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 15th December.
Pokémon Sword and Shield (Switch, £49.99)
IT is fair to say the Pokémon series is a gaming phenomenon. One peek at the huge queues waiting to get into the London pop-up Pokémon store in summer proves that. So a move to the Switch was always going to be a big deal. The Let’s Go games were just testing the water but now it has gone full-blown with Pokémon Sword or Shield. If you have played a Pokémon game in the past you’ll soon click with Sword or Shield as each game sticks to the traditional formula but has been streamlined and had a few bells and whistles added. You pick your starter Pokémon from three new options before heading out into the British-inspired Galar region to become a Pokémon Master by fighting other trainers and the region’s eight gym leaders.
So far so Pokémon, as you’ll sink about 40 to 50 hours into this adventure trying to become the very best. But… and it’s a big BUT. The game has divided the fan base. Hardcore fans are not happy. The selection of Pokémon isn’t based on a whole new list — instead it’s more of a “best of” and that means a lot of characters have missed the cut. And, unless you’re a fan of the most popular ones, then the odds are that your favourite will not be there and that is a shame. To be fair, there are a good few new ones but, after years of creating them, some of the characters do feel like the developers are running light on ideas. We will, however, pay tribute to the punk- inspired Toxtricity. That is gaming genius and a must for you to hunt.
As for the game, there have been a lot of tweaks to improve your time in the world — the biggest is how random battles are handled. They have gone for a Let’s Go style system where the Pokémon can be seen in the overworld before starting the battle. Also new is the ability to supersize one of your Pokémon by dynamaxing them. That is an interesting idea because your Pokémon becomes a super-powered giant and looks tremendously cool. There is also a new four-player raid mode where you can team up to take down one dynamaxed wild Pokémon. It is a fun addition that lets you bag some goodies when you beat it. Whether you go for Sword or Shield you’ll get delivered a fun and enjoyable Pokémon tale that sticks to its guns. Yes, some people have had their noses put out of joint by the changes but most will not be stopped by this. Grab your Switch, try Pokémon and you will be converted to the phenomenon.
Golem (PSVR, £34.99)
GOLEM is the dream child of a breakaway group that worked on Halo and Destiny. They formed Highwire Games and this is their first VR offering. It was first announced in 2015 and had a few knock backs along the way but this has been eagerly awaited. You start with a 15-minute story blast that introduces us to sisters called dreamers. One of them, Twine, was injured in an accident but she has the power to control huge rock creatures called golems. Twine uses them to explore a forbidden city for relics and treasure but the kicker is that you never actually leave your bedroom. To avoid spoilers, we’ll leave it there. It’s fun filling the stone boots of the golems as you swap between little Twine and a 15ft giant. It has a real Metroidvania vibe as you find masks to open up new areas.
That often means fighting other golems where you can wield a massive sword that fairly metes it out. You can also grab other weapons, such as an axe or a spear, on your journey. But the only real threat is other golems and each one has different moves and attacks. Combat has a real focus on blocking and reading your enemies but it takes practice to get your head around the control system. Away from battle, things are a bit of a pain. General movement is via a new system that sees you lean to move. After a short while your head and neck really feel the strain. However, a post-launch patch removes that issue by letting you use a controller. The game doesn’t hold your hand over the seven-hour run-time and that could put some people off as you are thrown in at the deep end.
We saw a lot of positives. Arguably the best-looking PSVR game yet, it is highly polished and Marty O’Donnell does an outstanding job with the soundtrack. Golem may have been in the works for some time but Highwire Games have crafted a title that could be PSVR game of the year. There are a few pacing issues but stick in and it’s a rich adventure.
SOUND scientist Marty O’Donnell is used to finding the right formula for games. The man behind the epic sounds in Destiny and the legendary Halo soundtrack even turned to kids’ tunes for inspiration for new game, Golem. Marty told me:
“My wife, Marcie, was interested in the story and reminded me about a lullaby I had written 35 years before when my first daughter was born. That piece and its melody became the main theme for Golem — and I had her hum the tune for the title music”
Marty had been a major player at Bungie, but a bitter break-up saw him join the new gang at Highwire Games and a change from his usual work with Golem. He added:
“If you play through the whole game, you’ll still hear some pieces that seem like they could have been in Halo or Destiny. But, yes, relying mostly on small chamber orchestra and piano was a pleasure.”
But he insisted that was all part of a new edgy attitude. He said:
“The first thing we decided was to work on something risky and experimental.”
“On a small team everyone pitches in. We all have to wear many hats in order to get anything done. The nice part is that you can get things going without having to wait for approval, but the downside is how long and hard it can be to finish something that meets your own standards. Trying to create triple-A content with less than 20 people is extremely difficult.”
The main challenge was that Golem was a VR title, and Marty admitted it opened up new possibilities. He said:
“All the traditional tools for creating audio are in the 2D space. Stereo or Surround Sound are just not the same as the fully 360-degree 3D audio environment of VR. That means you can create audio, but you can’t really experience it until it’s fully integrated into the game, and you play it with a headset. In VR you can actually get sounds to be above or below you. You feel like you are inside the space and every sound is coming from a specific point in a sphere all around you.”
The perfectionist in Marty drove his work, but even he was surprised by the success of Halo. He said:
“I really believed Halo would be a success, but never as big as it became. There were so few of us working on it at the beginning and we all felt it was special. To see it become such a big part of culture is pretty overwhelming. I wrote the main melody in the car on the way to the studio to prepare for the session the next day at the main studio in Chicago. I thought it was good, but never thought it would become ‘iconic’. The hunt for the perfect sound has helped forge some magical memories as Marty has worked with the likes of guitarist Steve Vai on Halo and Sir Paul McCartney on Destiny.”
