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Returnal beginner’s guide – Polygon

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If you want to uncover the creepy space mystery at the heart of Returnal, get ready to die. A lot. While it may feel unforgiving at first, your many deaths become the experience that carries you farther into its story and deeper into Atropos. We’ll do our best to make that dying learning process easier.

Polygon’s Returnal beginner’s guide is full of our best tips, designed to help you survive and thrive. We’ll help you understand the cycle of this roguelike shooter while navigating the game’s randomly generated maps. We’ll also explain how to use some of Returnal’s rare resources and select the right weapons for for survival.


Table of contents


Learn the cycle

Returnal is a roguelike, bullet-hell action game. That means you’ll be jumping and dodging your way through dozens of projectiles, hoping to get further into the game’s randomly generated levels.

Each time you die, you lose (almost) everything you gained, and you restart from square one. You begin the cycle anew, traveling the same general area over and over as you fight your way further. However, the layout of the map, the enemies that populate each area, and the items you encounter change. Ideally, you do a little better every time.

This is Returnal’s cycle.

A text description of the cycle in Returnal

The cycle is the main gameplay loop
Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

At the beginning, this may feel daunting and even tedious. As you get more familiar with the game and encounter the area’s boss, Phrike, you’ll almost certainly have a better understanding of how Returnal works. Eventually, you’ll be tearing through this area looking for shortcuts that get you to the other biomes faster.


Expect death, but don’t get discouraged

Each new area and boss follows the same flow: A pile of deaths, which eventually lead to familiarity and mastery. In some runs, you’ll make it farther than you ever have. Other times — maybe even the very next time — your runs will end shorter than you think they should.

That’s life (and death) in Returnal.

Getting farther requires finesse on your end — but also a great deal of luck. Sometimes the right items and weapons line up to give you a stellar run. Sometimes you die within the first few minutes. Don’t get discouraged.


Understand the map, starting with doors

Since each run of Returnal is randomly generated, there’s no way to offer a traditional walkthrough with detailed maps and directions. But if you want to survive, learn how to read your map — even if it changes every time.

As you start a new run, Returnal creates a procedurally generated map, pulling from dozens of different room layouts, possible items, gear, and enemies. No two runs will be the same. Even if you encounter the same rooms in a run, the items and enemies inside of it will be different. However, if you know what to keep an eye out for in each run, you’ll be able to navigate through rooms with more purpose and ease.

The first thing to understand is the types of doors that connect each room. Knowing the difference will help you weave through each biome.

Door types in Returnal

This image shows several door types
Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

All doors are brightly lit before you enter them. Once you’ve gone through a door, they become gray. Here are the different types of doors you’ll encounter:

  • Light blue rectangular doors lead to your main path through a biome. When following the orange objective marker, these doors will lead you to a boss room. After defeating a boss, following the objective marker will lead you through white doors that go toward a portal to the next biome.
  • Dark blue triangular doors lead to side paths or optional rooms. These areas usually contain items, gear, or small puzzles that have good rewards in them. Sometimes these doors are locked and require a key. You may find useful terminals like the Reconstructor behind doors like these.
  • Doors with a broken circle above them are portals. These bring you to other biomes. You’ll get the Crimson Key after you’ve beaten the game’s first boss, Phrike. That’ll help you open the Crimson Gate that leads to the second biome. After defeating the second boss, Ixion, you’ll find find a portal to the third biome from the game’s first area. And you can reach that with the grappling hook.
  • Yellow doors with a star above them are optional challenge rooms called Containment Gates. Entering these areas will lock you in, and you must face several waves of enemies. Survive, and you’ll receive a load of obolite, which you can use for crafting or exchanging at an Obolite Repository. The final boss of the last wave also drops a weapon.

Parasites are the most reliable risk/reward system

There are several risk/reward systems in Returnal, and not all of them are worthwhile. Use the parasite system, which, unlike most of the game’s risk and rewards, allows you to see the tradeoff you’re making before using them.

Parasites are creatures that give you a buff and penalty. For instance, one of them might begin healing you when you reach low health, but your melee attacks may also do half damage.

A parasite information screen in Returnal

This screen shows how a parasite helps and harms me
Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

If you’re lucky, you may end up finding several of them that can lead to a good run with easy-to-manage penalties. You can also occasionally find stations that remove parasites, which is useful if you find that your parasites are hurting more than helping. Be aware that, if you use a station like the Reconstructor, which can bring you back to life, you’ll respawn without your parasites.


Spend ether smartly

Every time you die in Returnal, you restart your journey and lose everything you’ve accumulated in the run before — except a resource called ether, one of the few items that persists between runs.

Ether is a rare resource with many uses, which means you should consider the best way to spend ether. Your options include:

  • The Cthonos, which allows to unlock new artifacts and items.
  • A Reconstructor, which lets you create a respawn point (which is especially useful when you’re having a good run).
  • An Obolite Repository, where you can to gain more obolite and purchase items that prolong your run.
  • You can also choose to spend ether to cleanse malignant objects, but in our experience, the trade-off isn’t worth the cost.

Find the best weapon for you

As you play through Returnal, you’ll get access to new weapons. While you’ll always have a lowly handgun at the beginning of each run, you’ll discover new weapons like a shotgun, a rocket launcher, and more.

A key aspect to the power of your weapons is proficiency level. You can improve this stat in two ways: using your weapons more and finding calibrators. The higher your proficiency level, the more powerful weapons you’ll find. To survive Returnal, you need to balance weapon familiarity and proficiency.

Regardless of how well you’re doing, your weapons get a huge proficiency boost at the start of each biome. That means the weapons you find in new biomes will automatically be a higher strength than the ones you enter the biome with. Knowing this, you may be encouraged to pick up the next-strongest weapon you find to deal with the dangers of a new biome. Our experience has shown us that personal familiarity with weapons often trumps a stronger weapon.

A gun information screen in Returnal

This gun as a Lv. 5 proficiency
Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

For instance, we’ve had some of best runs with an assault rifle that we got quite early in the run. We came across stronger weapons, but we also learned that whichever gun helps us fight more confidently is the better choice — even if a gun is inarguably stronger.

In your first few hours of Returnal, find out which weapons you like the best. From there, focus on using those weapons during your runs. We’ve learned that different guns force us to play the game differently, which can make challenging encounters like boss fights feel radically different, depending on what weapon we’re using.

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