Returnal is all about the time loop. And like any narrative that wraps back in on itself, there’s one ending, and then there’s the real ending.
But like everything else in Returnal, however, the game isn’t always upfront with the player about what they need to do next. There’s the odd hint, but it’s very easy to misunderstand (or miss completely) what Returnal wants from Selene.
So, we’re here to help out. For obvious reasons, anything discussed from this point should be considered spoiler territory. I’m not going to go into the meaning or subtext underneath all of it, so it won’t ruin the story per se. But if you need a hand seeing the game’s proper final moments, this will help you out.
OK, so let’s talk about actually beating Returnal.
When you run through the game for the first time, Selene’s tasked with finding the source of the White Shadow broadcast. That takes you through the game’s first three biomes. Once you do that and beat the final boss there, the game’s major twist kicks in and you find yourself in the fourth biome, back at the crashed Helios once more.
That’s the start of the game’s second act. You then follow a similar path as before, working through the next three levels and beating each of the bosses in order. Along the way, you’ll pick up more xenotech that lets you explore more areas you couldn’t before.
So you carry on before eventually dropping into a giant abyss of water until you fight Ophion, an enormous squid with the most undodgable purple attacks and AOE waves you’ll see all game. It’s a long, stunning fight, and when you’re finally done, you’ll drop down another giant abyss before walking down a passageway.
Down there, you’ll see a bright beam of light, and as you get closer you’ll see the light is coming from a set of headlamps. It’s a car buried underwater, but when you see this for the first time, you won’t be allowed in — you don’t have the key.
How to access Returnal’s secret ending
When you finish this sequence and continue on from the cut scene (and second title card), Selene will mention how she needs to forget. This unlocks access to a door in the Helios that’s been locked all game, where you see a bizarre looking chair surrounded by darkness.
Selene will also mention something about the sun — appropriate considering Helios is the Greek god of the sun. But when you return to the House once more, you’ll find it locked and the house will simply say it is “Dark”. To re-enter, you need to collect six Sunface Fragments from each biome. You don’t have to beat the bosses to find these fragments: you just have to explore the map until you come across the fragments. They’re permanent items too, so you don’t have to worry about finding them all during a perfect run.
It’s worth noting that none of the fragments are located in the special wave rooms, or anywhere in particular where you need to prep for a special fight. They’re usually gated behind areas that you couldn’t access before. The first fragment in the Overgrown Ruins, for instance, is accessible only with the grappling hook you got from the second boss fight. The fragment in the final underwater level requires the Delphic Visor, which you only get just before beating Ophion the first time. The Echoing Ruins fragment is in a room that has that red ooze which damages you (and, in my case, prevented Selene from dashing).
Once you’ve gotten all of those fragments, Selene will make a quip about it being complete, and you’ll be able to enter the house once more. If you hadn’t finished all of the House segments at this time, you need to do those first. You can use the Helios’s time machine chair to flip between the first and second acts (or biomes 1-3 and 4-6, however you want to look at it) to knock off what you need.
When that’s done, you’ll be able to go into the House for the final segment. That will teleport you to a ledge opposite the house where you’ll be given access to a Car Key, at which point you can return to the sixth biome where you have to defeat Ophion all over again.
The Ophion fight isn’t actually too bad, all things considered, but you might want to run through biomes 4 and 5 a little bit just to get the health upgrades you need. If you haven’t used the sleep trick, biome 4 might be a good time to do so. Once you’ve got the guns, artifacts and health upgrades you need, go and fight Ophion once more, and drop down after the fight is done.
Now that you’ve got the car key, you’ll be able to approach the door to trigger the game’s final cut scene. Selene will put the car key into the lock, and you’ll finally see the last of Returnal‘s secrets.