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Descenders review

The elevator pitch for Descenders is a procedurally generated downhill mountain biking game. Sounds simple enough, right?

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Descenders review

The elevator pitch for Descenders is a procedurally generated downhill mountain biking game. Sounds simple enough, right?

But rather than a mobile affair, this is a PC game, available from Steam (in Early Access). Nor is it visually simplistic, like other procedural games. Far from the voxels of Crossy Road or the beautiful flat 2D of Alto’s Adventure, or the cheap pixels of Flappy Bird – Descenders is a realistic 3D game built in Unity, and when it’s running at a lick, it’s gorgeous. It’s not free, or ad supported, or only costs a couple of quid, either; it costs the best part of twenty of the Queen’s Sterling.

It’s also not actually endless, like most games of this type. Where as you’ll snowboard forever – at least, until you crash out – in Alto’s Adventure, Descenders is split into environments and stages. That does mean there’s technically an endless stream of curves and ramps to smash your teeth on, but each course is separated by checkpoints, and the environments are fenced behind bosses, of sorts.

Allow me to explain the flow of Descenders.

After a brief tutorial on the game’s – wonderful, smooth, simple – controls, you’re dropped into a course at the top of the Highlands environment. The course, procedurally generated, has been configured with a balanced setup; that’s a fairly even mix of curves, steepness, and things upon which to perform stunts.

If you get to the bottom, you’ll move onto the next stage. Each environment is split into stages, and you’ll have branching choices of which stage to tackle next – with varying, randomised setups of curves, steepness and stunts – as you make your way across the board to the final boss stage.

Crash out, and you’ll effectively lose a life. Lose all your lives, and it’s session over. (You’ll also lose reputation, but we’ll come back to that later.) However if you perform the optional objective for the stage – get to the bottom without braking, perform three backflips, spend more than five seconds in the air, that sort of thing – you’ll gain an extra life.

And here’s where the procedural nature of Descenders starts to cause a few wobbles.

Descenders screenshot 01

Other than the mandatory first (and final) stage of an environment, you’ll be shown what the next optional objective is before you select a stage from the available branching options. This means if your next objective is for backflips, for example, then you’ll want to pick one with a high stunt rating. If you need to get to the bottom in 35 seconds, then you’ll definitely need to pick something steep… though I wouldn’t entirely recommend trying that.

Some of the objectives are, I’ll plant my flag here, flat-out impossible on certain courses. Even on the steepest run, literally eschewing the track and careening a straight line down the middle of the hill, I’ve yet to beat a course in under 40 seconds, never mind 35. Some are technically doable – like reaching the bottom without braking, or the more difficult corollary, without letting up on pedalling – but I wouldn’t recommend it. Having to achieve a set number of tricks on a course without any jumps, in spite of an apparently high stunt rating on the course selection screen, is just irritating.

If you crash part-way down a run, you’ll lose all your progress towards the bonus objective. Not only will you lose a life, you’ll also probably lose your chance of earning a replacement. You can very quickly end up throwing good lives after bad.

There’s an old adage regarding golf course design, about balancing risk with reward for a challenging experience, but because lives are limited and you need plenty to progress, you’ll achieve more in Descenders by playing carefully.

Or sneakily.

You can, for example, achieve the five seconds of airtime objective by squeezing the brakes and doing tiny bunny hops all the way down the hill. You can complete a run without braking by snaking tiny little slalom turns all the way down, so you never pick up any speed. It’s not exactly in the spirit of an extreme sport, but sometimes absolutely necessary if you want to progress. You might find yourself nursing one remaining life with the brakes on full, basically walking the bike down the hill.

Not only is it less exciting to play this way, the environments in Descenders – complete with billboard grass and frequently recurring assets – look a lot less pretty when they’re not whipping past you at speed, the way they’re intended.

That feeling, that sometimes the game’s own nature is working against it, runs through Descenders. There are some stunt types – like a wooden loop-de-loop, or jumping between the legs of a Firewatch-style tower – that you’ll probably just ride around and ignore entirely. The bonus you’ll get to your reputation by doing more risky stunts isn’t really worth the pitfall of losing another life.

And you’ll need those lives when you get to the boss stage at the end of the environment.

