In Returnal, even the smallest enemy can pose a threat if you’re not careful. Housemarque’s roguelike is tough as nails, and it remains as is a year after its initial release. The Ascension update, available since March 22, added tons of incentives to return to the game. The biggest one is the Tower of Sisyphus, which was introduced as an arcade mode of sorts. As such, this tier list ranks all the Returnal bosses to date, including the latest encounter from the Ascension update.
It’s worth mentioning that I’m not ranking bosses based on difficulty alone, since it’s a hard (pun semi-intended) element to judge. While encounters were difficult the first time around, I picked up more lessons the more I played. Plus, variables such as the weapon you’re carrying at the time of the encounter (as well as its abilities), whether or not you had an Astronaut Figurine to revive yourself, and health upgrades are only a few of the elements that make it easier to say one boss is tougher than another.
Instead, I’m judging every boss encounter as a whole, from the presentation and attacks to the way I experienced them.
D Tier – Returnal Bosses Tier List
That One Enemy From the Tutorial
A coward. This enemy shows up during the tutorial run at the beginning of Returnal and is a million times tougher than you are. Well, that’s because it’s the tutorial, and it’s used as a gameplay device to finish off that tutorial in a cool way. There are people out there who spent an arduous amount of time fighting it regardless; others, like me, died immediately. It’s the first “boss” encounter, but while it’s an enemy that can be troublesome during runs, it ends up being just that — a regular enemy.
Not so tough now, huh? I’ve taken it down throughout dozens of cycles by this point, and I’ll continue to do so for eternity out of spite. The only reason why this encounter is on my list is that I support the audacity, but not much else.
C Tier – Returnal Bosses Tier List
Phrike is the first proper Returnal boss, posing itself as the ultimate threat at the end of the initial area. The scenery of the fight is quite simple, as it’s basically a room filled with fog that you navigate as the enemy chases you around it. That being said, it’s quite challenging for a first boss. It attempts to take you down with a furry of rapid-fire range attacks, melee hits where it gets close to you, and a fairly agile nature that can be scary when you’re only a few hours in.
Phrike suffers the curse of being the initial first threat, so while it’s there to showcase some of the attack patterns you’ll face from other bosses and regular enemies, it’s not that impressive. That being said, I really like its design, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that the melee attacks got me more than once.
B Tier – Returnal Bosses Tier List
Without diving into spoiler territory, one could say Nemesis is the “first” final boss in Returnal, as it marks the end of a pivotal story moment and gives room to the start of Act 2. As such, one would expect a battle of epic scale — after all, you spend the previous moments going through increasingly harder rooms almost to the point of exhaustion. And to some extent, it delivers, although it shines more in terms of presentation than actual gameplay challenge.
The sky turns red and this colossal being shows up as a tree holding a flying skull. There are floating beings that sometimes attack you; at other times, they just stand there in the background, witnessing your attempts for survival as if you were a champion in an arena. The problem is that the arena isn’t quite reliable, and you basically end up having to escape from the platforms you’re on as they all slowly start to fall apart.
It was exhilarating to fight Nemesis overall. Although it wasn’t much of a challenge — I beat it on my first attempt — I still remember it fondly.
Ophion is the last boss of Act 2, found in the lowest depths of the underwater area. Your fondness (or lack thereof) for this encounter will vary greatly depending on the conditions in which you stumble upon it. For me, it was during my longest Returnal run, which spanned across hours. I had been stuck in the underwater level for a good while but had to plunge through for the impending review embargo. I didn’t have the energy to just go through the previous segment again to retry the encounter, so I went all-in during my first visit. And I did beat Ophion, with only just one point left on Selene’s HP bar.
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Beating this boss was a culmination in many ways, but as for the encounter itself, it’s a tough one to grade. It’s mostly a stationary fight from Ophion’s point of view, as Selene jumps around dodging dozens of projectiles at the same time. Yet, it has an interesting element to it since you have to focus on weak points at certain times. I respect Ophion a lot, but it’s far from my favorite despite its position in the campaign.
A Tier – Returnal Bosses Tier List
I think it’s fair to argue that Returnal doesn’t really start until you meet Ixion at the end of the second stage. This is an interesting fight as it feels like a one-on-one encounter with an equal foe in terms of size and nature. But unlike Selene, Ixion can fly, and also has an array of unique attacks that can really throw you off.
During the first two phases, Ixion rages across the air from one end to the other, releases a swarm of projectiles from its body up to the air to create a waterfall of orbs to dodge, and gets up close and personal for the occasional melee attack. All the while, the music continues to ramp up in the background. But it’s the third phase that has stuck with me all this time, where you see a weakened foe that rips out part of its body to attack you with it and slam the ground to create shockwaves. It’s exhilarating, and one of the most thrilling and challenging encounters I’ve ever experienced in a game.
Honestly, I can’t blame you if you got stuck here and never looked back. But I really hope you consider coming back to it — it’s worth the struggle.
On to the last two Returnal bosses of the list. If you haven’t heard about Algos yet, this boss was introduced during the Ascension update as part of the Tower of Sisyphus mode. As you make your way up the punishing tower by defeating enemy waves, Algos waits for you at the end of each area. It emerges from a pit as a floating open coffin built with bones and tentacles. It’s a great design, and the encounter itself doesn’t fuck around either.
The arena is basically a circle around the pit, but it goes along perfectly with the boss. The enemy has tons of different range attacks, shooting projectile walls, screaming up to the air to create a rainfall of orbs, and occasionally flying around the stage and attacking from afar. My favorite is by far the laser beam that comes from its “eye,” which is also its weak point, since it goes around the stage itself repeatedly, forcing you to time your jumps as you dodge projectiles and try to attack the eye.
Moreover, Algos has different forms the higher you ascend, increasing its phases as it gains different behaviors. It’s a great opponent for the Tower of Sisyphus and a worthy addition to the game’s roster of bosses.
S Tier – Returnal Bosses Tier List
Yes, Hyperion belongs to S tier as the best of the Returnal bosses. This encounter is a particular one, as the build-up towards it is not only printed in the scenery of the area, but also in the sounds of it. A song repeats itself over and over. The further you get into the area, the louder it gets until you make it to the bottom of a tower. It’s as you’re making your way up that the song increases in volume exponentially, and there you see it: Hyperion is playing the song using an organ made out of branches and decay.
It’s one of the most imaginative and unexpected bosses I can recall in recent memory. The fight itself capitalizes on the idea of Hyperion playing a concert just for Selene, her presence being one of a guest and a prisoner of the melody at the same time. The notes become projectiles to dodge across the arena, which feels like a stage made just for the two of you.
In terms of difficulty, I didn’t have much of a trouble taking Hyperion down. That being said, the presentation, design, and the way attacks evolve during the encounter — the sky being often covered in projectiles, finding yourself trapped between vine walls — all make for an encounter worth remembering. But it’s ultimately the way the song ceases after you defeat Hyperion, putting an end to the performance, that makes it so special.