“It’s a tie between my session with Steve, and my session at Abbey Road with Paul. It doesn’t get any better than that. Nile Rodgers brought in Steve and that session was pure gold. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would get to spend two years working on music with Sir Paul. There was a moment at Capital Records in Hollywood, where it was just him and me alone in the studio at the piano. It’s impossible to describe really how that felt.”
Skullgirls 2nd Encore (Switch, PS4 and PC, £19.99)
GOOD brawlers on the Switch are a bit of a rarity, but Reverge Labs’ Skullgirls: 2nd Encore is a real contender. It has a strong community behind it so the move to the Switch is a no-brainer, especially with a tweak to the core. New Meridian is home to the Skull Heart, which grants a wish to one girl every 70 years. But she has to be pure of heart or else she will become a skull girl. Cue a cast of brawlers aiming to destroy or capture the Skull Heart.
It is a solid fighter that works well on the Switch. There is even a healthy tutorial to teach you the ropes. There are all your standard on and offline modes, but it’s best to cut your teeth on the story because each fighter has a journey and it fills out the backstory. However, the final boss is way too hard for her own good and a lot of unlocks are based on completing the story modes. You will need patience. The hand-drawn sprites are stunning. The cartoon style has real charm and Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane hits a jazz-fuelled smash with the soundtrack. This stealth series has gone under the radar for too long. Great on the train.
SuperEpic: The Entertainment War (Switch, Xbox One, PS4 and PC, £14.99)
THIS is a tongue-in-cheek look at the games industry just now and it doesn’t hold its punches. The creation from Spanish indie firm Undercoders serves up a racoon who rides a llama on a mission to bring down an evil corporation called Regnantcorp which creates addictive free-to-play games. Oh, and Regnantcorp is made up of a gang of evil pigs. Over the five-hour run-time, you’ll have a ball as you unlock a roguelike model that offers more of a beefy challenge.
The gameplay is classic Metroidvania as you tackle levels beating everything that moves with a mix of signs and sticks through a fun little combo system. You’ll need to adapt your fighting style for each enemy, but there is a fairly deep upgrade system that offers new skills and health protection. There are also QR codes that are worth scanning with your phone to open up some fun activities that can net bonuses. We loved the 16-bit art style that brings the characters to life but the areas can be a bit dull and there is only save point on each level. Die and you get one do-over that costs you in game cash. Die again and you go back to your last save point. We no likey. That said, it’s not enough to stop this being a winner.
Elite Atlas Headset (Switch, Xbox One, PS4, PC and mobile, £89.99)
TURTLE Beach hit it out of the park with their Elite Pro 2 headset, but now it’s even better. The firm has given them a colour swap and dumped the Super Amp and given them a new name — Elite Atlas. The Elite Pro 2 headset and Super Amp was aimed firmly at the eSports market, but the Atlas is a joy with anything that will take a 3.5mm jack. That means you can use them with the big consoles, PC and even mobiles, so we took them for a spin on the Switch. It is very much the same spec of the Elite Pro 2, so you get replaceable ear cushions and removable base plates to boost the customisation options. However, it’s worth noting that the move from a white finish to the new black means it is a bit of a finger print magnet on the super gloss-finished base plates.
The headset has 50mm Nanoclear drivers that delivered really clear sound when we tested them on Pokémon Shield, Ape Out, SuperEpic and Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. We loved the toe-tapping jazz sound and the swish of the sword. Spoiler alert: we cheated a bit on the mic test. We put it in the Xbox One, but it was excellent in chat parties with next to no sound bleed from the background. On the downside, the mute button is on the headset wire — which is a bit fiddly to get to in the heat of battle — and the mic is on a flexi-stock which is a pain because you can’t move it up when you aren’t using it or are just having a drink. You don’t really want to be bending it about if you don’t have to.
That said, these are both hangovers from the Elite Pro 2 originals. The Turtle Beach Elite Atlas on the Switch is a bit like using a sledgehammer to do brain surgery, but it does deliver the best audio we have heard. To get the best from them you really should use them on PC, but if you’re looking for a solid all-round headset in this price range that hits the mark on every device you plug it into then you’ll be hard pressed to find better.
Gang Beasts (PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC, £19.99)
IT’S nearly Christmas and that time when families and friends come together to spread joy and happiness, so what better timing to for a good old arena brawler? Gang Beasts previously did the rounds on PC and consoles a few years ago, but it’s just had a retail box release. You and the game gang fight it out across a number of themed areas, from factories to wrestling rings, and even on top of two moving trucks. Danger is never far away because your goal is super simple — be the last one standing. But that is easier said than done because you are a big jelly baby-like character and you control like a jelly in a tumble dryer as you flop and bumble around trying to grab the other players and kick, throw and head-butt them.
You can customise your character pre-fight by adding hats, beards and other silliness and, away from the multiplayer side off and online, there is a handful of modes including a rock-solid horde-style where the AI will beat you up in no time unless you have mastered the controls. Even if you are really good, you will also need to be lucky. There is a chunky, colourful look that is full of charm and that masks the horrors of the fights where you can burn your opponents alive or feed them into a mincing machine. The soundtrack side is also light-hearted and straight out of a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon show. It’s a great alternative to the Queen’s speech. It’s fun . . . but you will need a gang of friends.
I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…