The Returnal no save mechanic has changed since launch, with developers Housemarque coming in and tweaking certain elements of how to preserve your progress, while leaving other aspects alone. The save mechanic for Returnal is definitely one of the game's more contentious elements, with serious limits on how it can be used, but there is a kind of save option - it's just not particularly broad or flexible. Nonetheless, we'll show you all the details on the Returnal no save function and how flexible you can make it.
Returnal no save mechanic explained
Returnal had no proper save function until the 2.0 update in October 2021, but now there is... sort of one. Before that the game only recorded your progress at the very start of each run, so if you got halfway through one and had to stop, the best you could do was either put your PS5 in rest mode, or turn it off and lose that whole run's progress.
However, since the new update, players can use the "suspend cycle" option, which saves the game at your location - assuming you're not in combat or in a story-related section. This will save your progress even if you quit the game, but its limited - you can't have more than one save file, and it's erased the moment you start the game back up. It effectively serves as a pause button that'll last even when your PS5 is turned off, rather than a checkpoint you can reload whenever you want. Returnal doesn't have a feature like that, and it looks like they're not going to add one any time soon, considering it would go against the game's intentional difficulty.
Even beyond that, some items and unlocks are permanent though, lasting from run to run. Ether is a currency that persists throughout runs and one of the things you can spend it on is Cthonos by your ship, which unlocks new artefacts and consumables for the item pool. These aren't guaranteed, but you essentially unlock the chance to find them on each new run. Throughout the story, you'll also find new mechanics and tools like the sword and grappling hook, both of Selene can permanently access after acquiring.