In the highland environment, that’s jumping over a viaduct with a moving train on it, which – with a hint of depth of field and screen shake – looks and feels amazing. It’s genuinely thrilling. In the forest environment you’ll jump onto, then off the other side of, a particularly large Firewatch tower. The canyon environment boss is, erm, a big canyon? And the peaks boss is jumping off the side of a mountain, onto a ramp that’s being suspended from a helicopter, and then onto the next mountain. It’s ludicrous, but adds a terrifying extra dimension to the game’s procedural courses.

Descenders screenshot 02

Is it stupid? Yes, but very exciting and challenging, so you’re definitely going to need to stock those precious lives for the boss jump. To further gate onward progress, you need to complete each environment (including the dizzying boss jump) three times from the beginning, before you’re granted a new checkpoint and are allowed to start a session at the subsequent environment, with a full complement of lives. It’s a balance of procedural freshness and roguelite grind that doesn’t always work.

You can have a wild time performing stunts while you’re doing it, and the procedural nature of the stages means it’s a new game every time, but the constant nag of the health meter really cramps your style. Between the limited lives and the challenges to progress, tricks and stunts are often the furthest thing from your mind.

What you do get for performing wicked stunts is a boost to reputation, and cosmetic items. It’s scant reward. I gained enough reputation to increase my rank several times, and I was invited to join a team, but I’m not entirely sure what any of that means in practical terms. (Yes, I know you get team-specific gear and access to your team’s channel on Discord, but honestly, who cares?) There are limited-time challenges in the menu, but I’ve seen none available thus far. Presumably this is because Descenders is still in Early Access, and – as well as fine-tuning and balance to the game’s procedural algorithms – there’s more to come in terms of content.

Even the game’s free practice mode, usually a chance to go wild in extreme sports games, still carries the conceit of a health meter. You won’t suffer a loss in rep if you bail, but you can’t even get away from limited lives to perform the most insane of stunts, just for fun. I’m desperately hoping for some sort of freeride or trick attack mode to make its way into the game through the course of Early Access, because if (like me) you were hoping for a bit of classic Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Skate, just on a mountain bike, you’ll likely be disappointed to some degree.

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Finally – and I know this is a matter of petty personal taste, but while we’re talking about classic extreme sports games – if you were expecting the lively pop-punk of Tony Hawk’s, or the eclectic mix of hip hop and rock of EA’s Skate, you’re going to be even more disappointed. Descenders features a repetitive mix of dismal, borderline-unlistenable drum and bass.

And that was it. That was where the review was going to finish, until Mike Rose of No More Robots, publisher of Descenders, hit send on this tweet:

To which we made the following enquiry:

So we waited. We didn’t publish the review. And it turns out, Rose was right. The update definitely does address a big question mark people have with the game, and one we raised in our review: where the hell is a freeride mode?

But now that freeride is here, does it materially change the review? Not so much, as it happens.

Freeride mode in Descenders is, by and large, exactly the same as playing a single stage in the main game. The difference is that you’re allowed to make modifiers to the parameters of the stage before you start. You can adjust the three sliders – curves, steepness, stunts – to try and get a stage more to your liking, but the nature of the game’s procedural generation means you still might not get what you want. It’s just more likely.

You can pick your environment, and time of day, and even put on custom modifiers like the removal of the path from the centre of the course. All of this makes for interesting diversions to the standard setup, but its fairly immaterial.

Most importantly, you can modify the number of lives you have before you start in freeride. If you want to keep going over and over, without hitting a painfully “how do you do, fellow kids?” “rekt” game over screen, you can. That gives you the opportunity to take on the big tricks you daren’t risk during the game proper’s roguelite quest for progression, and to keep bailing and dusting yourself off and trying again, but honestly? It doesn’t make as much difference to my enjoyment as I thought it would.

Descenders
3

Summary


Platform: PC
Developer: RageSquid
Publisher: No More Robots
Release Date: Out now (currently in Early Access)


At the heart of Descenders is undoubtedly a very pretty and – under the right procedural circumstances – mechanically fun-to-play mountain biking game. Unfortunately the whims of procedural generation and the contrivances of its roguelite progression system tend to dampen the exhilaration and enjoyment somewhat. However if developer RageSquid can make the most of Early Access and add some additional game modes, or adjust the balance to favour extroversion and tricks over caution and staying power, they could be onto a real winner.

Oh, and some variety in the soundtrack (or maybe Spotify integration, so you can listen to your own playlists?) would be lovely, thanks.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

Reviews

The Eternal Castle [Remastered] – Nintendo Switch review

The Eternal Castle [Remastered] comes to the Nintendo Switch 23 years after its original release. Or does it? 

