Read Stuart’s column every week in The Scottish Sun, where he shares his reviews, news and podcasts with the 99.3% of the World’s population not fortunate enough to be able to buy a physical copy of the paper. The following appeared originally in The Scottish Sun on Sunday 5th January 2020.
Bee Simulator (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £29.99)
WE love a good simulator game — from being a train driver to mechanic to a fisherman and even a bus driver, the sim genre is always bringing something new to the table. The latest to land will also create a buzz — Polish studio VARSAV Games’ Bee Simulator sees you shrink down to live the life of a bee. It’s worth noting straight away that while this is a game there is a very healthy hit of anthophilia information so be prepared to learn a fair bit about the black and amber honey-makers. Joking aside, the game aims to hand out a serious message about the importance of bees to the planet at a time when climate and environmental concerns are at an all-time high. You start by taking control of a new-born bee that has to help the hive as well as search for a safe location to set up a new home because the current one is under threat from humans. For the most part it is a “nice” tale with a fair amount of heart, but you never really lose the main focus — bees are good and they are very important to our future. It’s an open world affair so you get to fly around a good-sized park complete with a mix of interesting areas. They range from a fun fair to a boat house and there’s even a zoo, so your bee gets plenty of interesting stuff to see as you fly around. And, of course, because you are a bee, you are in a land of giants. Everything from humans to dogs and even cupcakes tower over you.
The game is split into a main mission that sees you help to relocate the hive. That will take you a few hours to complete and then there is a selection of side missions such as battling other insects such as wasps and hornets or a dancing mission where you find the location of rare flowers. But none of them are really very challenging and that’s when the issues start to sneak in. You never feel truly pushed and a lot of the game can become repetitive after a while because you’ll spend most of your time trying to complete the side missions once the main tale is complete. There is some variety in how the game handles each activity — the fighting is based on matching sets of button prompts whereas the dance sees you having to follow the movement of another bee and keep in time. However, things never really evolve beyond that.
When you’re not on missions your main focus will be to collect pollen from flowers and return it back to the hive. That banks you points that you can spend to unlock different bee skins as well as hats and other collectables. It all adds a little incentive to a slightly boring, if important, activity of collecting pollen. The game looks OK. There is a great sense of scale but, oddly, there is very little for you to interact with in the world. That is a let-down because, at times, you feel like a ghost floating around a dead world. Like the look, the sound is OK. The highlight is that the actors put on “fun” voices although it can grate after a while and gives you the feeling that this has been aimed at a younger audience. The soundtrack does little more than back up the story and keep things upbeat. This is an interesting title with a solid message that is packed with bee facts. There is nothing wrong with that, but it needs to remember that it is a game and you need decent play. It is all a little overly simplistic. Younger gamers may get more from it, but it certainly doesn’t damage the bee genre.
BEE Simulator has worked hard to strike the perfect balance between a fun game and an educational title, but VARSAV founder Lukasz Rosinski reckons his team are the bee’s knees. They even used real beekeepers to get the experience just right. He said:
“All the time during the development we had to balance between having an action game with interesting mechanics that will pull the player deeper into the game, educational aspects that are used in-between, and elements of simulation. We decided to base all the core mechanics on the real lives of bees. As in real life, our bee has to pollinate flowers and deposit the pollen in a hive. She fights with natural enemies like wasps and hornets, she dances to communicate to other bees where interesting pollen nearby is, and finally she races with her sisters. All of that activity happens normally in all the hives around the world. Of course, we need gameplay, not a direct copy of reality. The same is true of the first-person perspective mode. The player sees the world like scientists think bees see the world — in ultra- violet, using thousands of ocelli — but we optimised the view so it could be playable. Some of our beta-testers were beekeepers. They had fun playing the game because they have seen our inspiration in their work experience, and also thanks to the beautiful graphics, story and music performed by Mikolaj Stroinski, the composer for The Witcher series.”
It also helped that the VARSAV team revel in thinking outside the box. Lukasz added:
“We started VARSAV Games Studios in 2017 with a motto: ‘Games from a different perspective’. I have played computer games for 30 years now, and I see how big a choice today’s players have. In my opinion, there is a group of players that choose games that give them more than just better graphics or longer story in repetitive experiences that they have already seen. They need this different perspective from our motto, or some educative values to be fully happy with the time that they have spent with the game. We made Bee Simulator for such aware players. We believe they will help us spread the important message from our game — that bees are dying and we can personally do many things to help them survive. But having the bee as the star brought its own set of challenges.”
“One of our first design decisions was to develop Bee Simulator as an action game with the third-person perspective view. The perspective of a 2.5 cm animal in the world of big animals, humans, buildings and trees had been very tempting. If we had decided to let the player control a swarm, then we would have definitely had to switch more into a strategy than an action game. That kind of experience would not give us the possibility to interest kids with our game. In our opinion, computer games are ideal medium to teach children how important bees are for our environment. Bees are an extremely interesting topic for a games developer. They’ve been on Earth since the time of dinosaurs, they are found all over the world, some gather in groups and build hives, others are wild and live underground and they have natural enemies. Their life is a ready-made scenario for many genres of games. Bee Simulator is our first game, but we will continue exploring the world of animals in our future games.”
