How Hard Is Returnal?

how hard is returnal

Determining whether a game is hard can be a rather subjective question. Someone who kicks ass in racing games might suck playing Call of Duty and someone great at roguelikes might suck at racing games. Everyone has genres they are good at and this will greatly influence the answer to whether the difficulty is too high. The latest PS5 game Returnal already has a reputation for being rather challenging but just how hard is Returnal?

I will do my best to keep this as objective as possible to highlight the level of difficulty in relation to other games and not just say how hard I found it.

Note: I have written this guide to explain the difficulty of the game to people who have never played a roguelike game before. I am aware that a lot of the aspects of the game’s difficulty are core to the roguelike genre, they are part of what makes this game hard and are worth mentioning to people who are new to this.

Is Returnal as Difficult as People Say?

The short answer to this is going to be yes, Returnal is a rather difficult game. Much like games in the soul’s genre or many other roguelike games, it is designed to be difficult and the developers intend on you dying often. Even with a warning like this, the obvious objective for a roguelike is to finish the game. So how hard is it to get to the end of Returnal?

Returnal is split up into biomes or areas. Each one will have a boss fight at the end of it. Once you kill the boss, you will gain access to the next biome. When this happens, you will receive an item that will grant you access to a shortcut. Rather than having to complete the first biome from scratch, you can use the shortcut, once you find it in the randomly generated level. This means you do not have to go through the first and second biome when you die in the third.

This sounds like a piece of cake, but it is not quite as attractive as it seems. If you find the shortcut path a few minutes after starting the game, there is very little point in you travelling to another biome because you are not going to have enough good equipment to survive. Once you travel, there is no going back. Since you lose all stat power-ups and items with passive abilities when you die, you start off incredibly weak each time.

fast travel portal
The one-way journey through a portal will bring you to another biome instantly but it as a waste of time putting yourself up against stronger enemies when you have not spent some time killing easier enemies to upgrade your gear.

You need to grind through the first biome in order to obtain enough gear to do well in subsequent biomes. You will at minimum need to grind the first biome every time you die to hopefully discover essential items to help you get through the more difficult battles ahead. It is a waste of time heading straight to a boss fight with the equipment you have when you spawn. Since the first biome is quite easy compared to the others, it will be your go to grinding area every time you die.

Aspects That Influence Game Difficulty

Rather than explaining particular challenges I experienced while playing this game, I will create a shortlist of things about this game that presents a form of challenge while playing the game. You can judge for yourself whether the items are significant enough to influence the difficulty if you were to play the game. A lot of these elements are elements of the genre itself but I will list them for simplicity for those who are unfamiliar with the genre.

  • There are no permanent stat increases. You will never be able to permanently increase health, armor, firepower or anything that is advantageous to your survival in combat.
  • Every death will wipe all progress and bring you back to the start of the game.
  • Each time you respawn, you will experience a completely different, randomly generated world. The enemies are never in the same locations and it is not possible to predict and prepare for what is ahead based on past experiences.
  • You can teleport to other biomes, skipping the boss fights but only after you find the random location of the teleporter.
  • Stronger weapons will only be dropped when you have killed enough enemies to increase your combat proficiency, which resets when you die. Reaching a new biome will give you an item that increases it a few levels automatically but the level up does not apply to your current weapon. Your level 0 pistol will remain a level 0 pistol when you teleport to a higher biome and take on much stronger enemies.
  • When you dash, you gain temporary invincibility to enemy attacks.
  • All item and weapon drops are random. There is no way for you to obtain a specific weapon, artifact or power up by going to a certain location. Everything is dropped completely at random.
  • Melee attacks, once unlocked, can’t be chained together. One swing by default is all you get followed by a brief cooldown before you can swing again.
  • You are not able to modify the equipment you start with. Every respawn gives you the same pistol, no items and a complete reset of all stats.