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The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] - Nintendo Switch

The Eternal Castle [Remastered] comes to the Nintendo Switch 23 years after its original release. Or does it? 

When I was young, the world of digital entertainment only had eight colours: black, blue, red, magenta, green, cyan, yellow, and white. Of these, it was cyan and magenta that always brought games to life. Against the darkness of a CRT monitor, they were blades of light, a throb of neon. They were the colours of the future.

Cyan and magenta look fantastic on a screen, basically. It’s the reason they are used in a billion logos, website designs, and video games. And whereas these two colours once signified the future, they are now a visual short-hand for the ongoing, interminable nostalgia for all things 1980s. In video games you can see it in everything from Hotline: Miami and 198X, to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Cyberpunk 2077.

The Eternal Castle [Remastered] is a game constructed from cyan and magenta. It’s a 2-bit homage to a late-80s MS-DOS adventure that never was. One that lives in the imagined memories of developers Leonard Menchiari, Daniele Vicinanzo, and Giulio Perrone.

This curious ‘remaster’ of a non-existent game was first released on Mac and PC last year. Now, after a few launch troubles, it’s available on Nintendo Switch.

The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] - Nintendo Switch

Modern games that consciously echo the past are nothing new. Shovel Knight invites us to replay a forgotten NES classic, Horizon Chase Turbo is an arcade racer from a timeline without OutRun, and Sonic Mania is a fusion of old and new that atones for the franchise’s frequent missteps.

These games offer experiences that could never have been achieved given the technical and hardware limitations of the past. Instead, they attempt to evoke the feel of the period and combine it with modern design sensibilities to create something new. The Eternal Castle is no different in its ambition, but it treads a slightly different path.

The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] - Nintendo Switch

The visuals look the part in static screenshots, but it’s in motion that The Eternal Castle comes to life and earns its cheeky “remastered” subtitle. The animation is fluid, there are subtle shifts of perspective, distant vistas are softened by heat haze, and the 2-bit equivalent of dynamic lighting illuminates the game’s environments to stunning effect.

Magenta and cyan are not the only colours used, but the two-colour aesthetic and stripped-back sprite work are constants.

It has the retro look, then, but it’s not always a pleasure to experience. There’s a sense of aggravation to The Eternal Castle, a scratchy, undefinable grubbiness that makes the game hard to embrace. There’s a sense of remove, but one thankfully not created with the use of a in-game CRT filter. (Unlike in the Switch release trailer.)

The sound design also unnerves. There’s a synth-heavy score, naturally, but it’s also backed by a soundscape of raw, discordant tones and the heavy crumple of bullets on brick. The effect is not one of warm nostalgia. It’s cold, bleak, grim.

Moment to moment the game owes obvious debts to Another World, Limbo, as well as the Ravenholm and Highway sequences of Half-Life 2. As you pick your way across The Eternal Castle’s dilapidated world, you’ll encounter environmental puzzles and movie-inspired action set pieces. You’ll also glean fragments of an obtuse story that is just about interesting enough to hold your attention.

The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] - Nintendo Switch

The striking aesthetic occasionally appears to actively work against the game, making it difficult to decipher a solution or execute the manoeuvres required to avoid danger. Identifying the specific cluster of pixels you need among similar clusters of similar pixels feels like another deliberate exercise in aggravation.

Combat is fussy and fuzzy, boss battles are tough, and one recurring tea-drinking foe can be an absolute nightmare. The resulting difficulty spikes feel strangely appropriate, though, given the heritage The Eternal Castle is determined to honour.

Performance issues can also hamper progress, but I genuinely can’t tell they are bugs or another well-placed dig in the ribs from the game’s developers. The frequent checkpoints, however, are a much appreciated modern concession.

Despite its name, The Eternal Castle doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a brief and sometimes testing assault on the senses that is in equal parts beautiful and disquieting.

There’s a sense that the game is mission accomplished for its development team, regardless of whether players enjoy the experience. Eventually, I did, and I look forward to another run through its cold, cyan and magenta future.

The Eternal Castle [Remastered] Review
3

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, Mac
Developers: Leonard Menchiari, Daniele Vicinanzo, Giulio Perrone
Publisher: TFL Studios
Release Date: June 26, 2020


The Eternal Castle [Remastered] is nostalgia trip that’s mysterious, brutal, and sometimes even enjoyable. It’s a hard game to love, but an easy one to admire. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but it certainly stands out in a morass of bland Nintendo eShop releases.

