Returnal is a difficult game, but is it the most challenging game in years? That depends on how you approach it.
Housemarque has always built their games around a tough but fair principle, and Returnal follows suit. Things start out grim as you take your first steps on Atropos, learning to dodge, jump and parse enemy patterns.
Eventually the situation improves once Selene gets access to cool xenotech: Rifles that automatically reload, parasites that make your health bars enormous and buff your armour, and weapon traits that obliterate enemies in seconds.
But this is a roguelike. And to consistently reach that point where you’re thinking about the next three or four rooms ahead, as opposed to how you can survive the next encounter, some planning is required. Let’s get stuck in.
This post has been updated since its original publication.
There’s a bed inside your crashed ship, the Helios, and it’s handy for a lot more than smash-cuts.
Ignore most of the malignant obolite chunks.
Even the chunks that offer a “large” amount of obolites will generally only give you 50 obolites at most — which usually isn’t worth it considering the malfunction you might have to cop. The only exception I’d make here is if you’re just about to go into a boss fight and having those obolites is the difference between being able to buy the 25 per cent HP upgrade, improved melee attack, or another artifact that will substantially improve your build. Otherwise, you’ll be able to get all the obolites you need through the secret rooms and regular play. (Also, don’t discount some consumables: there’s one that will generate more obolites from fallen enemies, and using that will boost your income more than taking a risk.)
Dash into attacks, not away from them.
Returnal actually tells you that you’re “invulnerable to hazards and most enemy attacks” while dashing, and if you’ve played any Housemarque game before then you’ll be familiar with how generous the iframes (invulnerability) on dash are.
But what the game doesn’t tell you, and something that’s really key to a lot of these games, is dashing into an attack, rather than away from it. And there’s a couple of reasons why. For the most part, enemies’ attacks will spread.
Most are circular, like a giant tentacle bull jumping at your target location. In practice, this means the point of landing and area around it will take massive damage. So if you want to avoid that, the most space will be to run towards the area where the enemy just left.
These floating Borgs from the game’s second biome are a great example. Their base attack is a massive square of circular orbs that spreads out the further they travel. This area of the second biome is outdoors, so there’s actually a ton of space to dodge sideways here. But when you face these enemies further in, you’ll have much less space, and dodging sideways becomes super difficult.
So the smart thing to do is actually to wait and dodge through the attack. That gives you the option of then just going for a straight melee swipe — Returnal has a good auto-targeting system where you’ll automatically drift towards the target when you’re in range — or dodging past if, for whatever reason, you’re just trying to run away.
But the perfect example of this in action is the bosses. You’ll find it much easier to avoid their attacks by going towards them, or dashing through the attack, rather than trying to find space going from side to side. Here’s a perfect example from Phrike, the first boss in the game:
Phrike’s main AOE attacks in the first, second and third phase is this large fireball dump, where a ring of fire appears around Phrike’s location, and Phrike dashes away (presumably to make things complicated). You could run backwards and just fire from afar, but the easiest solution? Dash inwards and slash the crap out of Phrike.
Dodge anything that’s purple.
But while Selene’s dash has invulnerability on just about anything, the things she can’t weave out of are all coloured purple. The first boss, Phrike, has a couple of AOE attacks with purple fireballs, but it’s not until the third biome that you’ll encounter enemies that regularly use similar attacks. So keep it simple: red, dash through, purple, jump or dash around. Easy!
Melee as often as you can.
You won’t actually get the melee attack until a couple of hours in, as you’d expect from any game that draws inspiration from Metroid. But as soon as the glowing red sword becomes available, you’ll want to start planning your attacks around it.
Apart from being the highest damage dealer available early on, the melee is also a crucial tool in staggering enemies. Anything glowing red with a shield? Invulnerable until you slash it. Tentacle mini-bosses like this one, or that green tree that keeps teleporting everywhere and throwing goop on the ground? They’ll fall to the ground as soon as you hit them with a sword, leaving them super vulnerable to a quick follow-up from your alt-fire.
You can also melee targets in mid-air, too:
This is a little more impractical given the environment, though. Returnal has a lot of stages and areas where you’re fighting over caverns, bridges, and things that Selene really can’t survive a fall from.
But what’s key to note here, too, is that the melee attack itself serves as a pseudo dash. If you’re running forward and you slash, Selene will effectively do a mini-dash towards the target as part of the attack animation. That means you can attack and then quickly dash through the enemy — because most enemies will take time to turn around to face Selene, which buys you more time for attacks/dashes to cooldown.
Always be online.
Something the game tells you about early on, but something I saw very little of during my playthrough, is the fallen bodies of previous Astra Scouts. It’s basically the most Returnal gets to having online play, whereby the fallen bodies of other players can appear in your game.