The team was determined to nail life as a bee — and that meant building a huge world. Lukasz said:
“The scale was one of the most difficult tasks. Our bee can fly around a park freely and sit on any element, including flowers, mushrooms, benches, buildings and trees. Apart from flying, we have gameplay in the grass and in the trees. All of this resulted in huge challenges related to the optimisation of the game, so that it works smoothly across PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. And yes — the game looks and works very good on all of them.”
And Lukasz has a special word of thanks for the beekeepers who gave them their expertise. He said:
“We have been cooperating with beekeepers since the beginning of the game’s development. They helped us balance between the simulation versus game aspects. Most of our knowledge regarding bees comes from the books and movies that we have gathered in VARSAV Game Studios. We also had attendee fairs organised by beekeepers or Warsaw University of Life Sciences. After finishing development, the whole team is now ready to teach their friends about the role of bees and their habits.”
Xeno Crisis (Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC, Mega Drive, Dreamcast and Neo Geo, £16.74)
SOME people long for the warm fuzzy feeling of a retro blast and Bitmap Bureau aim to scratch that itch. The small Southampton-based team have achieved this almost impossible feat thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign. They have been inspired by true classics such as Smash TV and Alien Syndrome to craft a top-down arena shooter that would feel right at home on the Mega Drive 30 years ago. Xeno Crisis is a true labour of love because it is playable on Xbox One and PS4 and it’s available on more classic systems like the Mega Drive, Dreamcast and Neo Geo. That fact alone should set the scene for what’s coming because you wouldn’t port a shiny new game to retro tech if it didn’t deliver.
And, boy, does it deliver. It takes twin stick shooter fun and throws it into 16-bit art style as you blast your way from room to room, dodging fire and ever-changing and more challenging enemies. Like all classics from that era, the story is basic — you’re the good guy and you blast the bad guys. But there is a real Aliens vibe running through its core. It is also damn tough. You will die a lot across the seven or so main levels which are randomly generated each play. However, when you kill, you can grab dogtags that you can spend in the upgrade store after each level, so that helps a little bit. You can buff up stats from firepower to movement speed. But, if you thought the challenges were tough, you still have to tackle the bosses and learn the best ways to defeat them.
The core gameplay starts out slowly before going up the gears and you’ll need to check your ammo levels. You can pick some up as you go and there is extra firepower to be found or you could team up with a buddy to attack co-op style. There is also a healthy cheats option if it all gets too much. The retro art is stunning — it really hits the mark and the soundtrack fully embraces the classic 16-bit gaming tone so credit to Savaged Regime on the score. This could easily have been a game of the year contender in 1993. Now, in 2020, it is the ultimate tribute.
Blacksad: Under the Skin (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £34.99)
TAKE a cult classic French comic series set in a 1950s film noir US populated by anthropomorphic animals, throw in some weighty adult issues — corruption capitalism, race and fear of communism — and you have a cracking foundation for a game. Blacksad: Under The Skin, set in the world created by Spanish writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido, is an outstanding look into a hard-boiled private detective’s world. The game is very much in the same vein as past Telltale games but Pendulo Studios have given you a bit more freedom overall as you’ll spend most of your time walking around talking to other characters with some puzzle-solving as well as having to do a few QTE’s from time to time.
You’ll use your cat senses to get info from characters through sight, sound and smell which is an interesting idea. And you’ll need those senses as you play Blacksad, hired to solve the murder of a boxing gym owner. If you’re a fan it feels like it takes place after the events of the first book, Somewhere In The Shadows. The tale does a great job at keeping you on your toes as you work the case and just when you think you have it all wrapped up it throws a good few curve balls and red herrings at you. When you get clues you can start to make deductions, which is a cool idea, but sometimes it can be more guess work than crime-solving as you try to stitch the correct statement together. It’s very much a game that wants to be played at its own pace as Blacksad can’t run, which at times is a real pain. Blacksad is one cool cat, but surely he can run?
The camera angles can sometimes be a bit of a pain, blocking your view as well as objects you can interact with. Graphically, the game does a solid job at crafting a digital vision of Canales and Guarnido’s world, though it does feel like it was a bit limited by budget. A bit more cash could have given it more polish and detail all round. Sound-wise things are outstanding from the 30-plus characters across the game, with Blacksad himself having the right level of grit needed for a weathered private detective. Also outstanding is the soundtrack, a jazz-fuelled joy setting the tone and vibe as needed. Blacksad: Under The Skin may not be official canon but it does feel part of the greater tale and fans will really enjoy what it brings to the table and for newcomers it’s a great look at what makes Blacksad a great comic. But it’s a real shame that the whole package is let down by the game side, which is a bit rough, but hopefully this is the start of more Blacksad titles.
I’ll be back next year with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…