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Star Wars Episode I: Racer – Nintendo Switch review

Star Wars Episode I: Racer comes to Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. Yippee! But can a 21-year-old racing game save the Star Wars franchise?

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Star Wars Episode I: Racer – Nintendo Switch review
Aspyr Media

Star Wars Episode I: Racer comes to Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. Yippee! But can a 21-year-old N64 game save the Star Wars franchise?

January 1999

I saw the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace on a date, right before Shakespeare in Love.

21 years on, it remains a masterclass of mood and scene-setting. A new Star Wars film didn’t need hype, but the trailer only increased my anticipation for the MOVIE EVENT OF THE MILLENNIUM.

March 1999

I saw the film’s second trailer at work. At the time, most of our company tabbed through databases on green-screened IBM AS/400 terminals, updating call logs, and flirting with each other via a SNDBRKMSG. As a member of the marketing team, I was one of only two people – the other, my friend Andy – to have a Windows PC connected to the internet. Netscape was the browser of choice. Altavista the search engine we relied on.

When the second trailer for The Phantom Menace was released on the Star Wars website, a gaggle of excited co-workers gathered around my desk as it s-l-o-w-l-y buffered into low-resolution glory. On that small CRT monitor, we watched as majestic transporters rolled over the hills of Naboo. We saw armies of battle droids prepare for battle. Darth Maul gazed chillingly into our souls. And a glimpse of pod racing promised a chariot race for the 21st century.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was going to be the best film we’d ever seen.

May 1999

Andy and I saw the film on the first weekend of release. We liked it. A lot. Didn’t we? I mean, that kid was a little annoying. And it didn’t make much sense. And Darth Maul was underused. Something about tax. But it was still amazing, right?

I wasn’t sure. So I went to see it again with two other friends. I left the cinema no clearer about my opinion. One of my chums – who had never seen a Star Wars film before – said: “What the &%$* was that #*&#?” He might have been on to something.

We didn’t want to admit that maybe, just maybe, Episode I was a bit of a stinker. Let’s be clear: we didn’t think that George Lucas had murdered our childhoods, but there was a feeling of gradual deflation. It was a lesson learned in avoiding the machinations of the hype machine.

June 1999

Around this time, Andy and I would spend our evenings drinking beer and playing Mario Kart 64 and GoldenEye 007 on my Nintendo 64. Andy wanted his own console, so we took a trip to the Oxford Street branch Electronics Boutique. And there we saw it. A new bundle. The pack-in game was Star Wars Episode I: Racer.

Star Wars Episode 1 Racer Nintendo 64 bundle

That’s the thing about Star Wars. It can disappoint you. It can let you down. But your love for it never quite goes. We didn’t think the film was great, but we adored the pod race. So Andy bought his first games console. It had a picture of Jake Lloyd on the box.

Star Wars Episode I: Racer quickly became part of our gaming rotation. Sure, the film’s Boonta track only features twice and the others were set on planets we’d never heard of, but it scratched the itch. However, over time, we began to enjoy racing on these new strange worlds. Caressing the curves of Scrapper’s Run on Ord Ibanna was an exercise in pure concentration, and taking on Sebulba’s Legacy on Malastrae was a controller-clenching thrill. For a time, the game saved Star Wars.

Star Wars Episode I: Racer – Nintendo Switch review

21 years later

We lie in the wake of another Star Wars film that has left audiences baffled, bemused, and frustrated. And here is Star Wars Episode I: Racer to save us one again.

Like the studio’s previous work with Star Wars: Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, Aspyr Media’s new console port of Star Wars Episode I: Racer is not a full-fledged remake. Instead, it’s up-rezzed remaster of the original. The textures are still blurry – although the overall image is crisp – and the audio is still tinny, while the video cutscenes show their compressed age.

Retooled rumble and motion controls are welcome additions, but, most importantly, it’s the rock-solid 60fps frame rate that transforms the experience. The game shows its age but it now plays like a dream. Each race is exciting and nerve-racking, the best of them precarious balancing acts in which small, instinctive decisions are the difference between gliding into the perfect racing line or careening into a rock.

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There’s a wealth of characters to unlock, and the upgrade system – although basic by modern standards – is fun to tinker with. It makes a tangible difference in how each racer performs and handles.

