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PC Specialist Defiance XS review

I’ve been using the PC Specialist Defiance XS laptop – a super-thin 15.6″ gaming laptop, with an Nvidia GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU – as my day-to-day machine for almost ten weeks. How does it shape up to such an extended period of testing?



PC Specialist Defiance XS review

Our laptop reviews are a little different to most.

Where magazines will be meeting deadlines and tech blogs will be trying to be first, we take our time. Yes, there’s value in rapidly running a dozen benchmarks, testing the battery life, measuring the noise levels, and then getting your review to the top of the Google queue; but we chart an alternate course.

The last time I bought a car – back in 2011; you don’t get rich in games journalism – it wasn’t the first drives or the test day reviews that persuaded me. It was a 100,000 km road trip road test, where a determined tester took the vehicle on a circuitous route around Europe, finally ending up at the factory the car was built at for a once-over after just over 62,000 miles.

TL;DR: One of the tiny bulbs above the rear number plate had failed. That was it. I was sold. (Both on the car, and the long-form review methodology.)

With that in mind, I’ve been using the PC Specialist Defiance XS laptop – a super-thin 15.6″ gaming laptop, with an Nvidia GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU – as my day-to-day machine for almost ten weeks. How does it shape up to such an extended period of testing?

1. Design

Defiance XS

The Defiance XS is, for the components inside – full spec below – remarkably thin and light. It’s not quite Razer Blade small, but for a laptop packing a 15.6″ screen, it’s impressive: it’s just 18.6 mm thick, for one thing. And that’s a proper 18.6 mm, all the way across; not with a super svelte scalloped front edge where the thickness measurement is taken, with a hefty hinge holding all of the core components. This laptop is genuinely 18.6 mm thick.

It also weighs just 1.9 kg in its base configuration. There’s no touch screen option here, which would add weight to the panel, but you will still probably push the build up over 2 kg by adding a mechanical hard drive instead of (or in addition to) a featherweight M.2 SSD, more sticks of RAM, and picking a GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU (over the base GTX 1060 Max-Q card).

That’s because the Defiance XS comes from UK custom laptop builder PC Specialist, and thanks to their handy on-site configurator, you can put together whatever build you like for the Defiance XS. That price could range from under a grand – with just 4 GB of RAM, no hard drive, and no OS license; perfect if you have the parts to kit it out yourself – up to a wallet-wincing three grand, if you go for 32 GB of RAM and a stupendous 4 TB of SSD storage.

Because this is from a custom builder – how can I put this politely? – you would be forgiven for thinking it may not be… the most attractive device. Where big vendors can produce custom designs on what are basically the same OEM chassis, custom system builders typically receive them in ‘stock’ configuration from Clevo or Sager. There are some ugly laptops out there from custom shops, through a combination of price point and “gamer” aesthetics, but the Defiance XS is quite lovely.

It doesn’t scream “gamer” at you at the top of its lungs, though. It has some of the things you might expect from a gaming laptop – like a lot of vents, an RGB keyboard, a proper number pad, and some accents on the WSAD keys – but it’s all tasteful and understated. The vents are slim and unimposing; they don’t look like the exhaust pipes on a battleship. The RGB lighting is subtle, almost pretty; though you can go nuts with the light show, if that takes your fancy. The WSAD keys just have four discrete arrows on them.

The Defiance XS looks great, and with a cool grey aluminium finish that is remarkably resistant to fingerprints, it feels as good as it looks.

But just because this is a stylish, muted gaming laptop, it doesn’t mean the Defiance XS doesn’t come with something of a party piece, a flashy nod to its gaming roots:

It’s like the Bat Signal in laptop form, and let’s be honest, a far better implementation of a backlit lid detail than a glowing Apple.

2. Build quality


Defiance XS slim


After more than two months with this laptop, working it very hard on a daily basis, it still feels remarkably solid. This laptop has played dozens of hours of games, written tens of thousands of words, and has travelled hundreds of miles with me, and it’s still all in top nick.

Seriously, this is going to be a very short section on build quality, because it speaks for itself.

Normally I have at least something to complain about here, even if its incredibly minor – hinge a bit too loose (or too stiff), keyboard deck too bouncy, trackpad buttons a little spongy – but I’m really struggling to come up with any gripes with the Defiance XS.