Comparing The Challenge To Other Games

When you compare Returnal to other roguelike games, it doesn’t stand out as being excessively challenging. One key area where it differs from other games is the lack of permanent upgrades. If you are giving 100% and just can’t kill a boss, there is no way to go grinding for coins, or some equivalent currency, to use those to start upgrading your character. It is not possible to be overleveled from the get-go. Returnal is not the only game to do this but it does increase the difficulty level compared to games that do allow permanent stat upgrades.

how hard is returnal
Boss fights are not quite as brutal as other difficult games but they last quite a while and require you to dodge a lot of attacks. It isn’t a simple retry when you die which makes them much more stressful and difficult to complete

For those who have little to no experience with roguelike games, the likes of Bloodborne, Sekiro and the games in the soul’s genre will be up there as the games that are often associated with having brutal difficulty levels. How does Returnal stack up to these titles?

How Hard Is Returnal Compared To Demon’s Souls or Bloodborne?

This answer is going to be subjective. Some people may find Returnal easy but speaking from experience of having played over 12 hours of Returnal compared to the platinum trophy I got in Demon’s Souls, Returnal is significantly harder than Demon’s Souls.

You may have seen videos and the enemies do not look particularly challenging. This is definitely the case. Enemies in the Souls games definitely hit a lot harder and are much more daunting to take on. With that being said, it is rather easy to grind souls in order to purchase upgrades. You can also discover better weapons and armour that will increase your strength. If a boss is kicking your ass, it isn’t too hard to go visit another location and get stronger before returning.

Returnal does not allow you to power level and grind to become stronger. You are weak every time you spawn and depending on the luck of the draw, you may or may not get the equipment you need to progress far enough. There is a huge disparity between the quality and strength of the artefacts that grant you stat upgrades and passive abilities. Once in my 12 hours of playing, I discovered an item that granted you passive healing. It was a game-changer and I managed to go from being stuck in the second biome all the way to the third biome’s boss in about 30 mins. Some of the items are incredibly overpowered.

If you find an item that works for you, just like finding a build in an RPG, you will lose it all when you die and may never get it back. The game does nothing to throw you a bone when you are constantly getting your ass kicked.

What Happens In Biome 4?

I am going to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. When you reach Biome 4, you get your first proper checkpoint. When you die in Biome 4, you will respawn in this biome again. You will not return to the first when this happens. It is a blessing in some ways but the fourth biome is a hell of a lot harder than the 1st so it is a bit of a poison chalice.

Returnal Difficulty FAQ

For those who still have some questions or want to get some quick answers to questions you didn’t know you had until you read them, here is a handy FAQ relating to the game’s difficulty. If anyone has additional questions relating to Returnal, feel free to leave a comment and I will try to help out.

Does Returnal Have An Easy Difficulty Level?

No, the game has one difficulty level that you can’t change. There are some items that make the game significantly easier but since they are random drops, there is no way for you to control the difficulty level in this game.

Can You Reload Game Saves To Cheat Death?

This was the big thing I wanted to know and the answer is no. You can backup your game save to store your progress in terms of keeping permanent abilities but you will need to quit the game to reload a game save that you backed up to the cloud. When you restart the game, your current loop is wiped and you respawn back at the crash site. If you reach a boss fight and exit the game to back up your save, you will find yourself back at the start of the first biome.

Can You Fast Travel To Other Biomes/Levels?

I am going to say no on this one because it is no more than yes. You can use a portal to teleport to other biomes but this is not fast travel on demand. To use the portal to get to the third biome from the first for example, you will need to explore the first biome until you discover the random location of the portal. Once you find it, you are free to travel but it is not fast travel on demand. These portals are also one way.

Are There Checkpoints For When You Die?

There are no checkpoints that you will respawn at when you die. Every death will result in your return to the ship where you will have to start over again. The shortcuts do sort of act in a similar way to checkpoints but not nearly as convenient.

Can You Buy Better Weapons?

Not only are you unable to buy weapons to assign to your character, there is no way to even purchase weapons that you lose when you die. With that being said, weapon drops are not that uncommon and with enough exploration, you will more than likely find something good enough.

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