The game also brims with humorous details, from the Pit Droids larking around in the garage to Dud Bolt’s over-enthusiastic mid-race grunts. Greg Proops and Scott Capurro resume the role of Fode and Beed with gusto, and Andy Secombe’s Watto is employed to hum the Cantina theme at the end of each race. What more could you want?

Star Wars Episode I: Racer – Nintendo Switch review

In many respects, Star Wars Episode I: Racer doesn’t feel like part of the current Star Wars universe. With its locations and characters all but ignored by recent entries into the franchise, the game is a race into a fictional dead end, and it’s all the better for it.

Racer can’t make up for the disappointment of Episode IX – after all, it’s based on a film with a fair few problems of its own – but it’s successful in taking players back to a more innocent and optimistic time. To a time when Star Wars was the fever dream of a mad, misguided genius, rather than the daily grind of a weary lore committee.

Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer is probably only for the franchise’s most ardent fans, but for gamers of a certain vintage, the Midi-chlorians are still strong with this one.

Star Wars Episode I: Racer review
4

Summary

Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Developer: LucasArts / Aspyr Media
Publisher: Aspyr Media
Release Date: June 23, 2020


A much-improved frame rate and an HD sheen give Star Wars Episode I: Racer a new lease of life. This thoughtful update ensures the game is much more than a trip down memory lane. Despite its age, it remains one of the best sci-fi racers you can play on Nintendo Switch or PS4.

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Night Call Nintendo Switch review

Get in the taxi. We need to talk about Night Call on Nintendo Switch.

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Night Call Review
Monkey Moon

Get in the taxi. We need to talk about Night Call on Nintendo Switch.

As someone who likes his noir like he likes his eggs, Night Call is sadly too soft boiled for my liking. It has its moments; instances when it just clicks and being a taxi driver roaming the shadowy Parisian nightscape feels incredibly lucid, but these are unfortunately muddled by the writing and repetitive structure.

Developed by Monkey Moon, Night Call is a narrative Crazy Taxi with light resource management, with the focus shifted to passenger conversations rather than driving. It’s a visually bold game with an almost Limbo-esque feel. A stark greyscale art captures the murky whimsy of a world that exists beyond a sensible bedtime. Undoubtedly ambitious, Night Call has around 90 passengers for you to pick up and converse with, all complete with great character art that captures their personalities.

Night Call Review

Night Call begins when you wake up in hospital after being attacked by a serial killer. You’re then recruited by a police officer to gather information once you’ve recovered and are back on the streets. A great premise, but the execution falters. The justification for being blackmailed into gathering information just didn’t work for me and felt rather contrived, which is something that plagues the rest of the game too.

A lot of the conversations come off as inorganic and the heavy-handed prose doesn’t help. Characters can’t wait to open up to you and spill their life stories as quickly as possible. It could be a far better experience (and more true to life) if the developers went for the opposite; passengers less willing to talk and the player/taxi driver attempting to open them up in the limited lifespan of a single taxi ride. Doing this would make the dialogue options have more purpose; as it stands, they don’t particularly change much.

Another flaw was that characters sometimes feel too whacky. In one playthrough I came across Santa Claus, an alien and a ghost who feels out of place considering Night Call is a gritty noir story about a serial killer. Kudos must be given to the developers for bringing up themes of politics and racism – and the inclusion of an Arabic protagonist – but ultimately the game feels wildly uneven in tone. Having a conversation about racial abuse because of Brexit one moment and then talking to a cartoonishly quirky poet the next felt jarring.

Night Call Review

Night Call is split into three cases with a different serial killer in each and, after finishing the first, it was a shame to see that all the cases are basically the same. They start exactly the same way: the protagonist wakes up in hospital and is recruited by the same police officer to find a different killer. You then have seven nights to gather information on the serial killer and solve the case. This repetition greatly impacted my enjoyment as it cheapened the narrative. It made me question whether it was worth doing another case if they are all essentially the same.

One standout aspect of Night Call, however, is the fantastic soundtrack by Corentin Brassart. It’s a dreamy soundtrack that lulls you into a meditative state; the type of soundtrack where you can put the controller down for a bit and have an introspective daze. It actively heightens the late-night taxi driver experience, painting the gloomy canvas with shades of solitude.

In the end, this egg needed more time to boil. But I applaud what Monkey Moon achieved with Night Call and I’m genuinely curious to see what they make next.

