Housemarque’s roguelike shooter is the very definition of a dark horse.
2021 is looking to be a very eventful year for video games, as most early years for new consoles are. The Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5 will understandably be wanting to flex their power and grow their libraries so they can continue jockeying for our money and attention. One of the best ways to do that is to put out some excellent games early on in the console’s life cycle to set the tone. So it should be no surprise that we’ve been hearing a lot about bigger games like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War Ragnarok.
With those and several other great-looking games on the way, we will likely have our hands full in 2021. A natural side effect of so many great big budget well marketed games coming out within one year is a lot of other games, that are also looking fantastic, not really getting the attention they probably deserve – positioning them as dark horses of the year. Returnal is an excellent example of that. There’s lots of great reasons to be excited for Reternal despite it not really coming up in the greater conversation as often as it probably should be. Let’s take a look at some of those reasons and hopefully encourage ourselves to look a little deeper than the headlining games coming out this year.
First and foremost, this is a game by Housemarque. If you’re even remotely a fan of twin stick shooters and arcade throwbacks, odds are, you have played at least one of their games and probably rather enjoy yourself while doing so. If you are familiar with – and a fan of – Housemarque as a studio, then knowing that they are the studio behind Returnal should be about all you need to know to be excited for it. This is not just a team with experience making good games, this is one of the best developers out there today with games like Super Stardust HD, Resogun, and Nex Machina under their belt.
These games are simple in concept and relatively small in scope, especially if you compare them to the gargantuan projects that developers like Naughty Dog and Guerilla regularly undertake, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of your attention, or any less fun to play. Marrying the conceptual foundations of arcade classics like Robotron 2084 or Defender with dazzling, modern visual flair is something the studio has all but mastered over the years, so if you can trust them to do anything you can trust them to pull off a fun game in this style. Returnal is definitely going to be a step up in some ways as well as a step outside of their comfort zone, but at its core it’s surely looking to maintain the spirit of so many of their previous games with fun weapons, enthralling combat, and strict-but-fair challenge. For that alone this should be on just about everyone’s radar.
Speaking of Housemarque stepping outside of their comfort zone, this makes their upcoming game even more compelling than say another game in the style of, say, Resogun would have been. While it does seem like the developer maybe begrudgingly going in this direction because of lackluster sales on their previous game Matterfall, they’re still all the more embracing the third-person action game aesthetic and giving it a few interesting twists of their own. There would be nothing wrong with Housemarque putting out a Resogun 2, but the fact that they are stepping so far outside of what they typically done for the last 10+ years is all the more reason to be excited because it opens the possibility for Housemarque to discover new strengths within their ranks.
Maybe they are really good at storytelling, but they just didn’t know it because they never really tried it. Maybe they discover that third person action games have been their forte all along, but given the scope of their earlier projects, they just never knew it. It’s always interesting to see a developer step outside of their comfort zone and try new things. That mentality is what gave The Last of Us when Naughty Dog stepped away from Uncharted, and it also gave us Horizon Zero Dawn when Guerrilla stepped away from Killzone. While it is true that taking risks with tried-and-true formats can also lead to miss steps, it’s a risk that, I think, we should be encouraging Housemarque to take and I see no reason to think they won’t handle it perfectly well.
One of the most interesting aspects of Returnal is certainly going to be its storytelling. We know very little about the context in which the main character finds herself. We don’t know a whole lot about this alien world she’s stranded on, we don’t know a whole lot of why she’s there or what she’s trying to do about it. But given the clips that we’ve seen from the couple of trailers that have been released, there does appear to be some sort of story here that at least makes an effort to give enough context to this situation to create an interesting situation for players to navigate through. Like I said before maybe Housemarque really knocks it out of the park with their storytelling here and maybe they phone it in and lean more on the gameplay. At the end of the day, I think I would be fine with either approach as long as it all works, but something tells me that the story here is actually going to be interesting and it looks like they put a reasonable amount of effort into creating a story worth understanding and worth seeing through to the end.
Of course, we can’t talk about Returnal without also mentioning the fact that these levels will be procedurally generated, which is certainly nothing terribly new or inventive, but given the level of creativity that the people that Housemarque have already shown with weapons, enemy designs and level variation in previous games, I think putting a procedurally-generated game in those hands could make that concept all the more interesting and perhaps a lot beefier than what we’ve seen out of smaller procedurally generated titles like Rogue Legacy or Spelunky.
There’s definitely nothing wrong with procedurally-generated levels being used as a way for a smaller developer to avoid the daunting task of creating tons of detailed levels, but it will also be interesting to see what a developer that already knows how to do that would do with this style of foundation for a game. From what we’ve seen already in released footage it looks like the weapon variety is going to be a sight to behold and the sheer amount of enemy variations might make it the perfect arcade shooter, in that every time you fire it up you get something a little different, making it a game that you can come back to for years and years without ever really feeling like it’s over and done with.
If Housemarque has shown us anything, it’s that they know how to make a fun arcade shooter game. So even if they don’t totally pull off every single aspect of Returnal, I still think it’s a safe bet it’s going to be a really fun game and likely one of the greatest dark horses of 2021.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.