How it works is this. Walk up to the body and then hold down triangle, where you’ll get a little hologram of that player’s final moments. After that point, you can then scan the body a second time. What happens here varies. Sometimes you’ll get the chance to avenge that player, triggering a mini-boss fight in exchange for Ether.
Early on, these fights are pretty brutal. I found I never had access to a lot of artifacts, good parasites or proper weaponry to dispatch these with any degree of safety. That said, when you’re first introduced to them, they’re also your greatest source of Ether — and Ether is very hard to come by in the first act of the game. Once you have the melee attack, however, dealing with these mini-boss fights is easier. You’re not always guaranteed to stun them, because what usually spawns is a “Malformed”, a souped up variant of the bigger enemies from the first act.
You can scavenge loot from the dead Astra scouts, but that usually costs 4 or 5 Ether — an enormous cost at the start of the game, and almost as much as it costs to have Selene brought back to life via the Reconstructor device. And sometimes you don’t even get that choice: the body might be infected with enemies, spawning some light foes as soon as you go to scan.
But all of these things generate more weapon proficiency, more Obolites for the big stat buffs, and sometimes, better weapons. That’s worth it alone, but if you’re not connected, you’ll miss out on that experience entirely.
Ditch the pistol immediately.
With all due respect to the game’s director, Selene’s starting pistol is absolute garbage. There might be some scenario towards the end of the game where its raw damage and reload speed counters its weaknesses.
But in the beginning, the pistol’s problem is that it just doesn’t deal with enemies fast enough. Returnal only really becomes difficult when the player becomes overwhelmed, and that only happens when you’re not able to deal with the lower-level enemies quickly — which results in them pairing up with bigger bosses to flood the screens with more attack animations and orbs than you can deal with.
So as soon as you see literally anything else, grab it. Even the basic shotgun (Spitmaw Blaster) is more versatile than it first appears, especially when paired with the right traits. Slug shot, for instance, adds a railgun-like effect to the shotgun’s regular blast, which makes it a cinch for dealing with enemies from afar. It’s also just a massive boost to the gun’s regular damage at all distances, too.
Pay super close attention to the traits and alt-fire options.
Early on your alt-fire is the get out of jail free card. It’s what will help you dispatch groups of enemies, or large bosses, efficiently. Returnal is a game that rewards snowballing, especially when it comes to building that health bar.
So in the first few hours, having a good alt-fire matters. The best one by far is probably shockstream, which is just a wide-fire lightning gun that’s perfect for dealing with groups of trash mobs, especially those pain in the arse bats that like to get close and personal. There’s a direct-to-target set of homing missiles, which your starter pistol usually (but not always) comes equipped with. That’s good too, although it’s not super versatile.
Some other abilities are just flat out hard to use in tight scenarios. One fires a volley of horizontal orbs that fall and bounce off walls until they hit a target. There’s another that fires a string of vertical missiles in a straight line, which can be completely useless against anything that dodges, leaps or teleports. There’s a mine-based ability which can directly explode on contact if aimed at the right place, but with how fast everything in Returnal moves, I found it generally ends up bouncing off a wall and serves no purpose.
Fortunately, you can pretty much test any alt-fire you get. Not sure if it’s any good? Drop the weapon you have and give it a test run. The game will wait if you just want to stand there while your alt-fire reloads: once a room is clear, Returnal won’t spawn any enemies in that room again. So feel free to run around, grab all the orbs, make strategic decisions, go to the toilet. Returnal will wait.
Slash/destroy/bomb/nuke/shoot all the statues.
Apart from just being fun — Returnal‘s destructible environments are a real treat to watch — there’s also plenty of bonuses hidden inside. Some rooms will have statues with glowing yellow eyes, indicating that they’re holding precious Obolites inside. Others won’t be glowing, but upon destroying them, an enemy will emerge, which is a chance to collect some extra xeno bucks and weapon XP. Those kills boost your adrenaline too, and they count towards any unlocks for weapon traits if you’re going for that.
You’ll also need to destroy some statues to unlock certain containers. Occasionally, you’ll come across containers that are locked behind bars. If you look around the environment enough, you will see a small glowing yellow switch like this:
All you have to do? Blow the statue up, shoot the switch, and enjoy the free loot.
Make sure you always have 350 Obolites before going to the fabricator.
If you want to get the most out of your Returnal runs, this should be the main thing you plan around. Each biome will have a fabricator somewhere — it’s indicated by a circular-looking icon on your map — where you can buy some artifacts and consumables. Somewhere in that room you’ll also be able to buy a flat 25 per cent boost to your health, and it always costs the same: 350 obolites.