Night Call Nintendo Switch review
2.5

Summary

Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Monkey Moon
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release Date: June 24, 2020


Night Call has its moments, but clumsy writing and repetitive structure keep it from reaching its potential. Time to call it a night, perhaps.

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The Outer Worlds – Nintendo Switch Review

The Outer Worlds touches down on Nintendo Switch, and while the game is easy to recommend, the Switch port really isn’t.

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The Outer Worlds - Nintendo Switch review
Obsidian Entertainment / Thumbsticks

The Outer Worlds touches down on Nintendo Switch, and while the game is easy to recommend, the Switch port really isn’t.

It’s nice to get the things you want. Sometimes.

Following the direction taken by the Fallout franchise, fans of the series were vocal in their desire for a more focussed, single-player experience. They wanted a game like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout New Vegas. Or, ideally, a combination of the two. Obsidian Entertainment heard that call, and that’s what the studio delivered – to considerable acclaim – with The Outer Worlds.

Another thing people want is for every game to be on the Nintendo Switch. Hence, a slew of ports from the last two Xbox and PlayStation generations. Some of these, like Alien: Isolation and the Assassin’s Creed: The Rebel Collection, are excellent. Others, like Doom and The Witcher 3, are impressive despite their flaws. And others are just plain bad. Hello, Ark: Survival Evolved and Mortal Kombat 11.

Virtuos – the studio behind the solid ports of L.A. Noire and Bioshocksay their processes mean that virtually any game from the PS4 and Xbox One generation can be ported to Switch. The Outer Worlds gives Virtuos a chance to prove the point.

The Outer Worlds - Nintendo Switch screenshot

The Outer Worlds comes to Nintendo Switch content complete, with future story expansions also confirmed. Every mission, character, and weapon is here, compressed and squeezed into a 13.7GB file.

In delivering what people want, Obsidian has created a game that feels immediately familiar. The Outer Worlds presents a wild and imaginative new universe in which to tell stories, but the format and structure are true to the studio’s heritage. If you’ve played New Vegas or KOTOR2, the first hour of The Outer Worlds feels like slipping on a comfortable pair of old space boots. It feels good to be back.

The influence of the Fallout series and Bioshock casts a long shadow, of course, most obviously in the game’s retro-futuristic aesthetic. You’ll find it in everything from the architecture to the cheeky in-game advertisements that promise a better life for the inhabitants of the Halcyon system. To the game’s credit, it uses this hoary conceit to reflect the story’s themes of corporate servitude and rebellion with more grit and humour than is usual. Its satirical approach and political stance are far more in-tune with each other than in another recent Switch port, the otherwise wonderful Void Bastards.

The Outer Worlds - Nintendo Switch screenshot

The overall structure is also familiar. It’s a big game, but one we’d hesitate to term open world. A dubiously procured (but brilliantly named) spaceship, The Unreliable, acts as a hub of sorts, transporting you around a six-planet system to accumulate an impressively long list of missions and side-quests. Most destinations are large but self-contained areas populated by an assortment of aggressive wildlife, ne’er-do-wells, and quest-givers. We’ve been here before in spirit, if not location.

It makes for a focussed role-playing experience that is content to find breadth and depth in its characters. The game may be set in the expanse of space, but there’s a tightness of design here, a subtle but welcome guiding hand.

The Outer Worlds is also well written and acted. NPCs have seemingly limitless responses that reflect and respond to your actions throughout the game. The way characters refer to your exploits, however minor, generates a sense of connection and consequence to what you do. It feels like a minor but significant evolution in character interaction, even if the Elder Scrolls-style “straight to camera” conversation delivery isn’t especially modern.

It’s pleasing that The Outer Worlds places as much emphasis on words as it does weaponry. During my initial character build, I bumped my Charm stats right up and was delighted to find it made a tangible difference from the start. My persuasive patter helped me to avoid some sticky situations, but my cocksure attitude occasionally provoked trouble. Both felt consistent.

A feeling of choice and consequence is something that games continually strive to achieve, and although you’ll make some big decisions on your journey through The Outer Worlds, it’s the small moments that stand out.

Further examples can be found with your six companions, of which two can join your party at a time. They’re an engaging bunch, each with in-depth storylines to explore. It’s not Mass Effect 2, but there’s a nice “getting the gang together” vibe to proceedings, and their interactions are frequently amusing. The way companion stats boost your own character’s abilities is also neat, helping you bolster skills you may have neglected.

