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Returnal is one of the best games on the PS5 so far, if not the best. Housemarque delivered a unique experience for Sony, but that, in and of itself, is not unique. The Finnish studio has repeatedly come through for PlayStation in the past 14 years since Super Stardust HD first graced the PS3. Returnal is not just the latest example of the stellar partnership between the two entities, but also the reason that shows why Sony should finally buy Housemarque.
A launch-era staple
Returnal the latest example of their partnership, but obviously not the first. Sony published Matterfall, Alienation, and Dead Nation and maintained console exclusivity for Nex Machina, all of which are important when looking at the pair’s history of great games. However, supporting Sony’s launches is arguably the more important piece.
The aforementioned Super Stardust HD came to the PS3 in 2007 when the console had little else besides Resistance: Fall of Man. The first Uncharted wasn’t even out yet. It was one of the best titles on the young system and an early showcase for Sony’s budding relationship with indie games. Super Stardust HD was also the first game to have trophy support, as if score chasing wasn’t already addictive enough.
Super Stardust Delta launched alongside the Vita and gave the arcadey gameplay a more apt home on the handheld system. Resogun was the first PS4 PlayStation Plus game, welcoming in the new console with one of its best arcade shooters. Super Stardust Ultra VR released alongside PSVR and the base version of Ultra received PS4 Pro support that year for the enhanced console’s launch, too.
Coming out at launch or in the launch window for a feature or platform so consistently is invaluable for a console maker since it gives users something to enjoy on their new hardware. And even though Super Stardust Ultra VR was a bit of a tacked-on piece of DLC, Housemarque has always been that reliable studio with something of worth to contribute in the early days of a system or feature.
Returnal is another, and perhaps the best, showcase of this dynamic. While it looks fantastic, it loads new cycles extremely quickly and the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers are up there with Astro’s Playroom. The 3D audio support also hasn’t been supported in such a way either. It’s both a fantastic game and an amazing way to showcase the specialties of the PS5. Sony will undoubtedly release new hardware or interesting firmware update within the next few years and having Housemarque there in a first-party capacity would be even more fitting.
Housemarque has been open about the close relationship it had with Sony on Returnal. In an interview with IGN, Biz Dev and Marketing Director Mikael Haveri said that the studio has not only had a “huge partnership” with Sony on the tech side, but also spoke of their history together.
“For a long time, we’ve been want to upgrade to be able to show off what we can do,” he said. “With Sony, we’ve been able to, for a couple of generations now, gain trust and understanding of what the Housemarque vision is and I think this is the pinnacle of where we can show it off. It’s one of those situations where it’s been a long time coming but is clearly a departure from our past catalog.”
A unique team
Sony recently came under fire for focusing too heavily on established IP as evidenced by Days Gone 2 prematurely getting the axe and the existence of Last of Us remake. While this seems a bit overblown as Sony Bend is working on a new IP and Sony’s stable of untested franchises and indies over the last decade, Housemarque would be a way to shake that slightly misguided perception.
Returnal is not only a new series, but also a completely original game as it mixes different aspects of roguelites and third-person shooters with a budget not matched by others in the rogue genre. It’s a grand entrance for this type of game in the AAA space and it will undoubtedly inspire more games after it.
Sony could use a developer like this as it infuses new blood into its medley of studios. Given its peculiar narrative structure, a direct sequel probably isn’t possible without some massive changes, which means Housemarque either makes a totally new game or one that is a decent departure from the first game. Housemarque always seems to have something unique and different up its sleeve.
Keeping up with the Gateses
Sony already has a beefy bunch of first-party teams, but Microsoft is making decent ground with its flurry of recent purchases. Buying Insomniac for $229 million was a smart move yet that one purchase still pales to Microsoft’s shopping spree. This was even true before Microsoft bought Bethesda and Sony buying one more team wouldn’t even the balance of acquiring a whole publisher, but it would help.
Insomniac’s acquisition may even foreshadow how Sony is looking at Housemarque as the two studios have a lot in common. Insomniac was independent but made games for PlayStation platforms for years until its biggest breakout hit, 2018’s Spider-Man. Although Insomniac has developed a string of amazing games since the PS1 era and, according to an IGN feature about the team, has seemingly tried to buy the developer before, the excellent, multi-million-selling superhero game seemed to be the title that greased the wheels on the deal.
Returnal’s sales have yet to come out, but it’s hard not to see it as Housemarque’s Spider-Man, given how the grand critical reception of both has seemingly broken through in a way those developers’ other work did not. It did take almost a year after Spider-Man’s release for the deal to go through so perhaps Sony will wait a similar amount of time to snatch up Housemarque.
If Housemarque wants to stay independent, that’s great, too. It’s the longest-standing Finnish developer for a reason and independence is worth admiring. However, joining with Sony has undeniable perks for the console maker that are hard to overlook. Housemarque would benefit from the added security as well and it would possibly enable it to do what it already does, but better. And if Returnal is just a preview of what Sony and Housemarque could do together as two separate entities, then it’s hard not to be excited about the possibilities when joined under one roof.