Erm, right.

The ethernet port – which in a laptop this thin is as rare as rocking horse faeces – is a little tight. It’s one of those ones that has a little fold down covering flap, so that there isn’t an open notch along the bottom edge of the laptop that you could catch on something and crack the chassis? If you have a fully booted ethernet cable in the port and the laptop is on a flat surface like a desk, you have to lift up the right hand side of the laptop slightly to unplug the cable, because the covering flap can’t open far enough below the laptop to release the RJ45 jack.

So essentially, the laptop is too thin for an ethernet port, but they included one anyway, and it’s very slightly inconvenient to unplug if you’re on a desk and not your lap.

What else?

The keyboard and trackpad, which are plastic rather than aluminium, of course, aren’t as fingerprint resistant as the rest of the chassis. The keyboard is comfortable to use for both typing and gaming, and the trackpad and buttons are very responsive – possibly slightly too sensitive on gesture recognition, if anything; it’s easy to zoom in/out of webpages when you’re trying to scroll – but they are more prone to picking up grease and dirt than the rest of the laptop. I haven’t worn away any of the keyboard lettering, nor have I pounded the trackpad buttons into submission, but you can definitely see hot spots around the WSAD keys and the space bar.

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So yeah, when you use a laptop for hundreds of hours in a two-month period it shows a few signs of use, is the key takeaway here.

I’m really reaching here. Sorry.

3. Specs

Defiance XS ports

Because the Defiance XS is a custom shop build from PC Specialist, you can tweak the configuration to suit your budget and expectations. And because PC Specialist were sending this out for review, they sent us a high-end one. You can’t blame them: they want us to see the machine at its best.

Here’s the full configuration that we’ve been reviewing for the past two months:

  • Operating System: Windows 10 Home
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-7700HQ 2.8 GHz/3.8 GHz turbo; Quad-core
  • Chipset: Intel HM175
  • Memory: 16 GB Corsair 2400MHz SODIMM DDR4 (up to 32 GB maximum)
  • Storage: 1 TB Seagate Firecuda SSHD hard drive; 256 GB Samsung M.2 NVMe SSD
  • Screen: 15.6″ Full HD (1920×1080) 120 Hz IPS panel
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q 8 GB (GTX 1060 Max-Q 6GB variant also available)
  • Connectivity: Gigabit LAN; Wireless Intel AC-8265 M.2 (867Mbps, 802.11AC); Bluetooth 4.0
  • Audio & Video: 2 MP full HD webcam; Soundblaster X dual speakers
  • Ports & Connectors: 1 x HDMI Port, 2 x Mini Display Port; 3 x USB 3.1 Type A, 2 x USB 3.1 Type C; Dual headphone/mic jacks; multi-card reader
  • Battery: Integrated 4 cell 55Wh
  • Battery Life: (up to) 5 hours
  • Adaptor: 150 W external
  • Dimensions (W x D x H): 380 mm x 249 mm x 18.6 mm
  • Weight: 1.9kg base; configured 2.2 kg (approx.)

As mentioned above, the online configurator provided by PC Specialist allows you to go as high or low as your budget affords. The model we’re testing comes in at an MSRP of £1,633, though you can configure one for less. Or more. The choice is yours, really.

4. Power, cooling, and noise

Defiance XS GTX 1070 Max-Q

There are widely considered to be three drawbacks with Nvidia’s Max-Q mobile graphics cards:

  1. They’re slightly less powerful than their full-fat desktop brethren.
  2. They can be known to run hotter and louder than non-Max-Q laptops.
  3. They can lead to some funky keyboard/trackpad positions, to compensate for their unusually thin design.

Thankfully, number three isn’t an issue here. The Defiance XS has a thoroughly standard keyboard/trackpad layout, in spite of PC Specialist cramming a GTX 1070 Max-Q into an 18.6 mm thick chassis.

Numbers one and two, however? They’re definitely in play.