Indeed, once I had four companions in place, I was able to step back from the minutiae of character development and play with a more freewheeling style. Combat – which is a remix of Fallout’s V.A.T.S – is a satisfying and punchy replacement for chinwagging when called upon.

The Outer Worlds - Nintendo Switch screenshot

The Outer Worlds may be structured like a game from 2010, but there’s enough going on under the hood to distinguish it from other RPGs of its ilk. If only the visuals looked as good as something from 2010! Despite the confidence of Virtuos, the Switch version of The Outer Worlds is, technically, a bit of a mess.

We’re told the game runs at 720p in handheld mode and 1080p docked. The frame rate is also solid, bubbling around at 30FPS. However, in terms of overall image and texture quality, the game is a real disappointment. As you might reasonably expect, environmental detail is stripped back. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes stripped back to N64-quality assets. Plantlife in the overworld is an obvious and ugly example, but everything feels like the wrong size of compromise.

Picture quality is often blurry to the point of distraction, as if the image has been taken from a third-generation VHS copy. At a distance, buildings and objects look as though they have been rendered from clay, and pop-in is rife. Traversing at speed across the overworld can also trigger a loading icon that briefly interrupts play. Hopefully, future patches will improved things across the board.

The Outer Worlds - Nintendo Switch screenshot

These concerns are not solely due to the game being dragged kicking and screaming onto the Switch. It’s a garish game generally, with a rough-edged clumsiness to its design. Buildings, objects, and NPCs feel placed on the landscape at random, and the only locations that exist tend to be those that the story requires you to visit. And although I appreciate the smaller physical scope of the game, it’s inadvertently amusing to hear a companion exclaim they “haven’t been this far before” when you reach a destination after a 30-second jog.

It’s common for games to imply a larger world, something hidden just out of sight, but The Outer Worlds doesn’t manage to stick the landing. Thankfully, it paints its prettiest and most engaging pictures with its characters and dialogue.

The Outer Worlds - Nintendo Switch screenshot

The Outer Worlds on Nintendo Switch is a hard game to judge. The underlying quality of the narrative experience is there to be enjoyed in every glorious detail, but the technical shortcomings are hard to ignore. In a recent interview, production director Eric DeMil said that Obsidian is “very happy” with the game’s performance. I wish I could say the same.

I wanted a concise RPG in the Fallout style, and I’m glad Obsidian made one. I certainly hope the studio has the opportunity to tell more stories in this universe on Xbox Series X.

I also wanted this game on Switch, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it was a wise move. Sometimes, getting what you want is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The Outer Worlds review
3

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment/Virtuos
Publisher: Private Division
Release Date: June 5, 2020


The Outer Worlds remains a memorable experience on Switch, but, at the same time, it’s all a bit of a blur.

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Reviews

Maneater review

Is it safe to go back in the water? We’re not sure, so we sent Callum to review Maneater. [WARNING: Contains terrible shark puns.]

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Maneater review
Tripwire

Is it safe to go back in the water? We’re not sure, so we sent Callum to review Maneater. [WARNING: Contains terrible shark puns.]

First up: the shark puns. I’m sure this is what you all came for. I assume my editor also wants a section of this article dedicated to terrible oceanic references, so let’s just get this out the way quickly. Will Maneater, the new hyper-violent shark simulator from Tripwire, sink or swim? Has its Jaws-dropping concept got any bite? Will it be a fin-tastic ride? Or is it destined to sleep with the fishes? [This was a very elaborate way of handing in your resignation, Callum – Ed.]

All out of our system? Are we done? Wonderful. Then let’s crack on.

With that out the way, many of you have likely seen the over-the-top trailers for Maneater that dropped following its announcement last year. After all, it’s hard to miss a game where players take control of a raging, hyper-aggressive bull shark with a love for human meat ripped straight from the hull of a fishing boat. Yet, now it’s here, it’s easy to recognise both the satisfying highs and debilitating lows of making a self-proclaimed “shaRkPG.”

Undeniably, the trailers’ promise that players will step into the fins of an unstoppable oceanic predator that can chomp through reinforced steel and make paddling beachgoers into mincemeat is far from unmet. This is perhaps the closest players will ever come to fulfilling the (oddly specific) fantasy of making some elderly, one-armed shark hunter bitterly recall a cliché movie monologue about their antics and for that, Maneater deserves props. However, making a 10-hour game where the one goal is to tear through an ocean’s worth of potential-prey comes with its downsides, especially in the varied gameplay department.

