Most Important Lessons After 100 Deaths in Returnal

Knowing is half the battle.
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This is my attempt at looking at back at my Returnal experience the same way I did with Hades last year. The biggest difference is, my escape attempts usually last longer in Hades (weirdly). Returnal‘s cycles are much quicker and really once you surpass a certain threshold, you will be able to sustain a long enough run to actually put a dent in exploring the strange and hostile planet of Atropos.

I was able to explore all six biomes (levels), collect a significant amount of hostile and weapon data, and discover quite a bit of the secrets of both the planet and Selene. That’s not bad for a noob who can’t aim and platform.

You may have read our survival guide and boss guide for Returnal, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably at the endgame. You know how to shoot a gun, and could predict the general layout of any given area. Maybe you even have a boss that serves as your punching bag when the runs are becoming tough and you just need to let off some steam. Mine is Nemesis. Phrike, I use to playtest a gun build.

Here are some observations in this uphill quest to fully conquer Atropos.

Lessons in Futility: There is no such thing as a stupid death

Unless you purposefully cause the actual death, every single death in Returnal is a learning experience. Take note that if you restart the cycle, you will lose all your progress as you normally do, but it does not count towards your total death count. All your battle data will be logged, and the very few personal items you get to take with you will still be with you, so don’t be afraid to restart—in my case if I knew this I could’ve saved myself some grief on those impossible to win runs.

Just like any roguelite or roguelike, you’re at the mercy of the RNG in Returnal. Sometimes you start a cycle with your secondary weapon and then you go to those “bonus levels” that are random offmap areas where you could get extra obolites or complete a challenge to get better gear, only to be put against a malformed hostile. Malformed hostiles are miniboss-like enemies that are much tougher regular enemy variants and a source of annoying instant deaths. Late-game when you restart the first biomes, the RNG can troll you and pair you up with a Malformed Severed, quite possibly one of the worst things you can fight. But hey, that’s how RNG works.

There’s a point in Returnal where you have to collect these fragments to progress the story. During one run, I got all three in one area and I was like, “I got this in the bag!” Then when went to the next three biomes, I think I used up 20-30 deaths just attempting to acquire them. That’s about 10 restarts in a single area and it’ll drive you insane. Ironic thing is, the moment I actually got them, those areas kept respawning every time I visit.

So yeah, I would say that death is a resource in Returnal – it is a learning experience, it is a form of escape, and it’s what drives the game forward. I feel that the more I died doing the same thing, I intrinsically learned from that mistake and then I stopped doing it, which is great for this type of game.

Lessons in Futility: Knowledge is Power

To say that you lose completely everything in Returnal is a lie. You get to keep your knowledge, as a player, and also from all your battle data. If you kill enough hostiles, learn their stagger points. Meaning, every hostile has a weak point, you just have to exploit it. It’s not merely enough that you attack an enemy head-on, fight smart. Once they are staggered, it’ll be easier to hit them.

Kerbonyxes (those tentacle wolf things) could be staggered by attacking them with a melee weapon. It doesn’t matter what type they are, even if they’re Malformed, enough melee strikes will stun them. The Strixera Matriarchs are the worst when exploring the Echoing Ruins. Yet if you hit it successively with your primary weapon, it’ll stagger revealing their weak spot, which you can kill with your alt-fire. Finally for Titanops, including their more annoying big brother the Typhonops, aim for their chest to stagger them quick then when they’re stunned, aim for the head.

Enemy patterns in Returnal will have a tell. Enough observation will allow you to predict their movements. Combine that with your knowledge of their stagger points, then it is up to you whether you will want to use that knowledge to your advantage or just leave it alone for another time. Many enemies have overlapping stagger points if they belong to the same genus.

While levels are procedural generated, they follow a set mapping course. Not every area in the map will be generated, but most of the “regulars” will be there – a few gated rooms, a boss room, the fabrication room (where you can buy things), and everything else is fair game. Make use of what is given to you and the rest, wing it as best as you can.

Lessons in Futility: You Can Grind Weapon Traits

In Returnal, Weapon Traits is something that is both weapon data and something that you can grind. You can learn as much as you can and if your proficiency level is 30, you can have up to 4 weapon traits for the weapons between 25-30 proficiency. In a way, this is how you grind your weapon. The more you’ve learned, the more they can progress to a second phase of that trait becoming more formidable, capping out at phase 3.

returnal hollowseeker
Can’t go wrong with a Hollowseeker or its real name “Equalizer”

The Hollowseeker is my favorite weapon because it’s cheap AF. It’s a fully automatic sniper rifle that maybe has the best range of all your weapons. So when you’re able to pick up a rifle with Split Stream (homing), Serrated Projectiles (bleed damage), Portal Turret (when your hollowseeker is about to reload, a extra energy turret will appear dealing more DPS than it should), and Retarget (once you hit a target, it’ll switch over to another one if you’re pointing in the right direction).

What you’ll get is a homing sniper cannon that deals bleeding damage with an extra turret for DPS you didn’t think you needed at the time. After a while, I felt that the RNG is preventing me from running into another Hollowseeker asking me to pick up other weapons.