The differences between full-fat GTX and the GTX Max-Q graphics cards are well-documented, and it’s the same with the GTX 1070 Max-Q. While they might be an identical GPU – with the same GP104 architecture, the same 8 GB of GDDR5 RAM, and the same memory bandwidth of 256.3 MB/s – the Max-Q variant is down-clocked from 1,506 MHz to 1,215 MHz on the base frequency, and from 1,683 MHz to 1,379 MHz on the turbo clock. This is to reduce the heat output and cooling requirements of the GPU, designed for super-thin mobile devices like the Defiance XS, but also brings the peak power consumption down from 150 to 115 W. You can check out the full differences on GPUBoss.

Will you notice, in real terms? Probably not. If you sat the Defiance XS, with its GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU, down next to a desktop machine with a ‘full’ desktop GTX 1070 you’d definitely see a difference of a few frames, but we’re talking about the TV-buying phenomenon again.

Not familiar with this analogy? When you’re in an electrical store, agonising over which of the forty tellies on the wall in front of you has the best picture, scrutinising them all in minute detail for flaws, it seems like the most important decision in the world. But when you get your new TV home, it’s usually the only one in the room (unless you’re weird). You’re not comparing it to forty other televisions on a daily basis: the one in your living room will be the best TV you can see, and it’s the same with the GTX 1070 Max-Q.

Yes, it’s a little slower than the desktop version, but unless you’re planning on playing two machines side-by-side (which, again, would be weird, unless you’re a professional reviewer) you won’t even notice. It will still kick the stuffing out of almost any other mobile GPU; particularly in this small a form factor.

Having a powerful GPU like GTX 1070 – even in its pared back, Max-Q variant – in a very thin laptop like the Defiance XS does have a bearing on noise and heat, however.

Like most gaming laptops, the Defiance XS draws cool air in from under the laptop, through fans and across heat pipes, and out of the vents on the rear of the laptop. Because the Defiance XS is so thin, those fans have to be very small, in PC component terms. And not only are smaller fans generally louder than bigger ones, they have to operate at higher frequencies to push the same amount of air, which makes them louder again.

It’s not loud at all during every day use, but the fan noise is very noticeable when the system is under load, and because there’s very little thickness of material on the bottom of the chassis between the hot components and your lap, it does get rather warm underneath.

The design of the Defiance XS is such that, mercifully, the keyboard, trackpad and palm rests never get hot, no matter what we throw at this laptop. The underside and rear vents, on the other hand, could cook your thighs if you’re not careful. The GPU peaks at around 73°C after an extensive gaming session, which isn’t a critical GPU temperature by any means – and is impressive for a device this thin and powerful – but it’s definitely on the toasty side. Using it on a desk is fine, but if you’re gaming with it on your lap we’d recommend a lapdesk – preferably one with a ventilated mesh or built-in fan, so that it doesn’t obstruct the cool air intakes under the laptop – or at the very least, a cushion.

It also uses a lot of power, when under load. Because PC Specialist is a system builder that tends to focus on gaming, the Defiance XS doesn’t come configured with any kind of extreme power-saving out of the box. It also doesn’t come with any bloatware or undesirable software, either; another benefit of a bespoke shop over big manufacturers. But because of this full throttle approach, the Defiance XS won’t get anywhere near that stated five hour battery life in its default state.

The compact chassis dictates the battery has to be relatively small for such powerful internal components – that GTX 1070 Max-Q and a desktop Core i7 processor – so you might find that the battery life feels weak. Typically, we’ve achieved two to three hours of battery life during productivity tasks, and one to two hours during intensive use. If you adjust the power management to closer resemble the bigger manufacturers settings (and Windows defaults) you might stretch that productivity use past three or four hours, but you’ll never want to be far from an electrical outlet when you’re gaming.

5. Performance, usability

Defiance XS

First up, some real world gaming benchmarks. We don’t perform synthetic benchmarking – you can find that sort of stuff online very easily – but like to include real world gaming figures, because they’re useful at a glance and many of the games make familiar frames of reference.

1080p benchmark data:

  • Batman: Arkham City (extreme preset) – 78 fps
  • BioShock Infinite (ultra preset) – 102 fps
  • Final Fantasy XV (high preset) – 50 fps
  • Gears of War 4 – (ultra preset) – 61 fps
  • PUBG (medium settings, ultra draw distance, 1080p) – average 70 fps in quiet zones / 45 fps in busy zones

This was all done as per our usual testing methodology. For the games with built-in benchmarking tools, we ran the tests five times and calculated the mean average. For PUBG, which is so variable it’s damn-near impossible to benchmark accurately, we played about 60 hours and worked out rough averages based on what we’ve seen during different play conditions in that time.

