Returnal: Gameplay Time Loop Explained
Returnal’s core gameplay loop can be confusing to wrap your head around without having played it yourself. Sure, it may be familiar to those who have played the likes of Hades, Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells, but it varies enough from those to warrant explanation. Here, we try to succinctly as possible, and without spoiling any of the story, describe just what you’ll be doing in a loop of Returnal.
The First Loop
Returnal opens with protagonist Selene having crash landed on the alien planet of Atropos. With communications down and no help on the way you’re given the mysterious main objective of “Locate the White Shadow Broadcast”. With only a semi-automatic pistol to help protect you (unless you get lucky and find a new weapon) you’ll likely not get far, and end up dying to either one of these razor-fisted Titanops, or maybe these teleporting tree aliens. Don’t worry though, dying is very much part of Returnal and it won’t be the last time that you live, die and repeat.
The Loops Until You Clear the First Biome
The first time you do die in Returnal, you’ll wake up inside Selene’s crashed ship from the first-person perspective. You can then choose to exit the ship and continue on your way to death again.
This is where Returnal differs from the likes of Hades, there isn’t the same level of persistence to be found and you won’t be popping points into stat boosts or permanent upgrades to gain tangible strength at the start of each run. There are some things that will be carried over from run to run, but we’ll get onto that a bit later.
For now, you’ll be improving your arsenal over the course of each lifecycle, getting your hands on shotguns, carbine rifles and so on, but then losing them each time you die. Every run starts with just your sidearm in hand, and finding better weapons along the way should be one of your main focuses in Returnal.
You’ll also find power ups that offer unique abilities such as auto health regeneration and the risk/reward option to attach parasite arm-huggers to your body. These can give you very helpful perks, but always come packaged with a negative side effect. A run in Returnal ultimately comes down to making your way through an area, getting stronger by finding weapons and boosts, before feeling powerful enough to take on the boss of that biome.
Defeating the boss may take several attempts, and finding out the best loadouts to take down enemies may take many experimental trial runs. But once you’ve defeated that boss once, things will get a whole lot easier.
Every Loop After
This is where Returnal yet again mixes things up when compared to Hades or Dead Cells. Once a boss is killed in an area, you won’t have to kill them again. Instead, killing them gives you a special key that opens the gate to the second biome of Atropos, which is now permanently stored in your inventory for every subsequent run. This also applies to other key items in the game, such as your lightsaber-like melee weapon.
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While the combat within each of Returnal’s encounters can be challenging, the fact that you can just find the gate to the next area each time from here on in and pass through, does make it a much more forgiving experience on the whole. By bringing some of the persistent elements of rogue-lites into this more rogue-like game, Returnal makes it easier for you to progress the story and see more of the world at a quicker pace.
Once you’ve cleared the first biome you’ll then be able to interact with the daily challenge terminal on your ship. These are high-score chasing runs that won’t progress the story but will satiate those looking to top leaderboards like only Housemarque know how to make you want to.
Hopefully that’s cleared up any questions you may have had about what exactly you’ll be doing in Returnal. The best way of course though, is to experience the world of Atropos and all of its horrors for yourself.
Simon Cardy still thinks that Returnal is not a great name for what is shaping up to be a great game. Find him over on Twitter at @CardySimon.