The cost of this can change if you have a parasite equipped that changes fabrication costs. But regardless, you want to buy this stat upgrade every single time you can. Even if you’ve beaten a boss on a level, it’s worth exploring the level just to find the fabricator. Having that extra health can make most fights largely irrelevant, and it’s a lifesaver in boss fights. In later levels, this cost might rise to 400 or 450 obolites, but either way, buy it and buy it before anything else.
It’s also worth remembering that the integrity stacks with other buffs. One of the artifacts you can buy is the ability to self-repair when at low integrity. If you haven’t got an upgraded HP bar at all, this is enough to basically repair one hit’s worth of damage from a boss. If you’ve upgraded it a lot, like I had when I got to the second boss, the auto-repair is enough to almost entirely fill your HP back up to its starting total:
Here, you can see my health going down from about a third to almost 100 per cent. Sure, it’s nowhere close to just how maxed out my health actually was. But when you’re in a boss fight for the first time, you don’t know its attack patterns. You’re going to take a hit or two, and the ability to just casually revive from that is game-breaking.
The important thing to know, however, is that how much healing you get is dependent on your maximum HP. If you’ve only got a total HP of about 125 per cent, the self-repair won’t do that much.
Walk into the tentacles to reach higher platforms.
They seem creepy at first, and I don’t want to find out what happens if you go all the way into its head crab-like teeth, but the tentacles have a genuine purpose. They’re the xeno-equivalent of a ladder: just hit circle to dash out when you’ve gone high enough.
Know which risks to take with malignancy.
The main decisions that will help or hinder your success on a run to run basis will be with containers, parasites and shards affected with malignancy. This is basically a potential debuff, the RNG roll of Returnal that punishes you for a short period of time.
How much you get punished can vary very wildly. The most damaging one I’ve seen is a debuff where you take damage every time you pick up an item — and the damage is often around 10 per cent of your health, which is exceedingly brutal in the early game stages. Other debuffs are not so hard to manage, like a 75 per cent reduction in damage while stationary — you’re always on the run anyway, so that “debuff” never really comes into play. Some debuffs are a pain but easy to solve, like fabricating an item (especially if you already have the money saved) or opening one or two containers.
The problem is that you don’t know in advance what the tradeoff will be. Parasites will tell you in advance of their pluses and minuses, but items infected with malignancy, like this container outside the entrance to the first boss, don’t.
What’s worth knowing is what happens when you pick up too many malfunctions, Returnal‘s term for the debuffs. Hit three and you’ll randomly lose an equipped item or artifact (only the temporary ones, however). If you don’t have anything to lose, Returnal will cut your maximum HP bar instead — and that’s very bad.
The second act of the game is much more forgiving with Ether than the first act, so early on you don’t want to be taking that many risks. What you’ll find in the containers generally isn’t as good as the containers that are locked behind Atropian keys, so if it says the malfunction probability is high or very high, then chances are it’s not hugely worth the risk. If it’s moderate, the container will most likely have a consumable item, so if you don’t want to ditch the item you have (especially if it’s a health regen), then don’t take the risk.
Where it makes more sense to roll the dice is with malignant HP shards, either because you need them to survive or because you’re one bar away from increasing your maximum health. Even if the risk is high or very high, I’d generally take these to max out my HP — unless I already had a pretty severe malfunction equipped, or if the malfunction would cost me an item/artifact. If you don’t have any slots filled towards your next HP upgrade, however, it’s best skipping altogether: you’ll max out that meter eventually as long as you’re cautious in gunfights.
You can move around the map with the left stick.
This is especially prominent in the wave rooms, where certain enemies will immediately start to restrict your movement. In the first biome, your biggest problem will generally be the green glowing trees: they teleport, they throw goop on the ground that slows you down, and their homing missile attack can be pretty tricky to dodge.
For those, you generally want to run up, melee to stagger, and alt-fire them out of the picture immediately. In other instances, if they’re not present, it might be more prudent to deal with the trash mobs. Bats can be particularly aggravating: they don’t attack until they get close, usually until they go behind the player — unless you have your back to a wall, in which case they’ll begin charging within your line of sight.
Aim the electroplyon driver at the ground, or walls, rather than enemies.
The electropylon driver is probably the most fascinating gun in the game, if only because it creates red geometric death traps. But to use it effectively, you have to stop targeting enemies manually, and have to start luring them into zones where they’ll take damage.
The best way to do that is to look at the environment around you. By shooting the pylons at, say, two walls in front of you, you can create a death trap that just immediately zaps any bats or foes trying to jump through. The pylon does enormous damage each tick, so foes will die well before they fill the screen with orbs.
The only catch is in areas where you’re on isolated platforms and enemies are attacking you from the air. In that case, you might want to consider dropping pylons in front of Selene’s feet, or using the walls behind you to create a bit of an extra barrier. It’s a weird playstyle, turning away from an enemy to set up your damage dealing, but once you get used to it, the electropylon driver can be incredibly effective.