Scotch Corner – The Steel Sky’s The Limit

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 28th June 2020.


Point and Clique

TALENTED Dave Gibbons is a legend to many comic fans.  The 71-year-old has penned epic work on Superman, Alien and even Star Wars.  But the writer-artist is best known for his work with Alan Moore on the Watchman comic series.  Here’s a little information nugget — Dave worked in the games industry in 1994, joining with Charles Cecil and the Revolution Software team to create Beneath A Steel Sky.  Now — 26 years later — the pair are back together for the sequel, Beyond A Steel Sky.  Dave, below right, admitted it was a job offer that was too good to refuse.  He said:

“I think we enjoyed ourselves so much doing the first game back in the 90s that we always said it would be great at some point to do another game.  But, like most things, real life took over and I had my own things to do and Revolution had things to do that didn’t necessarily involve Steel Sky or me.  I kept in touch and, a few years back, Revolution re-released a lot of its back catalogue for hand-held devices like the iPhone.  Beneath A Steel Sky was one of those and that really got us talking about a sequel.”

Many see a second game as a chance to sort unfinished business, but Dave reckons the move was actually a new lease of life for the game.  He wanted to explore the opportunities the Steel Sky world offered them.  He said:

“What we did with the first game was complete in itself, but we had built quite a comprehensive story world.  As is always the case when you have an interesting world you naturally think of other stories that could be told in it.  It was a real pleasure to return to the world and get to explore some of them.”

Although he was mega-keen, he credits Charles Cecil with getting the deal over the line.  He admitted:

“Way back Charles came to me because he had really enjoyed Watchmen and he thought it showed I would be good at building worlds and coming up with stories.  I’ve been really happy with what I’ve done with Revolution.  I’ve done the odd other bit of artwork for other games companies, but Revolution is really my home in the gaming world because of the way Charles works.  It’s very much hands on and not lost in bureaucracy.  He listens to his players.”

Beyond a Steel Sky

He revealed the advance in technology gave them even greater scope in the new game.  He explained:

“Back in the 90s we were working in a very different way — I would draw all the backgrounds out in pencil then background artist Les Pace would paint over them and they would be scanned.  Meanwhile, the sprites that made up the characters would be created ready to run around over the painted backdrop.  What we could do was really limited.  Now we have full 3D render models on a complete, fully comprehensive Steel Sky world.  We have a form of toon render which gives the 3D assets a keyline that gives them a comic feel.  Ultimately, we were able to get much closer to what we dreamed of with the latest game.”

It may have been a dream job, but the comic book legend is planning some well-earned time off once the credits roll on the game.  He admitted:

“I have nothing planned on the gaming front — I think I’ll just catch my breath.  I don’t actually have any comics planned either.  I don’t do as much work as I used to. I do have the odd commission and the odd job that catches my eye but I’m not actively looking for the next project.”

However, that doesn’t mean he will be chilling out and playing games.  He laughed and said:

“I don’t really play games and, if I do, it’s often over my son’s shoulder or he’ll walk me through them.  That said, I did some comic book stuff on No Man Sky and I was really blown away with the sheer epic feeling of its galaxy-spanning backdrop.  I also really like Journey, which was very dreamlike and elegant.  But, really, I am much too old and much too badly coordinated to play games with any degree of skill although I do love being involved in them and creating worlds and stories.”

Beyond A Steel Sky is available now on Apple Arcade and on PC next month.

Beyond Blue (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £16.74)

THERE is nothing better than kicking back and watching the latest David Attenborough documentary as it shines a light on the world and the countless creatures that call it home.  New York-based studio E-Line Media’s latest title looks to pull off a deep sea adventure that is a game and Attenborough show combo.  This has been inspired by the Blue Planet 2 series.  You play as a scientist called Morai, who is studying a group of sperm whales, but a mega corporation has started an illegal drilling operation that threatens the group’s ecosphere.  It’s up to you to save the day.  That is all fair enough but this is never a thrilling ride.  The gameplay does give it a fighting chance as you explore the deep blue sea, scanning everything that floats by you and finding out endless facts about everything from barracuda to giant squid.  You also unlock a number of videos that follow real-world science.

Visually, it is a mixed bag.  There are stunning moments as schools of fish pass.  But then there are some real muddy moments.  We also had framerate issues.  Beyond Blue achieves its primary goal in being educational and is perfect for younger gamers or those looking to learn about the deep.  Other than that it has limited reach because the core tale sinks without a trace.