To add some context, Maneater sees players assume the role of a young bull-shark pup who was torn from her mother at birth and severely disfigured by a ruthless hunter named Scaly Pete. Thrown back into the vicious waters of the Gulf Coast, your mission quickly becomes to grow into a fully-fledged shark and track down the man who killed your mother, tearing your way through whatever comes in your path.

Maneater seaweed

As expected from a game about a giant, eternally ticked off oceanic predator, Maneater isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy storytelling. However, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve to make up for its thankfully silent protagonist. For one, the game is set out like a trashy American reality show, putting Chris Parnell of SNL and Rick and Morty fame as an ever-present – and frequently funny – narrator. Not only does strong writing make his “nature documentary” commentary land perfectly, but small additions like cutscenes filmed from a handheld perspective make for a pretty endearing central style.

Parnell’s commentary serves as entertaining underlining for Maneater’s gameplay, which is definitely more fleshed out than the title’s trailers may have you believe. I, for one, saw this game inaccurately labelled “GTA with sharks.” In reality, Maneater is much more at home when compared to a game like Crackdown. Beginning as a very small fish in a monumentally big pond, the core focus of the experience is battling your way through increasingly tough oceanic wildlife and human enemies as you grow bigger, gain new abilities and acquire brand new – very cool – body parts.

One of Maneater’s biggest surprises is how well balanced and fun this sense of progression is from start to finish, with my journey seeing me originally struggle against giant alligators and colossal sperm whales before actively engaging them by the end of the campaign. Maneater takes you from a weak bottom feeder to a literal apex predator, picking fights with whatever you please and watching your prey flee from you in fear.

To achieve this sense of oceanic dominance, you first have to master combat and exploration. The latter is easily the less-prevalent of the two. Scattered around the world are several major collectables and landmarks, each coming with their own set of fun easter eggs and shark-movie references. Combat, on the other hand, comprises much more of Maneater’s experience, which, unfortunately, isn’t for the best.

That’s not to say combat is bad. Once you get the hang of it, Maneater mostly relies on a fairly simple and easy to pick up control scheme, seeing players utilise a bite, tail whip, dodge, charge, and a powerful special ability. While it can rely too heavily on button-mashing – especially as tapping bite repeatedly is the key to defeating most foes – there is something morbidly satisfying about leaping from the water, grabbing a helpless human from a boat and dragging them to the sea for a gory kill.

Fights below water are slightly less entertaining, mostly because enemies become something of a pushover towards the latter half of the campaign. They can still grow intense when you come face to face with the game’s other apex predators, though: much bigger and more dangerous variations of the base game’s enemies.

Maneater alligator

However, Maneater’s structure is where it really begins to let itself down. While the core loop has its moments, it becomes evident fairly early on that most missions recycle the same “go here, kill this,” objective without any nuance or deviation. There’s simply not enough variety to warrant Maneater’s relatively padded campaign, making it something of a one-trick pony. Granted, it’s not a bad trick, but after 10 hours of the same repeated activities, the fun nature of Tripwire’s shark sim does fade.

After swimming through the game’s early areas, you’ll realise the heart of Maneater simply doesn’t have the complexity to work for more than a few hours. You’ll run through several monotonous objectives, fight an apex predator, watch a mandatory cutscene, complete some side missions, then advance on to the next level of the game where you’ll rinse and repeat. Sure, there are some fun optional objectives – such as hunting unique, named shark hunters who pose slightly more of a challenge than their weaker minions – but even these activities are so overused that they become tedious overall.

If you’re jumping into Maneater to live out your life-long fantasy of starring as a fully-grown, 500-pound bull-shark that cares more about sinking freighters than honouring the food chain, there’s no denying this is the game for you. There is a strong progression system, some hilarious gags, and some really satisfying combat that makes stalking your inferior prey all the more satisfying. Yet, it’s worth remembering that Maneater is, at its heart, a gimmick, and like all gimmicky media, it does eventually wear out its welcome.

Fin.

Maneater review
3

Summary


Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Release Date: May 22, 2020


Maneater really does do what it says on the tin. It’s a hyper-violent, super fun and wonderfully tongue in cheek shark simulator that lets players live out their fantasy of becoming the ocean’s most notorious predator. Yet, it’s beyond that where Maneater struggles, as its repetitive missions and frequent padding prevent it from sustaining its 10-hour runtime.

Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.


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