One great thing with Weapon Traits is you may think you have a weapon figured out, but it could be something else. You may have disregarded the Sidearm because it’s your default gun, but when you suddenly pick up one with Homing Missile, Piercing, Shrapnel, and Hit Reload on it, you’ll be shredding every enemy out there.

returnal thermogenic launcher
Rocket Launcher — More fun on auto

Try experimenting with weapons on those times when you’re not aiming to finish an objective. Have you tried a full-auto Rocket Launcher with replicating hits? How about a Rotgland Lobber that behaves like a poison shotgun? How about using the Electropylon Driver to create a working melee primary that doesn’t fold when the hostiles force you into a long-range battle? There are many ways to create unique builds with weapon traits, you just have to learn how to use them.

Lessons in Futility: Obolites make Atropos go ’round

The more you make your runs, the more you will learn that cash is king in Returnal. Without it, you won’t be able to upgrade your suit and you won’t be able to fabricate items. How far you’re able to traverse Atropos will depend on how much you can fabricate. You won’t get enough obolites to use on everything, so your choices do matter.

While surviving Atropos will require you to buy healing items and items to revive you, in the late game, it’s learning what kind of artifacts that would work with your current build and what kind of upgrades you would need.

returnal obolite
What can five of these buy me?

Therefore, experiment! One of my favorite builds in Returnal involves Burnt Nightlight and Emergency Repairs, which allows you to deal heavy damage while you recharge your life when your suit integrity is critical. It costs 670 obolites for this combo, and that involves a full run of Echoing Ruins to be able to even earn this amount.

It would be much cheaper to go for The Nightlight (170 obolites) and add on higher Protection for 250 obolites and a Resinous Shield for another 200 obolites for the same price. What that combo entails is you have high defense, and when you collect resins, you will get a shield on your next hit, so when you end up in critical, you can deal enough damage while staying alive as long as possible. With so many artifacts available and even more once you collect Data Cubes, the combinations in Returnal are endless.

returnal locked gate

Another resource to watch out for are the Atropian Keys. They either open rooms to the VIP or open chests to some great artifacts. Rooms usually would give you more bang for your key as they lead you to some consumables, silphiums, and even weapons. Artifacts are the bigger gamble, you might be getting a lot of junk for those keys.

Lessons in Futility: Advanced Risk Management

While you do have your obolites to manage just about everything that’ll benefit you in the long run, you still won’t be able to have a complete build just by playing it safe. In Returnal, you will run into malfunctions and you will need to pick up some malignant resources to stay healthy and to get some extra obolites your way. You’d need to take some very precise calculated risks.

This is where Ether comes into play. It seems that cleansing items will be expensive as ether is a rare resource. Not in Echoing Ruins, however, where ether is abundant. Take note that when ether caps at 30, any future ether pickups will stick, so use it or lose future accidental pickups.

I usually use Ether to cleanse silphium or resins when I’m in need of a health boost, but I rarely use it to cleanse keys or chests. This is the essence of risk management, to use ether on items that you will probably need now and then manage malfunctions later in the game. It’s mostly used as a last resort or if you need to supplement what’s missing in your current build.

In Returnal, Malfunctions are an inconvenience at the best of times, but they can be damaging at the worst. There are many ways to be rid of them, the most basic being to fulfill the requirements. The most advanced being, to live with the consequences until you find something better. Critical malfunctions (when you get more than 2) could be a pain as they range from destroying resources you carry and even completely destroying your extra integrity you’ve worked hard to build up. Though, as I said above, last resorts are necessary—the key is, as long as you still have a sliver of life left in your integrity, fight until you got nothing left.

returnal parasites
1 in 4 chances to keep your stuff, better odds than a casino or your insurance

Parasite management is also key in Returnal. Know what type of benefits and risks you’re willing to take for your current build. On one run, I picked up the Atrophying Oddkeeper parasite that gives me a 1 in 4 chances of keeping a consumable at the cost of my melee. I had an automatic rocket launcher at the time and I can keep my distance. It sounded like a good deal. When the going got tough, my 3 healing items actually became 9 as the RNG gods favored me in me that moment.

Another way of playing with that probability is also taking that parasite that prevents or fixes a malfunction at the cost of whatever. Know that you can keep the parasites on the ground and come back for it later. Once I’ve cleared the area and left some malignant items up for grabs, I picked up that parasite and tried my luck. I first went for the big ticket items and went down. I also equipped the parasite that reduces the chances of a malfunction to better my chances.

Once you’re done with the parasites, look for an extractor where you can trade parasites for obolites. Make sure that when you use it, you don’t have parasites you wish to dispose of. Also before you use it, I’d suggest equipping a parasite that gives you fabrication discounts, take advantage of the discounts then cash out. It’s good money.

returnal malignant obolite
Don’t do it. If you do, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Lessons in Futility: When all things are said and done, explore!

It won’t cost you a thing to just walk around Atropos once you’ve cleared it. Hostiles don’t respawn until you end the cycle or proceed to a new biome. Check the place out. There are secrets to be found by breaking walls or platforming using the hidden passages. Equip the charred piano key to find those. If you have the balanced blade artifact, you can cut into those yellow walls. There are so many things to discover in Atropos if you just look because you may be done with Atropos, but Atropos won’t ever be done with you.

Returnal is now available exclusively on the PS5.


Vincent Ternida moved Vancouver, Canada in 2006 and called it home ever since. He spends the lockdown catching up with his Japanese RPGs, writing his new manuscripts, and figuring out why he suddenly became the main character of the latest Haruki Murakami novel.

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