As we pointed out in the previous segment, with regards to the differences between a stock GTX 1070 and the Max-Q variant designed for ultra thin gaming laptops, you might get slightly lower frame rates than the desktop equivalent. But with figures like that for 1080p gaming – and keeping in mind the TV store analogy – it’s very hard to argue that the configuration inside the Defiance XS makes for an extremely capable machine.

You can also purchase the Defiance XS with a 4K IPS panel, for an extra £89. Our review model has a 1080p display but with one HDMI and two mini display ports, there’s nothing to say we can’t drive a 4K display with it. That increased resolution obviously has a knock-on effect on performance benchmarks, however.

2160p (4K) benchmark data:

  • Batman: Arkham City (extreme preset) – 55 fps
  • BioShock Infinite (ultra preset) – 58 fps
  • Final Fantasy XV (light/standard preset) – 36 / 24 fps
  • Gears of War 4 (low/med/high preset) – 49 / 38 / 34 fps
  • PUBG (medium settings, ultra draw distance) – average 26 fps in quiet zones / 20 fps in busy zones

Those aren’t terrible figures, and the Defiance XS can handle 4K admirably if you’re prepared to climb down from the very highest settings, but 1080p is probably the sweet spot for most users.

The Defiance XS is also a very capable VR machine. It features two USB 3.0 ports on the front left edge of the laptop, situated very close to the HDMI port, which is ideal for the cabled setup employed by most virtual reality headsets. The laptop also monstered the Steam VR and Windows Mixed Reality performance requirements, and was generally flawless during our VR testing.

Defiance XS Steam VR

The Defiance XS makes for an excellent creative machine. We spent some time developing some of our typically over-ambitious and poorly-optimised scenes in Unity – we’re enthusiastic amateurs who like a lot of grass and trees – which it gobbled up with ease. The fact that it’s also thin and light enough to be used by road warriors, but has a full sized keyboard and plenty of screen real estate, could make the Defiance XS the ideal travelling companion for developers who visit conferences and demo regularly.

Because you can build your own specification to your own budget, the price of the Defiance XS is also compelling for business users, and unusually for a gaming laptop it doesn’t look any less professional – or “cool” – than something like a MacBook Pro or Razer Blade, if that sort of thing concerns you.

The Defiance XS is also powerful enough to be used for video editing, or even as a single machine for both playing games and streaming on simultaneously, and that’s not something we’d normally recommend with a laptop. If you are going to do that, be wary of the fan noise, however; you’ll end up with a high-pitched whine under all your audio if you’re not careful about mic positioning and wind shielding.

Honestly, I’m struggling to come up with any downsides for the Defiance XS right now. It’s a little loud under load, and the battery life isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s an incredibly powerful gaming laptop. It’s extremely thin and light for its spec, and unusually for a gaming laptop, it looks fantastic.

The bonus: you can pick it up for less than the price of the GTX 1060-powered Razer Blade or Gigabyte Aero – the gold standards of thin, light, powerful, and cool gaming laptops – with a more powerful GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU on-board. If you drop it down to a GTX 1060 Max-Q, you can pick up a Defiance XS for less than the price of a GTX 1050 Ti-powered Gigabyte Aero.

It’s hard to argue with that.

PC Specialist Defiance XS


Manufacturer: PC Specialist
Availability: Out now – Buy the review build or configure your own Defiance XS at PC Specialist (we may receive a commission for purchases made through third-party retail stores)

It’s not very often I find myself with very little to complain about. It’s even less often that I find myself reluctant to let a laptop go because I’ve enjoyed reviewing it – or more to the point, using it as my day-to-day machine over an extended period of time – so much.

The Razer Blade might be the name everyone wants, and it might be a little smaller and weigh a bit less, but given the balance of performance, portability, and price? The Defiance XS is the one I’d go for.

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


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? 



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


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?



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


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.



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


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.



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


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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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.]



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.]

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.


Maneater review


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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