is saved to that point. You won’t have to replay the original three areas, run through their environments or find their respective teleporters. I’m mentioning this because I’ve seen comments and questions across social media, forums and Discords of people wondering whether the game can only be beaten in a single, continuous sitting. You don’t have to worry about that: Returnal is a tough game, but it’s not that tough.

When you do reach that fourth phase, you’ll have access to a lot of the tools you unlocked beforehand. That includes the melee attack, the grappling hook, any weapons and weapon traits you’ve unlocked, any artifacts you’ve unlocked by spending Ether, and so on. So all that work you did exploring, surviving tough fights and spending Ether between runs? That’s all saved too.

Me before coffee in the morning.

Now I mentioned before while you can skip these bosses and just carve on through, there are very good reasons why you might not want to. Early on, bosses are your biggest source of Ether — a resource that is used to unlock artifacts that give you sizeable buffs throughout your run. You can also just scour through the level to farm Obolites, using those to buy items from the fabricators that you’ll find on each level.

But those are choices you can make for each run. I’ll get more into what you should and can buy once the review embargo is properly lifted. This is just a post to reassure everyone that while Returnal doesn’t have a traditional save mechanism, it’s also not as punishing as some people make it out to be. You can scour through the levels relatively quickly if you want to, the game doesn’t force you to replay every boss fight, and you won’t have to start completely from scratch after making major story progress.

Now if you’re on, say, the second level and you’re just about to enter in a boss fight? That’s when you’ll have to put your PS5 into Rest Mode if you don’t want to lose the fight. This is the kicker that there’s no avoiding, and how feasible that will be changes per person. I don’t use my PS5 for a lot of media applications (Netflix etc.), so I’m not in a situation where I’m faced with having to bin my Returnal progress. If you’re playing multiple games at once, then this will definitely be a problem. But I’d say that most Returnal loops I did were generally about half an hour to an hour each, unless I had a really good run that lasted for a few hours. Your progress and success will vary. But since you can skip forward a level once you’ve beaten a boss fight, you won’t find yourself in a situation where you need to play for 3, 4, 5 or more hours to get back to where you were.

I’ll have more to say soon about the full game, so stay posted.

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