Returnal beginners guide: Starter tips to get the most out of each life

Angry looking astronaut
(Image credit: Housemarque)

Exploring alien worlds is not for the faint of heart, but with this Returnal beginner's guide, I can offer a bunch of tips to help you avoid some of those unfortunate deaths. Returnal doesn't let you keep your gear when you die, but I can at least equip you with knowledge and help you survive your next challenging encounter. So, with that in mind, let's take a look at some of the most important things to remember when you're dashing around the surface of Atropos.

Don’t save your resources or consumables

(Image credit: Housemarque)

The main resource in Returnal is Obolite, which you'll find littering the surface of the planet and exploding out of enemies like the neon-tentacled piñata's they are. You can use it to buy consumable items or temporarily upgrade your suit for the current run. Since every death kicks you back to square one, make the most out of your Obolites and consumables while you've got them. While there's wisdom in saving important consumables for the boss of the biome you're in, it won't matter if you die before you get to them. And the longer you survive, the more opportunities you'll have to gather more resources. 

The only resource that carries over after death is Ether, which you can use on the Cthonos—the weird machine covered in eyeballs—back at the start, which allows you to unlock random consumables or artifacts. Each time you do, the new item will be added to the pool of items that spawn throughout the game. There are a few other uses for Ether, like establishing a one-time respawn point or removing malignancy from items, but largely it's best to use it to unlock new stuff.

Move and dash aggressively

(Image credit: Housemarque)

Returnal doesn't hold back with the speed, and right from the get-go you'll move more like a scared roadrunner in a hamster ball than a concussed spacewreck survivor. That speed is essential, as enemies aren't shy about spitting out a vast number of deadly glowing projectiles that you'll need to outrun. Unlike some other third-person action games, you'll be spending a lot more time running and jumping at top speed. Staying stationary and hugging cover is mostly going to get you needled to death from multiple angles—instead, dash behind cover to absorb bursts of fire or beam-style attacks, and then quickly get back on the move. 

Your dash ability isn't just quick—it also gives you a brief window of invulnerability while you jet forward. While it can be useful for getting across gaps or dashing away from enemies that rush you, it can also let you dash straight through projectiles or attacks that would otherwise be difficult or even impossible to avoid. With such a brief cooldown, it's smart to get used to using it frequently so you have a good sense of when you can count on using it again. Establishing this muscle memory will see you dashing in between strings of plasma fire in no time.

If you didn't have enough incentive already to be on the move, remember that the Obolites enemies drop will disappear pretty quickly—so dashing in to get them is important.

You don’t have to explore and complete everything

(Image credit: Housemarque)

The many randomized rooms of Returnal's biomes change up every single run, and sometimes they'll be downright unfair. If a particular room looks like a death trap, ask yourself whether or not you can just sprint through or otherwise bypass it. On your map, darker blue doors indicate the main path, while lighter blue ones are optional. This should give you a good idea of where you need to go, but you can also scan the area ('T' by default on PC) to get a better sense of what's in the room you're in and highlight doors you may have missed.

Similar to dangerous rooms, malignancy can also put the squeeze on your runs. Each time you grab an item with malignancy, there's a chance of a suit malfunction. Each malfunction is a negative status—like falls causing damage, losing Obolites when taking damage, or disabling overload—that can only be removed by meeting the random conditions it gives or using a consumable. It's tempting to want to maximize your run by grabbing malignant items or opening containers, but consider whether malignancy is worth the risk. Most of the time it's simply not, since every third malfunction will destroy one of your artifacts and some suit malfunctions are bad enough on their own to kill you before you can remove them.

Watch for the (usually glowing) signs

(Image credit: Housemarque)

There are a bunch of locked or hidden cues throughout Returnal, all of which are easy to miss the explanations for, or are lacking cues entirely. In some cases, simply knowing what they mean will be enough to let you take advantage of them, but others require specific tools first. Here's what to look out for:

If you're frustrated by out of reach platforms with orange lights on the edge, you aren't the only one. Eventually you'll get permanent access to a grappling hook that will let you swing up to these, so until then just ignore them.

  • If you find a room with a glowing yellow ball, it's probably worth checking out. The floor in these rooms will collapse and drop you into a room below with only a teleporter to return with. The room will also have Obolites, consumables, and other goodies. Just be aware that there's a chance a challenging enemy will spawn in the room, too.
  • If you're frustrated by out of reach platforms with orange lights on the edge, you aren't the only one. Eventually you'll get permanent access to a grappling hook that will let you swing up to these, so until then just ignore them.
  • You'll encounter chests and other goodies locked up behind bars from time to time, but if you look around you'll find a glowing yellow switch hidden nearby. Shooting this switch will let you get inside to claim some free stuff. 
  • Like the grappling hook, you'll get access to a permanent sword—albeit, much earlier on—that will let you get through any glowing red vines that are keeping you away from delicious items, and ditto to patchy gray walls with red glowing eyes, as you can break them to find an alcove full of treats. The sword is also how you break through the glowing red shields on enemies that are otherwise invulnerable, so just avoid them until you get it. 
  • Likewise, if you find a glowing orange barrier you'll need the Blade Balancer artifact, which upgrades your sword to bust through them. Inside these rooms you'll usually find loot to grab.  

Don't forget the rest

(Image credit: Housemarque)

While they may not be as important as the above, there are a few other things that can be helpful to know early on in Returnal's bullet hell: 

  • Don't ignore Overload, the little reloading minigame. It speeds up your reload and lots of artifacts, and parasites will give you bonuses or otherwise interact with successful Overloads. 
  • Keep an eye out for purple alien eggs while wandering around; they may seem like background scenery, but you can destroy them to get all kinds of useful things. 
  • The red tentacles that can grab you Half Life-style can actually be pretty useful for getting around. You can let them pull you up to a height you want and then dash to out of reach platforms. 
  • If you find a Datacube, they're only useful if you find a Datacube Processor—doing so will let you trade it in to permanently unlock a weapon, consumable, or artifact for future runs. Plus, you'll get whatever one you unlock right then. Like everything else, though, they're gone if you die without using them at a Processor.
  • Don't save your alt fire; it has infinite uses and comes off cooldown pretty quickly. There are a bunch of them to play with, but all of them should be part of your regular arsenal.  
  • You can pick up more Ether by doing the daily challenge inside your ship. 
  • If you aren't sure what the Astronaut Figure artifact does, you aren't alone. It does nothing at all until you die while you have it, at which point it will bring you back to life on the spot—making it a huge boon for tough bosses. 
Philip Palmer

Phil is a contributor for PC Gamer, formerly of TechRadar Gaming. With four years of experience writing freelance for several publications, he's covered every genre imaginable. For 15 years he's done technical writing and IT documentation, and more recently traditional gaming content. He has a passion for the appeal of diversity, and the way different genres can be sandboxes for creativity and emergent storytelling. With thousands of hours in League of Legends, Overwatch, Minecraft, and countless survival, strategy, and RPG entries, he still finds time for offline hobbies in tabletop RPGs, wargaming, miniatures painting, and hockey.