Score: 2.5/5

West of Dead (Xbox One and PC, £16.74)

IT seems that every other game at the moment is about fish or cowboys.  We have already had this week’s fish quota (see opposite) so it’s time to saddle up and see how this cowpoke differs from the normal Western fare.  UK-based Upstream Arcade has set up a tale that takes place in 1888.  You play as William Mason, who’s had better times.  He’s dead, you see.  He is in Purgatory — that place between Heaven and Hell . . . but which also turns out to be in Wyoming.  It follows the usual formula in that you have no memory of how or why you’re there but it seems there is a preacher who can throw some light on proceedings.  Mason starts his search for the holy man in the most unholy of places.

Needless to say, this journey is far from easy — to get to the preacher you’ll have to work your way through an ever-changing labyrinth of enemies with only your guns and whatever items you find along the way to help you.  You also face a trip into the unknown because each chapter is procedurally generated.  This is where the Rogue-like side really kicks in, so you can expect to die a lot.  The gameplay often sees you entering a room containing a few bad guys.  They all have an undead vibe — ranging from riflemen who can hit you from way off to monster dogs who like to get up close and personal before trying to hurt you.  That means thinking on your toes is key.  Fortunately, there is a solid cover shooter mechanic.  Once you fire off a few rounds you can take cover, reload and think out your next move.  However, you can’t hang around or else your cover will be destroyed . . . and you’ll soon follow.

There are some neat toys to find that will help you clear rooms.  They can be weapons or skill upgrades, but we found it was easy to get over-cocky and end up dead.  Then you go back to the beginning so it is worth taking your time to solve the puzzle each room provides.  It is a fair bet that you will love the stunning art style.  There is a strong comic-book vibe that looks extremely cool.  And the soundtrack adds a great guitar twang.  But the star of the show is the narrator.  It is a great coup to have Ron Perlman, of Sons Of Anarchy and Hellboy fame.  He adds a real weight and a certain grit.  This is not just a run-and-gun affair.  It’s extremely challenging and you need to take your time to appreciate the outstanding Rogue-like element.

Score: 4.5/5

Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition (Switch, £49.99)

XENOBLADE Chronicles fans will be giving thanks to the Scottish Government for keeping the “stay at home” message going in this lockdown.  That gives them the perfect excuse for attacking this Definitive Edition because you need a lot of time.  It’s fair to say Japanese role-players traditionally take up swathes of your time — many are slow-burners that will require hundreds of hours to complete.  Now Switch owners have a huge, hulking beast of JRPG.  It demands that you take your time and appreciate every twist and turn.  Xenoblade Chronicles have done the rounds.  We saw them on the Wii before being ported to the 3DS but the Definitive Edition is where the game can and does really shine.

The whole “event” has been given a beefy nip and tuck — especially on the visual front.  The world and the characters have been given a spectacular new lease of life that far surpasses the low-resolution versions of the past.  That move alone helps the world come to life — it’s far more striking and memorable, although you can spot a few hangover low-res textures from time to time.  But, overall, it is a massive improvement.  There have not been too many changes to the core tale — you are Shulk.  His village is attacked by human-eating robots called the Mechon.  Shulk and his ragtag band of friends swear revenge and head off on an epic adventure across the corpses of two titanic gods — Bionis and the Mechonis.  You never know what’s waiting around the corner.  One minute you are knee-deep in the jungle, the next you’re in a steel labyrinth.  Then you head into a huge monster to battle a horde of nasties.  But that’s just the tip of this JRPG iceberg.  It delivers a truly wonderful, if weird, tale that pulls you by the scruff of your neck.

The Definitive Edition also adds a new story chapter.  Future Connected takes place a year after the core game and a standalone tale to the point where you can play it outwith the core game.  But we’d recommend doing the core tale hard yards to get the most from it.  Future Connected sees you team up with Melia and a few new buddies.  This is where returning fans will get most excited.  The gameplay has had a few tweaks — the characters now have health bars and the mini map has been overhauled which makes it more helpful.  The back room has also had a bit of love and attention and the menus are now clean, clear and easy to navigate.  The whole experience is more streamlined.  The combat is another area that has barely been touched.  You auto-attack enemies in range and there’s a tactical element in how you pick your abilities and super-attacks and when to go into action.

There are two new modes.  Causal makes things easier.  It pops up after you have been defeated a few times.  Expert then let’s you dial the game to your own tastes, but that will only really appeal to the returning fans.  We liked the fact that it’s easier to track quests.  That was a huge issue in the earlier versions where the massive selection of side quests quickly became unruly.  Now it’s easy to see where to go and what to do though.  That said, you could argue that some of the exploring has been sacrificed as just run from point to point.  This, quite simply, is the best version of the game.  Newcomers will find it is the ideal starting point.  Fans will welcome the tweaks, and love Future Connected.  The only question is whether that will be enough for them to fork out for this.

Score: 4/5

I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…

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Stuart Cullen

Scotland’s very own thorn in the side of the London gaming scene bringing all the hottest action straight from The Sun… well… The Scottish Sun at least, every week!

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